We just returned from another trip to Japan, having spent a week in Kyoto during early July before continuing on to Tokyo. In this post, we’ll recap our visit to Kyoto, sharing some of what we experienced. Rather than this being a play-by-play trip report, this will mostly contain photos and observations (plus some condensed play-by-play).
Our original plan was to time our visit to Kyoto around Gion Matsuri on July 17 in order to attend the festival and procession. Unfortunately, airfare was cost prohibitive and our only options with miles required doing Kyoto at the front end of the trip. Figuring we could still experience some aspects of Matsuri, we opted to go this route.
We arrived in Osaka at 7 a.m. via what I guess you could call a redeye flight. After getting through Customs, buying our discount Limited Express Haruka tickets, and taking the train, we arrived at Kyoto Station a little after 9 a.m. That area is slowly becoming our favorite place to stay in Kyoto, especially if convenience to the train lines is a priority (as it was this trip).
We had originally booked an Airbnb, as that has consistently been our cheapest and most spacious option on past trips to Kyoto. Unfortunately, our stay was about 2 weeks after Japan changed its laws concerning private lodging, and we had to cancel. Airbnb has been helpful through the process and has promised to reimburse us our added costs, in addition to refunding our original stay and giving us a coupon for its value. If that all works out, we’ll come out ahead.
Instead, we booked a “hotel” that is exactly like the Airbnbs we’ve booked on our last two trips–except roughly triple the cost. It’s my understanding that there are a lot of short-term housing options through Kyoto like this, which I’m assuming were once apartments that are no longer viable as such due to Japan’s shrinking population.
Several people have asked us how this new law will impact Airbnb in Japan, and the answer is that we’re not totally sure yet. The law was enacted hastily and caught many hosts on Airbnb off-guard, scrambling to get their licenses so they can list on Airbnb. In certain localities–Kyoto being one–the new law is actually more restrictive than it is elsewhere in Japan.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan and want to use Airbnb, we’d advise patience. Many hosts still don’t have their licenses, and as more obtain them, availability will increase and prices will drop. While this new law was rolled out poorly, we don’t anticipate it having a negative long-term effect.
Japan has a housing surplus and hotel shortage–two problems that are only going to be more pronounced over time if current trends continue. Airbnb is a perfect solution to both problems and no amount of ‘not in my backyard’ is going to change that.
Anyway, after getting checked into our hotel and storing our stuff with the staff there, we hit the ground running.
Our friends, Jennifer and Guy Selga, with whom we regularly travel to Tokyo would be joining us later in the evening, but we wanted to knock some of our favorite spots out before then.
They had been to Kyoto once before with us, and during our one day of touring we took them to the Higashiyama side of town, so we opted to go there ourselves this time to avoid redundancy.
Towards the end of our cherry blossom season stay, we came up with an ‘ideal day’ on this side of Kyoto that walks from the north part of the city to the south, while seeing a good mix of under-the-radar and popular temples. It’s now our favorite way to spend a day in Kyoto, and I plan on writing that up as an itinerary.
Prior to starting that, we dined at Niboshisoba Ai, a new-to-us Michelin Bib Gourmand ramen spot. We had tried to eat here a couple of times on our last trip, but it was closed or had its line cut off.
This time, we were seated right away, and rewarded for our persistence with some of the best ramen in Kyoto.
Following that, we made our way from this area over to Kurodani Temple, Shinnyodo Temple, and Yoshida Shrine. From there, we continued over to Path of Philosophers, stopping at Honenin Temple before continuing south to Nanzenji Temple and Higashiyama District.
We finished with Kiyomizudera Temple at sunset, before heading to our favorite grocery store to buy some sushi, and then meeting up with the Selgas for dinner at my favorite ramen restaurant in Kyoto.
There was a lot more to the day than that, but we’re trying to maintain a degree of brevity to this trip recap. Besides, I’m going to better-detail our day in a post offering a dedicated itinerary.
This was by far our nicest day in Kyoto, with plenty of sunshine, blue skies, and a nice breeze to keep things cool. We knew rain was on the way for the following days, but didn’t realize the full extent of the storms.
While the weather was nice, the lack of crowds was even more refreshing. Our previous trips during fall colors and cherry blossom seasons have also encompassed the shoulder and low seasons, so we’ve experienced the range of crowds in Kyoto. We were prepared for moderate crowds this trip, and found the lowest crowd levels we’ve ever experienced.
On subsequent days, this was attributable to the rain. Perhaps this day was also the “calm before the storm”? It would stand to reason that many Japanese visitors planning domestic travel or weekend getaways would’ve cancelled their trips. In any case, this lack of crowds was really nice.
As tourism to Japan continues to surge, these low crowd times are going to become increasingly scarce. While we absolutely love cherry blossom and fall colors seasons, but those are already crowded times and only likely to get worse. Having “checked off” both seasons, we are now starting to think about planning our own visits around lower crowd times.
We are also debating whether to more strongly recommend lower crowd times rather than those popular times, for fear that crowds will soon become unbearable. The great thing about Kyoto is that it’s a city of four seasons, with plenty of seasonal allure and special events.
For what it’s worth, this is not merely our anecdotal perception of crowds. Japan’s tourism numbers were up 19% last year, to a record 28.7 million visitors. Japan’s government is aiming to hit 40 million annual visitors by the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. To put that into perspective, the country had just 8 million tourists in 2012, a number that tripled in 5 years.
This is being done by design as a concerted governmental effort to increase tourist numbers, but we can’t help but wonder what unintended consequences might occur. Japan’s rich, unique culture is what draws so many visitors–and a surge in those same visitors might cause erosion to some aspects of that culture.
Our next day in Kyoto, we started in Arashiyama. It’s been a long time since Sarah and I got up early to see the famed Arashiyama Bamboo Grove devoid of crowds, as the time you need to arrive to beat the tour groups seems to keep getting earlier.
We arrived at around 9 a.m., which would normally be too late for a crowd-free visit, and found only a handful of other people. It was tough to get any good photos due to the rain, but it was sublime to walk through and actually hear the sounds of the falling rain and rustling bamboo in the wind. Normally, the only sounds audible are those of noisy tourists and shouting group leaders.
While in Arashiyama, we also stopped at Okochi Sanso Villa and Jojakkoji Temple. The former is one of Sarah’s favorite spots in all of Kyoto, and we were the only ones in their teahouse for a good 15 minutes before the next guests arrive.
This was our first summer visit to Jojakkoji Temple, which was an almost unnaturally shade of bright green. This has become one of my Kyoto ‘sleeper picks’ and I love the different character it takes on with each season. The rain got worse as we were here, to the point that our clothes and shoes were totally soaked.
After more time wandering through Arashiyama, we decided to head back to Kyoto Station for lunch at Ramen Street before heading to the Kyoto Railway Museum. It was nice to get out of the rain for a few hours, and visiting one of Japan’s railway museums is always a good time.
Following that, we returned to Kyoto Station, where we wandered around for a bit and grabbed dessert. We then headed back to our hotel to regroup, before going out for dinner at Kyo Chabana, an excellent okonomiyaki place. Then, it was on to our favorite grocery store to grab some clearance sushi for breakfast the next morning. (Sorry, I would share the name of this place, but I don’t know the name, only where it is.)
Our next morning in Kyoto, Sarah and I started out by heading to Fushimi Inari. Our plan was to go to the top of Mt. Inari bright and early to avoid the crowds, but as we progressed to the lower crossroads, we found that the path was closed due to the weather.
About an hour later, we were joined by the Selgas, who met us at Vermillion Cafe, which is highlighted as one of our favorite tea options in our Best Restaurants in Kyoto, Japan – Part 2 post. We enjoyed some matcha lattes and dessert while plotting out what we’d do for the day.
Our first stop after that was Tofukuji Temple for its Hojo Garden. As noted in our 10 Glorious Gardens of Kyoto post, this is our second-favorite garden in the city, and a great way to experience four gardens for the price of one.
On the approach, we saw Tsutenkyo Bridge and its maple-filled ravine. This stopped us in our tracks, as the trees were green–the summer vibrance provided a nice counterpart to the fall foliage we’ve observed here, and without the exponentially higher crowd numbers.
Not wanting to spend a lot of time or money on lunch, we stopped at a Fresco grocery store for sushi. There are several Frescos in Kyoto, and they’re great options for lunch if you’re on the run or want something cheap. We ate in a nearby park before continuing on to Sanjusangendo and Kyoto National Museum. The museum is not normally somewhere we’d go with only a few days in the city, but we needed a reprieve from the rain.
After a couple hours there, the rain had let up, so we decided to wander around Gion. If the forecast was any indication, we only had a brief two-hour window before heavy rain resumed. We took full advantage by spending all of that time outside, before finding a couple of dessert spots in Gion.
Our first stop was Gion Tokuya, which is an upscale and trendy spot for sweets. Normally, we’re incredulous of places like this as they’re places to see and be seen. (Or in modern parlance: places to Instagram.)
We had always skipped it on past strolls through Gion due to the line, but the rain had washed that away. Here we ordered warabi-mochi and their summer kakigori. Both were fantastic, and it’s easy to see why this shop is so popular–it lives up to the hype.
We finished the afternoon up with Kenninji Temple, another of our favorite spots in the city. As was the case at Tofukuji, we simply sat for a while, entranced by the sight and sound of the falling rain in the garden. The intense rain could be unpleasant while walking around the city, but it also had a certain beauty and hypnotic quality in these peaceful gardens.
After that, we had dinner and ice cream, wandered around Gion more, and made our way to Yasaka Shrine to check out the summer festivities. The rain had resumed, and whatever might’ve been happening that evening had been cancelled.
Likewise, Kodaiji Temple was supposed to be open for an evening Tanabata Illumination, but we arrived to find a sign that it had been cancelled due to the weather. This was disappointing, but understandable given the nonstop rain that had been hammering down upon Kyoto.
Rather than just catching the bus nearby and taking that back to our hotel, I convinced everyone to continue on to the nearby Higashiyama District. The Selgas had been here before, albeit it during the height of cherry blossom season crowds, and I don’t think they exactly appreciated the experience then.
For whatever reason, I wanted our friends to see what we see in Kyoto, or at least show them some of the things about the city that have led us to fall in love with it.
Not that a rainy night at the end of a long, soggy day was the ideal way to experience these traditional streets of Kyoto, but it was totally devoid of crowds. It was a nice way to end the night, and our time in Kyoto.
While we waited for the bus to take us back to the Kyoto Station area, I saw a large Bank of Kyoto branch across the street. We had nearly 10 minutes until the next bus, so I decided to walk over to check out their lobby, which I noticed was open.
That might sound like an odd thing to do, but this bank creates a series of posters we absolutely adore called, “I Love Kyoto.” After more online sleuth work than I’d like to admit, I discovered that link, and that Bank of Kyoto is the organization responsible for the posters.
It turns out that if I just opened my eyes on our last trip, I would’ve noticed that one of the display cases we passed regularly housing the posters literally says Bank of Kyoto on the side. Anyway, my hope was that the branches of the bank give these posters away, and that I could get the current series by visiting one during normal business hours.
Sarah was on board with the idea, but I think that’s mostly because she thought there was no way they actually did give away the posters, and that I would look like a fool trying to communicate my request with bank employees. Throughout this trip, I had been just missing Bank of Kyoto branches during their normal business hours. That night, I was hopeful some posters might just be sitting out in the lobby, but they were not.
During our stay in Kyoto, we also went to Universal Studios Japan, Osaka, and Kobe on separate days. We’ve detailed USJ pretty thoroughly on the blog with our Ultimate Guide to Universal Studios Japan (ditto Osaka with our guide to that city), but we haven’t really covered Kobe.
While we’ve only done day-trips there rather than any prolonged stays, it’s become one of our favorite metropolitan areas in Japan. The harbor area is beautiful, one of our favorite restaurants in the world is there, and there are some interesting niche museums. (We’ll have more posts on Kobe soon.)
Getting to Kobe was like Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Japan Edition. We had made a lunch reservation over a month ago, and really didn’t want to miss it, but about half of the trains out of Kyoto Station were down that day. The scene in the train station was actually a bit surreal–not at all hustling and bustling like normal, but still crowded with people just sitting around, presumably stranded.
In retrospect, going to Kobe was foolish. Seeing all of those people stranded in Kyoto Station should have been a cautionary tale, an example of what might happen to us if we went to Kobe and weather got worse. At the time, we weren’t really aware of just how bad the weather was, though. It just seemed like intense rain that was causing railway lines to go down–something we had experienced numerous times in Japan. (We got back from Kobe fine, but that’s not the point.)
Obviously, we knew there were torrential rains due to a super typhoon to the west of Japan. We also knew that there had been mudslides in some areas of Japan, as we had received several emergency alerts on our phones and got them translated.
However, none of the news broadcasts on television were in English, and most people in the city seemed to be going about their business like normal. It wasn’t until our last night in Kyoto that we realized how devastating the storms were, when we stories started making the rounds in the U.S. media about the damage sustained.
Our last day in Kyoto, we again briefly headed back to Fushimi Inari before taking the Shinkansen to Tokyo. That morning, it was like the weather flipped a switch, going from torrential rains to intense heat. This heatwave remains ongoing, with temperatures above 100ºF for the last week. This rain and heat isn’t exactly the best advertisement for summer in Kyoto, but we actually did have a good time, and normally July is not this bad in terms of weather.
June or July definitely wouldn’t be our top choices for a trip to Japan if it were our first trip, but it is the low season and the greenery was lush and lovely. Between that and Kyoto’s summer festivals, a case could definitely be made for a visit during the summer. If that’s your only option due to school schedules or whatnot, we wouldn’t hesitate to visit Japan then. Timing a trip around Gion Matsuri would be a blast, but that is pushing it in terms of heat and rain.
Although most of our trip was rain-soaked and we did not get to experience Gion Matsuri or any other summer festivals in Kyoto, and we still had a really enjoyable time. Then again, we always love visiting Kyoto, our favorite city in the world.
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 Japan in the summer? Been to Gion Matsuri or other summer festivals in Japan? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend June or July to a first-timer visiting Japan? Thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting any of these spots in Kyoto interest you? Questions about booking an Airbnb in Japan right now, or anything else covered in this trip recap? 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!