One of the dirty secrets of Kyoto photography is that the reality of what you’ll end up shooting is rarely the serene, uncrowded temples and peaceful landscapes you see in marketing photos. To the contrary, most images of Fushimi Inari, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kiyomizudera, Yasaka, and other locations are taken incredibly early in the morning or really late at night to avoid crowds.
I can’t count the number of mornings I’ve gotten up at 5 or 6 a.m. or stayed out until midnight to capture tranquil scenery. When I visit these same places midday, I often don’t even pick up my camera. While it is true that people can give life and energy to photos, the hordes of selfie-stick wielding tourists and sea of iPads held high don’t exactly mesh with the solemnity of Kyoto’s ancient temples and shrines.
Tourism to Japan continues to spike (it’s already up 18% this year!) and that trend is only going to continue with the world’s eyes on Japan ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Unfortunately, on a short trip to Kyoto, there is no way to capture all of the popular and iconic scenes in their ‘pristine’ states. You simply won’t have enough mornings for that. The good news is that all is not lost, and there are plenty of opportunities for serene, midday photos in Kyoto…
Once you get past the top 7 locations that make every ‘best of’ list for Kyoto photography, there are a ton of eye-catching places around the city that draw sparse crowds, even during the middle of the day in peak tourist seasons. Many of these are every bit as photogenic as the high-profile spots in the city, but fly under the radar because they haven’t been featured in guidebooks and reproduced on myriad Instagram feeds.
With that in mind, here are some of my favorite under-the-radar photo spots in Kyoto. Some of these are also substantively excellent locations to visit, too…
We’ll start with one of three locations clustered together in a fairly prominent Higashiyama area. Yoshida Shrine is part shrine (or rather, shrines, as it has numerous sub-shrines) and part public park. I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve gotten lost in here, and Google Maps seems to be little help in navigating the meandering paths.
The good news is that my favorite spot here is the huge torii gate at the entrance and the line of torii gates visible from the landing at the top of the stairs. So, you shouldn’t get lost photographing those. If you’re willing to venture further, Saijosho-Daigengu is one of the sub-shrines here, and it features striking architecture unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in Japan. (Unfortunately, it’s only open on the first of every month and holidays.)
Fushimi Inari “Secret” Bamboo Forest
The thing I love about Fushimi Inari is that it has so much range. I’ve visited dozens of times, and see new things with each visit. It also has great range in the crowds you’ll encounter. At one exact moment in time, there can be spot that are elbow-to-elbow with people, and areas where there’s absolutely no one.
Most of the latter locations are near the top of the mountain, where it’s even possible to snap quick photos of the torii tunnels without anyone in the frame. The Fushimi Inari “Secret” Bamboo Forest (which we cover how to find in this post) is one of the few uncrowded locations at the base of the mountain.
Located a short walk from Yoshida (above) and Shinnyodo (below), there’s the tongue-twisting Konkaikomyoji Temple, known as Kurodani for short. (Don’t ask me–I still don’t get why “Dick” is short for “Richard.”) This is a sprawling temple complex with a variety of impressive buildings all at different elevations. In the middle of Kyoto. With seasonal beauty. And free admission.
You might think that this would be the perfect storm for one of the busiest temples in the city. You’d be wrong. For reasons unbeknownst to me, there are rarely more than a handful of people here. It’s a great option for photos, and an easily accessible location if you’re wandering along the north end of Philosopher’s Path, scrambling for a decent sunset spot.
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
This temple in Arashiyama has a collection of 1,200 Rakan Buddhist statues that were carved by amateurs, with the result being a surplus of quirky statues each with their own personality. This is the type of place where you fill a memory card, only to get back and think, “so many of these look the same…why’d I take so many photos?!”
Not that I speak from experience or anything, but the act of shooting them is good fun. You’ll walk away with at least a dozen or so keepers, all of which will be very different from what you shoot at other temples in Kyoto. This diversity is key, as some other temples blur together.
Our 1-Day Western Kyoto Itinerary covers the walk here, which I’d recommend (over the bus) to photographers. The residential area is lovely and contains some nice architecture. Plus, there are a few other under-the-radar temples along the way.
Located near Yoshida Shrine and Kurodani Temple, this is the easiest way to photograph a nice pagoda in Kyoto with limited to no crowds around. What more do you really need to know?
Well, it’s also stunning during both fall colors and cherry blossom seasons, and you can use the trees around it to frame your photos in clever and unique ways. Because of this, I’d actually call Shinnyodo the most photogenic pagoda in all of Kyoto. Despite the shrine’s small footprint, it’s entirely possible to walk away with several keepers from here.
I was tempted to include both this and Kuramadera Temple, which are two of my top 5 places in Kyoto. However, both are on the outskirts of the city (in the exact opposite directions), and I don’t want this to be a bunch of impractical recommendations that require blowing your limited time on Kyoto on long commutes.
With that said, if you choose to visit either this or Kuramadera, you’ll be rewarded with sprawling mountain temples that have a wealth of diverse and photogenic buildings, details, statues, and breathtaking views.
Located a bit north of Silver Pavilion, Enkoji is great for its diversity and details. It has a mini bamboo grove, great scenic vista, stunning buildings, a cool dry landscape garden, and a wealth of small touches that are easy to overlook.
For all of these reasons, it’s a temple that I find has a lot of repeatability. It’s also a mountain temple that’s a lot like Yoshiminedera and Kuramadera (above), albeit on a smaller scale. Still, I’ll take that for an option that’s only 25 minutes from Silver Pavilion.
It’s hardly fair to call Pontocho a hidden gem or under the radar. This is a popular alley, with some of Kyoto’s best restaurants. It’s a happenin’ spot in the city’s dining scene, and you’re sure to find a steady stream of people here every evening. However, it is not popular with photographers.
This is especially true as compared to the popular Gion and Higashiyama Districts, making it a good alternative to those. My favorite time here is just after dusk, before the bulk of dinner patrons arrive. (Ironically, that’s the busiest time for those other districts.) Pontocho has a delightfully moody ambiance, and while you’re unlikely to spot geisha here, you can capture some cool architectural shots and atmospheric details. It’s also a good option for street photography, with well-dressed couples lit by lantern being a favorite option of mine here.
Again, this is a great place to visit in the name of photographic diversity–take it from someone who has thousands upon thousands of indistinguishable temple raw files sitting unedited on his hard drive!
Hojo Garden at Tofukuji Temple
Kyoto has many famous gardens, and I hesitate to include any of them on a list like this, because the way many are designed makes them easy for photography since visitors are separated from what’s most likely to be the photo subject. Meaning even the most popular, crazy-crowded garden can look serene in photos.
However, I’m a big fan of ultra wide angle or fisheye photos that capture the temple viewing area in addition to the garden itself. In some cases, this viewing area doesn’t need to be empty. To the contrary, the crowds of Ryoanji juxtaposed against that rock garden is an interesting scene. That doesn’t always work, though, and I usually prefer the look of the oft-uncrowded Hojo Gardens (four for the price of one!) at Tofukuji Temple. (Note that this temple gets very busy in the fall–the rest of the year, it’s dead.)
Kodaiji Temple Parking Lot
A parking lot might seem like a stretch as a “good” photo spot, but this is actually the location I’m most hesitant about sharing, as I think it’s a great sunset spot that I sort of stumbled upon by accident. One night I was waiting for Sarah outside Kodaiji Temple, sitting near the giant bell (also a great photo subject, giving this parking lot serious street cred) when I noticed an excellent view of Yasaka Pagoda.
If you’ve ever been to the Higashiyama District at sunset, you know that 28% of all visitors to the city who own cameras congregate on the incline there that overlooks the pagoda. This is for good reason, as the traditional machiya plus the pagoda plus sunset plus the distant mountains is a sweet, sweet composition. The problem is that it’s literally impossible to capture this without a ton of other people in the frame. It’d be one thing if these were passers-by you could blur with a neutral density filter and a slightly longer exposure. Unfortunately, most are fellow photographers with tripods of their own (jerks!) or YouTubers standing in one spot (truants!).
That’s all a long-winded way of saying the iconic sunset view of the pagoda may not be what you bargained for (unless it’s really cold–that tends to thin crowds), and this parking lot can be a killer fallback location that can be reached within minutes of that incline if you decide to bail on that popular spot.
While these are some of my favorite lesser-known photography spots in Kyoto, this list really just scratches the surface. Even as Kyoto crowds swell, and photographers swarm to the beautiful city, the vast majority of spots are relative hidden gems since people tend to crowd into the high profile venues. While those top spots certainly have their merit, I’ve come to appreciate the hidden gems, both for their contemplative atmosphere and comparative calm. I’m not sure if a more comprehensive Kyoto photography guide covering both the popular and lesser known photo spots is of interest, but if there’s enough demand, I can write a post on it.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Kyoto, Japan? Do you have any less-popular photo spot recommendations? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!