Kyoto During the Pandemic | How the Old Capital Used to Be

Ninenzaka in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto without any tourists for once during the pandemic

Note: Sadly, the announcement that Japan’s borders would again open on Oct 11, 2022 brought the fleeting dream of a Kyoto without tourists to an end…

It’s no secret that I’ve been very vocal about my animosity for Kyoto. While I certainly hold much love for the city, the former capital has been plagued by over tourism in recent years. The local residents of Kyoto have started referring to the dilemma as “tourism pollution.” Prior to the pandemic, Kyoto often seemed comparable to a cultural Disneyland. Overrun and brimming with visitors from all over, Kyoto’s major attractions felt tainted and materialistic. After all, it’s a challenge to appreciate the serenity of a place such as Kiyomizu-dera when you’re dodging selfie sticks at every turn.

Remaining true to my adamant commitment to focus on off the beaten path destinations, I’ve largely steered clear of Kyoto. Alas, our new reality is one in which the dreaded coronavirus is ever-present. Consequently, the endless legions of travelers that have beset Kyoto entirely vanished. While this outcome has been tragic for those eking out a living from tourism, the change arrives as a welcomed breath of fresh air for those living in Japan. Moreover, as sad as it is for hoteliers, the recent glut of vacant rooms means that fancy accommodations can be had for extremely low rates.

Given Kyoto’s popularity overseas, it’s quite likely the hordes of tourists will return once Rona-chan buggers off. While experts forecast that it may be years before we realize pre-coronavirus lifestyles again, I can at least make the most of the present predicament. With hotel fees posted for a meager 3,000 yen, I headed to Kyoto on a whim to explore the ancient capital while not under the siege of tourists.

By the way, since there’s already a plethora of content out there about Kyoto, I am going to break from my usual style, and instead, merely recount my two-day journey. If you want to learn more about the locations I visited, you’ll find ample information available via a quick Google query…

Day One in Kyoto

The famous bamboo grove in Kyoto’s Arashiyama but without any tourists during the pandemic

After pulling into Kyoto Station aboard one of the first bullet trains departing from Tokyo, I made a beeline for Arashiyama. Home to an eternally popular bamboo grove, this area of Kyoto is typically crawling with tourists all vying for the same solitary shot. Thanks to the curse that is 2020 though, there was not a soul to be found when I arrived in mid-September. Given the number of times that I’ve denounced this location in favor of other bamboo forests, the sheer contrast to the old status quo left me teary-eyed. You’d be hard pressed to find something more exemplary of the coronavirus’ impact than a before and after shot of Arashiyama.

Admittedly, it took some time to regain my composure, pick my jaw up off the bamboo grove floor, and continue on with my adventure. My next destination was Tenryu-ji. This complex is considered to be one of Kyoto’s five great temples for the practice of Zen Buddhism. Originally founded in the mid-1300’s, Tenryu-ji is an old and reverent setting. Complete with its own garden and pond, this temple is a soothing sight for those plagued by pandemic-induced stress. While this certainly wasn’t my first time experiencing the lovely Tenryu-ji, it was simply a joy to revisit this old personal favorite.

Travelers who have visited in September are well aware that the sultry Japanese temperatures wait to cool until the middle of October. Despite Kyoto’s rather steamy conditions, the temperatures in Arashiyama were quite tolerable. Nestled on the western edge of Kyoto, it’s easy to see why nobles as far back as the Heian period (794–1185) would come here. While I had intended to cram as much of Kyoto as I could into two days, I could not resist spending time lazily gazing at the Togetsukyo Bridge. This structure is iconic of Arashiyama and has existed in some incarnation since the days of yore.

The famous Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district during the pandemic

After gathering my fill of a touristless Arashiyama, I headed back to Kyoto station to make some train connections. The next stop on my itinerary was the venerable Kiyomizu-dera, another mainstay for first time visitors to Japan’s prior capital. Like with Arashiyama, this is a venue I would never dare to visit during normal times. Considered to be one of Japan’s holiest temples, Kiyomizu-dera had become something akin to a cultural amusement park prior to the pandemic. Beset by hordes of overseas visitors, Kiyomiu-dera’s sense of solemness was utterly dimmed.

While it was not as devoid of mortals as Arashiyama, I found that the current incarnation of Kiyomizu-dera was oddly tolerable. Though there were a handful of Japanese travelers paying their respects at the 1200-year-old temple, thankfully there were no massive groups to contend with. Furthermore, I don’t think I can recall seeing a single selfie stick during my entire time at Kiyomizu-dera. Given that I almost lost an eye to one of these deadly dangers on my last visit, this was a welcomed surprise.

Unfortunately for me, Kiyomizu-dera’s most iconic draw, it’s 13-meter-high platform, was undergoing maintenance (hence the image from a pre-corona era). As such, the entire structure was dressed in metal scaffolding which totally ruined the vibe. Thankfully though, I was able to largely have Kiyomizu-dera’s other allures all to myself. Unlike in a pre-coronavirus world, I didn’t need to line up for hours to experience the pure waters that flow from the Otowa Waterfall. Similarly, Kiyomizu-dera’s other consecrated sites such as Jishu Shrine were also very tolerable.

As I wrapped up my time at Kiyomizu-dera, I couldn’t help but think that this is really how Kyoto SHOULD be. Making my way towards the elegant shopping area in between Kiyomizu-dera and Kodai-ji (known as Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka by the way), I began pondering how Japan could consider re-inventing its tourism industry for a post-pandemic world. Until recently, the country had been mindlessly going after a total body count. Sadly, by making the KPI a numerical goal, Japan had unintentionally created the conditions contributing to over tourism and in turn, marred the historical and sacred charms of numerous regions much like Kyoto.

The Yasaka Pagoda in Kyoto without any tourists to be seen during the pandemic

Just as I was considering how Kyoto might implement guidelines for reducing the number of overseas guests, I happened upon the region’s iconic pagoda pictured above. Most days, you can’t even hope to capture a shot of this beautiful structure without a smattering of travelers in the frame. Shocked to find no one around, my heart suddenly grieved for all those who earn their income via tourism. Given I came close to realizing a similar fate by pursuing employment in the industry, the lack of other souls cut too close to the bone.

No visit to Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka is complete without making a stop at the area’s unique Starbucks. Housed within a two-story, century-old Japanese townhouse along Ninen-zaka, this shop is a must visit for any and all coffee lovers who travel to Kyoto. After grabbing my second Venti for the day, I made my way over to the nearby Kodai-ji. This 400-year-old temple holds a fond place in my heart as a site where I shared a memory with family many moons ago. As such, I always try to pop by when in Kyoto.

My personal connection with the temple aside, what makes Kodai-ji famous is that it was established by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s wife, Nene, in homage to the great unifier. Belonging to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, Kodai-ji boasts lavishly decorated interiors as well as a killer rock garden. In addition to these structures, you’ll also find the mausoleum for Hideyoshi and Nene on the temple grounds as well as a tea house designed by none other than the tea ceremony master, Sen no Rikyu.

While not typically considered one of Kyoto’s must see attractions, I’m of the mind that Kodai-ji needs to be prominently featured on visitors’ radar. The temple is conveniently located next to the eternally popular Kiyomizu-dera and its shopping streets of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka. Additionally, Kodai-ji also allows for easy access to Maruyama Park and Yasaka Shrine. If you don’t mind the walk, you can easily hoof it all the way from Kiyomizu-dera to the Gion and Shijo sections of Kyoto. In fact, this is precisely the route that I took when heading towards my hotel during my stay in early September.

The endless series of torii at Fushimi Inari Shrine but without any other visitors during the pandemic

Wanting to make the most of this rare opportunity to have Kyoto to myself, I took an hour break at the hotel to recharge before heading out again. My next destination was everyone’s favorite Fushimi Inari Taisha. By this point, the sun was beginning to set meaning that I would need to make the ascent up Mt. Inari in darkness. Nevertheless, those who have read this article know this is without a doubt my favorite time to visit Fushimi Inari Taisha. Not only is there not another soul on the mountain, there’s just something eerily godly about thousands of torii gates following sunset.

I arrived at the JR Inari Station approximately half an hour prior to sunset. With a goal to make it to the Yotsutsuji intersection before the daylight fell behind the western mountains, I bounded my way up the mountainside through hundreds of vermilion torii gates. Thoroughly drenched in late summer sweat, I managed to make it to the Yotsutsuji intersection just as the sun was starting to set over Arashiyama and the western crags. Alone, with nothing but my own thoughts, I was overwhelmed with an intense sensation of contentment.

As darkness fell on Fushimi Inari Taisha, I knew for sure that moments like this is what I live for. Still, catching the glorious sunset was only the beginning as further adventures exploring the mountain awaited. Turning my back to the final death throes of the day’s light, I headed deeper into the sacred grounds of Mt. Inari. For those who don’t know, Fushimi Inari Taisha and its torii path are open all hours of the day. What’s more, the footpaths are thoroughly lit up at night too (though you do need to keep an eye out for wild boar and other critters).

Ambling through an endless number of torii, I soon found myself in a meditative state. Putting one foot in front of the other, I investigated the neverending interplay of light and shadow caused by the illuminated torii. This sight, coupled with the only audible sounds being the omnipresent cicada and the thump of my own footsteps, were trance inducing. As I climbed ever higher towards the summit of Mt. Inari, it felt as if I was being spirited away into the realm of the deity Inari. While others have said that this sensation was spooky, I can’t think of any activity resulting in such calmness.

All in all, I spent three hours traversing the inner sections of Fushimi Inari Shrine. As I meandered my way through the myriad of torii gates, I soon lost track of time. Utterly at peace with my own soul, I could not bring myself to leave. By the time I made my way down the mountain and back to my hotel in Shijo, I ended up clocking over 25 kilometers walked for the day. Broken and exhausted from exploring Kyoto all day, I fell into the deepest sleep I’ve had in a long, long while.

Day Two in Kyoto

The vermillion Heian Jingu in central Kyoto

The first day of my epic adventure in Kyoto began on a Saturday. Though it was only Sunday, my body ached from all the walking I did on the prior day. Still, not wanting to forfeit any of this rare opportunity to have the ancient capital to myself, I resolved to press on despite the muscle pangs. The things that I do for content. Sometimes, I wonder why the hell I am so obsessed with Japan then I remember what an amazing place it is and those thoughts all but vanish from my mind.

I welcomed my second day by heading to Heian Jingu. From there, my plan was to make my way along the eastern mountains while hitting up the many Buddhist temples that reside there. I arrived at Heian Jingu early in the morning. As with Arashiyama on the previous day, I essentially had the entire place to myself. In fact, from the time I exited Higashiyama Station to when I left Heian Jingu, I only encountered a handful other individuals at most. Of course, the solitude only added to the charm of Heian Jingu. There’s just something spiritual about Shinto shrines when you have them all to yourself. While I can’t really put my finger on it, those who have experienced this solitude know exactly what I mean.

Unlike the sites I visited yesterday, this was my first in person experience at Heian Jingu. The shrine is approximately 100 years old and was established to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of Kyoto’s founding. Erected in 1895, Heian Jingu takes its name for the preceding moniker for Kyoto, Heian-kyo, back when it was the capital. The shrine is dedicated to both the first and last emperors who ruled over the city before Tokyo was declared the new capital at the close of the 19th century.

As a complex, Heian Jingu is quite intriguing. The shrine takes design motifs from what the imperial palace would have looked like during the Heian period (794–1185). Those who happen upon Heian Jingu will first be met by a massive torii gate as well as a collection of museums. The actual shrine grounds can be found thereafter and are quite spacious. Should you visit, be sure to budget for enough time to appreciate the marvelous Heian-style architecture as it offers a glimpse of authentic lifestyles during that time.

Kyoto’s Nanzen-ji in the Higashiyama district of the city during the pandemic

Once I had taken in the sights at Heian Jingu, my next destination featured the Buddhist temples of Nanzen-ji and Eikando. Both of these compounds can be found nestled against Kyoto’s eastern mountains. Collectively called Higashiyama, this set of peaks stretches all the way down to the southernmost reaches of Japan’s former capital. In addition to temples such as Nanzen-ji and Eikando, the Higashiyama mountain range also boasts sites like Kiyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari Taisha. I wonder if there is any other part of Japan that can claim such a density of attractions.

I first made my way to Nanzen-ji. This temple is the head establishment of one of the divergent schools of Zen Buddhism. Nanzen-ji was originally erected as far back as the 13th century and is famous for its stunning rock gardens. Strangely, the compound is also home to a massive brick aqueduct that dates from the Meiji period (1868–1912). This structure was put in place to ferry water and goods to and from Shiga Prefecture’s Lake Biwa to the north. What’s more, the conduit is still used today. Talk about a testament to the quality of Japanese civil engineering!

Once I had thoroughly explored Nanzen-ji, I hightailed it over to the nearby Eikando (which officially bears the title of Zenrin-ji). SImilar to its neighbor, this temple is built directly against the hills of Higashiyama. Because of this prime real estate, Eikando is regularly hailed as one of the best spots in Kyoto for viewing the changing autumn leaves. Every year, the temple and its enchanting garden are lit up at night so that evening visitors can enjoy the spectacle. Should you stop by, be sure not to miss out on the Tahoto Pagoda. You’ll find it up on the hill behind the complex.

A man works on some artwork along the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto during the pandemic

Next on my list was the famed Philosopher’s Path. Located a few minutes walk north of Eikando, this charming walkway runs all the way up to the Silver Pavilion which was my subsequent fixed destination. Lined on both sides with gorgeous cherry trees, the Philosopher’s Path unsurprisingly offers a spectacular sight when the blossoms reach their zenith. The lane derives its name from one of Japan’s most acclaimed philosophers who was said to take this route during his daily commute to Kyoto University. Today, the Philosopher’s Path is dotted with a variety of artsy cafes and eateries.

Assuming you pick up the Philosopher’s Path just north of Eikando, the trek to the Silver Pavilion should take you approximately twenty to thirty minutes depending on your pace. The trail will pop you out at the start of the approach to the Silver Pavilion. Much like Kiyomizu-dera, this lane is carpeted with souvenir shops, street food vendors, and a cluster of restaurants. Having worked up quite an appetite walking all the way from Heian Jingu, I ended up breaking my fast for the day with one of my favorite snacks, Ayu Shioyaki. This fish-on-a-stick was just what I needed to continue my adventures.

After I had utterly devoured my Ayu Shioyaki, I made the short hike up to the Silver Pavilion. Often overlooked by foreign tourists, this hidden gem goes by the name Ginkaku-ji in Japanese. While not actually coated in silver, I am of the mind that the Silver Pavilion is far more alluring than the gaudy Golden Pavilion (a.k.a. Kinkaku-ji). While it’s cousin does indeed sparkle with a beautiful gold leaf coating, the structure is not original. Moreover, during normal times, the iconic attraction is absolutely swarmed by legions of camera touting tourists.

The lovely Ginkaku-ji or Silver Pavilion in Kyoto during the pandemic

Granted, the Silver Pavilion doesn’t glimmer yet it more than makes up for the lacking glint with a serene vibe. Originally a retirement villa for one of the former Ashikaga shoguns, the Silver Pavilion’s complex consists of roughly half a dozen buildings. These structures are interconnected by delightful gardens consisting of both the moss and sand varieties. Visitors to the compound are free to stroll around and take in the tranquil beauty of the Silver Pavilion. Unlike its ostentatious, golden kin (which was burned down not once, but twice), the two-story Silver Pavilion was never ravaged by the forces of entropy over the years.

While not open to the public, the Silver Pavilion houses a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. As such, you’ll simply need to imagine what the effigy might look like with your mind’s eye. Though we regularly refer to the Silver Pavilion by a nickname today, the edifice was originally called the Kannonden back in the day in reference to the Buddhist work of art that’s concealed within. Luckily, for visitors, the exterior of the Silver Pavilion alone is sure to satisfy just about anyone; the compound’s appeal increases tenfold during autumn when the brilliant leaves are at their best.

The gateway to Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine during the pandemic

My original plan was to take a bus from the Silver Pavilion back to Kyoto Station. At this point in my journey though, the pain from the previous day’s punishment started to subside so I elected to just hoof it back. While I knew that I’d regret it the following day, there were a handful of spots on the way back that I wanted to visit in the few hours I had remaining. My first destination on the way to Kyoto Station was the two Kamo Shrines. Admittedly quite the detour, these two ancient sepulchers were long on my bucket list and now was the perfect time to cross them off.

Never heard of the Kamo Shrines before? You aren’t the only one. Despite this pair’s standing among Kyoto’s most sacred sites, they have somehow managed to dodge being placed on mainstream itineraries. Though by no means off the beaten path, the Kamo Shrines oddly never pop up on the radars of overseas tourists. Given that they are both recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, this is a bit puzzling. If I had to make a guess, I’d say first time visitors to Kyoto fall short on time when attempting to cram multiple adventures into a brief stay.

Anyway, if this is your first time hearing about the Kamo Shrines, know that they are located in northern Kyoto and predate the establishment of the city as Japan’s capital in 794. The twin sanctums are divided into the Shimogamo Shrine (lit. “Lower Kamo Shrine”) and the Kamigamo Shrine (Lit. Upper Kamo Shrine). Every year, the two shrines jointly host one of Kyoto’s famous annual celebrations, the Aoi Festival. On the 15th of May, a large procession dressed in Heian period (794–1185) regalia departs from the Imperial Palace and makes its way to each of the Kamo Shrines.

You’ll find the Shimogamo Shrine located at the point where the Kamo and Takano Rivers intersect. The shrine is nestled within the protective confines of a primeval forest that has been caringly spared over the centuries. On the other hand, the Kamigamo Shrine sits a small distance to the north. Fools like myself can cover the 3 kilometer distance between the two Kamo Shrines in half an hour however sedentary walkers should consider opting for public transportation.

Now, starting to regret my decision to stroll my way back to Kyoto Station, I made my way to the grounds of the former Imperial Palace. Until the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912), this complex served as the residence of the emperor and his courtiers. The current structures date from the middle of the 19th century as the previous buildings were consumed by the flames of a fierce fire. Though previously accessible only on guided tours that necessitated advance reservations, the historic grounds can now be explored without joining a group.

Kyoto’s ever-popular Nishiki Market in the center of the city

Since there’s plenty of content already out there already on both the Imperial Palace and the nearby Nijo Castle (which I had to skip due to my aching legs), I’ll encourage you to do some further reading on your own. Instead, I want to focus on something that actually took me by surprise, Nishiki Market. You see, while much of Kyoto up to this point had been sparsely crowded, the narrow streets of Nishiki Market were anything but socially distanced. While not nearly as crowded as during the tourism boom heyday, I was rather shocked to see a crowd for the first time.

After grabbing a quick nibble at Nishiki Market to recuperate, I embarked on the final thirty-minute leg of my journey back to Kyoto Station. On the way, I managed to find the strength to pop into both the eastern and western Hongan-ji temples. Both of these massive wooden compounds are really a sight to behold. What’s more, they can be found a mere stone’s throw away from Kyoto Station. Because of this, the pair of True Pure Land Buddhist temples make for a fantastic final addition before departing Kyoto.

Much like the Kamo Shrines, the dual Hongan-ji temples rarely pop up on recommended lists. Again, I don’t have a definite answer for you but my guess is that they are just overshadowed by the well known likes of Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi Inari Taisha, the Golden Pavilion, etc. Still, given how bloody convenient they are, the bifold Buddhist estates combine rather well with a quick visit to Kyoto Tower for those looking to eke out one more junket in the ancient capital. For reference, the Hongan-jis close at 4:30 PM so be sure to arrive before the doors shut for the day.

Now in utter agony after my stopover at the Hongan-ji temples, I finally made my way to Kyoto Station. Before purchasing a return ticket back to Tokyo, I hopped the escalator to the top of the massive station building. Recently, the construction of a nifty little observatory provides amazing vistas of the entire city. Additionally, the lower level features a number of eateries that serve locally sourced grub (which at this point was very much needed after logging over 50 kilometers walked).

What I Missed in Kyoto

Kifune Shrine in Northern Kyoto.

While I tried to get as much of Kyoto in as I could, there is just no way that this busy social media marketing expert was going to see it all in a mere weekend. To give you a better sense of Kyoto’s attraction density, take a quick perusal of the list below highlighting the locations I missed (and these are only the places that I actually wanted to visit). Honestly, it’s a shame that Kyoto is so overcrowded during normal times as I really want to visit many of these alluring spots.

  • Kibune & Kurama
    Located not too far from Kyoto’s center, these dual towns reside in the city’s northern mountain ranges. Visitors to either hamlet can hike to the other spot in a relatively short amount of time. Kibune is famous for its Kifune Shrine whereas Kurama is home to some rustic hot springs as well as the Kurama-dera temple complex.
  • Enryaku-ji & Mt. Hiei
    Also situated to the north of Kyoto’s core, Enryaku-ji sits on the holy Mt. Hiei. Long home to a Buddhist bastion, this compound plays an integral role in Kyoto’s history. Enryaku-ji deserves its own featured article so refer to the piece linked above!
  • Toei Eigamura
    Ever wanted to experience daily life during the Edo period (1603–1868)? Well, look no further! This amusement park is often used as the backdrop for films set during Japan’s feudal era. Once you step inside, you’ll be transported back in time. Given Toei Eigamura’s location, it combines well with a visit to Arashiyama.
  • Uji & Daigo-ji
    Somehow, I have yet to actually make it to this part of Kyoto. While not what anyone could consider an unknown, this part of Japan is home to some of the best matcha around as well as one of the top three Amida halls. Also, be sure to check out nearby Daigo-ji too!
  • Kyoto’s Manga Museum
    Many, many moons ago, I visited this museum when I was studying Kanji in Shiga Prefecture. The facility first opened its doors in 2006 and boasts three full floors of manga to browse. Additionally, the museum also curates a phenomenal exhibit that chronicles the evolution of manga.

Assuming that the ridiculously cheap hotel prices and lack of tourists continues into the foreseeable future, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be back in Kyoto soon to finish off what I missed.

Until next time travelers…

Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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