We just got back from our summer trip to Japan, which included nearly two weeks in Kyoto. As we’ve already visited every major temple and shrine in the area, this visit was more about checking in on familiar favorites, eating at new places (for the sake of research!), and seeing seasonal events.
In this update, we’ll share things that have changed in recent months, Kyoto photos, and commentary on what to expect if you’re visiting in 2020. Even though Kyoto is the epicenter of traditional Japan, there are plenty of new additions to the city, and plenty more is under transformation.
Essentially, there are two big stories in terms of Kyoto travel: ongoing recovery from the last typhoon and preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. We’ll cover those topics, a bit more on the continued influx of crowds, and more in this two-part Kyoto, Japan update…
For starters, the trip has left me rejuvenated, even more enthusiastic about Kyoto, and ready to pump up a bunch of new posts. Which is pretty much exactly what happens every single time we leave Japan. I get really hyped about the experience, want to convince everyone else to visit, and plan on writing a 10-part trip report.
Inevitably, the bright-eyed excitement gives way to the reality of real world time constraints. After a single installment of the trip report, I abandon that and refocus on more mundane planning posts. Each time, I say that this time, it’ll be different. Well, this time, it will be different.
I’ve decided from the get-go that there will be no trip report, and instead I’ll use this as a way to offer a quasi-recap along with useful updates. My plan is to also tease a variety of topics here and see what’s of interest to readers, and turn those ideas into full topics later.
Likewise, just as I realized not everyone wants a full post about ~47 different temples (and thus cut back on those), this year I’ve realized not everyone wants to read random Kyoto trip planning content. As such, I plan on attempting a better balance of fun posts and useful posts. We’ll see how that goes!
Next, crowds. In our Tips for Surviving Crowds in Kyoto, Japan post, we caution that some of the most popular trip planning resources for Kyoto were written before Japan’s tourism surge, have been poorly updated since, and do not reflect the reality of current congestion in the city.
This remains true, and the crowds were pronounced in many areas even during the off-season time we visited. In other areas and at certain times, such as the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (above) and around Yasaka Pagoda one night in the rain (below), crowds were light to moderate.
I truly do not know Kyoto is going to handle the influx of post-Olympics crowds, and fear the worst. I’m not talking about the city’s unique charm and character being overwhelmed by foreigners (it’s probably not my place to comment too much on that).
I’m talking about its infrastructure being stressed to the literal breaking point in places, and visitors having a bad experience or not “seeing” the true Kyoto due to the congestion. Among other things, the city bus routes and tour group situation need to be entirely rethought.
The good news is that it’s still entirely possible, and will be even after the Olympics as only about a dozen places in the city are high profile, to have a great time. You just need to be smart and not follow the hordes.
We have a lot of savvy (in my opinion, at least) planning posts; in terms of “importance” our 1-Day to 1-Week Kyoto, Japan Itineraries and that ‘surviving crowds’ one are probably the most essential.
One way we always avoid crowds is by visiting temples in out of the way locations, and ones that we know are not on the “tour bus circuit.”
Sanzenin Temple is in the former group, and we made a return visit to this superlative temple for its summer Hydrangea Festival. Photos really can’t do this justice, but it’s one of the coolest things we’ve experienced in Japan. (There’s also surprisingly little info about this online in English, so I’m thinking it might by worth a full post.)
Even though it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Diagoji Temple is another less-visited spot in Kyoto due to its remote proximity to other major spots. I have mixed feelings about this temple, but the complex has some definite highlights–I look forward to making a return visit during fall colors season.
With a savvy itinerary, Diagoji is actually pretty easy to visit. Add some other spots in Uji and Kyoto, and you have a solid fifth or sixth day in the area.
Another way to avoid congestion on the city buses is to use the new Sky Hop Bus Kyoto, which is a hop-on/hop-off bus selling 1-day or 2-day passes. Per the Sky Hop Bus Kyoto site, it runs every 30 minutes between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., and covers many of the most popular tourist spots.
It’s not for us, so we did not use it. We also wouldn’t recommend it given the steep price and coverage (or rather, lack thereof). Really, it’s only advantageous in avoiding the packed city buses that run to Golden Pavilion and Kiyomizudera. With that said, we wouldn’t necessarily recommend avoiding it–the open air atmosphere and straightforward route does give it some appeal.
Next, an update on accommodations. Specifically, Airbnb, which is our preferred way to book inexpensive stays in Kyoto. Last summer, new laws were implemented that required Airbnb hosts to register and comply with other procedural requirements. This occurred just before our summer trip, and we ended up rebooking in a hotel.
Per the Japan Tourism Agency, almost 15,000 private lodgings were registered with authorities–as compared to only around 2,000 as of last June when the new law was implemented. However, this represents only around 20% of the 62,000 properties listed on Airbnb before the new law hit the market, which removed ~80% of its listings in Japan at that time.
We booked an Airbnb stay last October/November, and again (in the exact same building, actually) this summer. Although anecdotal, we can tell there are definitely fewer options in Kyoto, which actually has more onerous restrictions than most of Japan.
We’ve also noticed an increase in prices, which makes sense given the whole “supply/demand” thing. Nevertheless, Airbnb remains (by far) the cheapest option for booking more spacious accommodations and also allows you to live like a local, whether that means doing some laundry halfway through your trip or getting food to prepare you own meals. (You can use my sign-up link for a free credit your first time using Airbnb.)
On the other end of the accommodations spectrum, construction continues on the Higashiyama District’s newest luxury hotel. We detail this in our Park Hyatt Kyoto Preview & Photos post.
We’re really looking forward to this, and plan on booking a couple nights at Park Hyatt Kyoto as part of a split stay once it opens. It has the potentially to instantly be the top hotel option in Kyoto–impressive for a city with a stellar resort and ryokan lineup!
Next, new restaurants and shopping. The last couple of years, we’ve seen an explosion in the trendy options, particularly downtown and in the chic areas of Higashiyama and Arashiyama.
On this visit, we saw about a half-dozen chic-looking spots that were preparing to open.
Judging solely on their aesthetics, many of these are international or Asia-centric brands that are undoubtedly targeting affluent, social media savvy visitors from China and Korea. Some of them have good food, others don’t.
Kyoto’s burgeoning coffee and ramen scenes also continue to debut great options–more than we can keep up with!
That wraps it up for the first part of this Japan update. You can pick up from here with Part 2 of our What’s New in Kyoto series. The second installment offers a photo update from various high profile temples in Kyoto that are currently undergoing renovation projects (or recently completed them!), summer fun in Kurama and Kibune, plus a look at new drinks and ruminations on vending machines. Oh, and another wild boar encounter at Fushimi Inari Shrine!
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start 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!
Any thoughts about the latest developments in Kyoto? Have you noticed any changes recently? Concerned about the rise in crowds? Any topics you’d like to see us tackle in future posts about Japan? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!