The main temples of Kyoto are easy to find – just follow the crowds and you will trip over Kiyomizudera Temple, Nanzenji shrine and Fushimi Inari shrine. Infact when I arrived in Kyoto the gentleman behind reception handed me a map of Kyoto and circled the ‘must-see’ temples as these three above, plus Ginkakuji temple. He did not even mention the others until I asked for more info about smaller and less touristy places to visit. So we can assume that not many tourists ask for this info, because many of these smaller temples were deserted, even in the peak time of Gion Matsuri! Either that or many tourists figure that the most impressive places to see are the main shrines and temples. I believe that is simply untrue.
It’s time to talk about the hidden gems and escaping the crowds in Kyoto. This is your little tour into my own little private Kyoto wonderland, where I spent most days walking around deserted areas, even in the middle of the summer holidays I had these places all to myself. So if you’re like me and hate the pushing, shoving and serenity-spoiling behavior of big crowds, then delve into this article and take notes.
NOTE: I’m going to keep the descriptions here very short because I want you to go and see these places for yourselves. Plus they all have a certain energy that appealed to me, and I just don’t have the skill to put that into words.
Avoiding the crowds at top tourist attractions:
Nanzenji sub-shrine (in the hills above Nanzenji grounds)
I have no idea what this shrine is called, as I couldn’t find it on any of the maps and nobody at the hostel knew what I was talking about! This is a hidden spot that I had pretty much to myself for nearly an hour. So.. how can you find it? Once you have explored the Nanzenji grounds, make it to the gates where you pay to enter the garden. However, instead of going right through the paygates, head left. Walk towards the small shrine pictured below and stop in for a peek.
There is path to the right of this temple, that lead to an old graveyard, well worth a poke around too. From this graveyard path there is a sidegate to the path heading up the hill. You will not be sure you’re heading anywhere interesting but keep going. In my experience the best places are found when you’re not sure if you’re headed anywhere interesting. Soon you will see a set of stone steps. Take them. Warning: you will want I kill yourself (and me for suggesting this) about halfway up, but push on. It’s worth it, I promise. When you reach the top you will see a small temple, very simple and behind it a waterfall. This waterfall is set up as a cleansing and prayer area. Once you’ve been in Japan for a while you will get to know the ritual of cleansing your hands and mouth before entering a temple or shrine. This is a waterfall for cleaning your whole body. Pilgrims are supposed to pray under this waterfall. There is a screen set up around the water for privacy and an small space for leaving your shoes and anything else you don’t want to get wet.
The whole area was so…. tranquil. Zen I believe is the word, actually. So quiet and a world away from the crowds at the bottom of the hill. I spent about an hour up here, just watching the birds, listening to the sound so the forest and admiring the view. If I were to ever become religious, this is where I would come to pray. In a country that is roughly the same same as the UK but has 126.8 million people living there (the UK has about half that at 64.1 million people), a moment of solitude can be hard to find. This is where I found mine.
Fushimi Inari shrine
Just like at Nanzenji, the goal here is to get as high up the mountain as you can. Only then will you loose the crowds and get that incredible sense of awe that this place demands. At the base of the hill you will find the main tori gates and entrace gate, plus about 60,000 other tourists. They are all here to
see the tori gates get a selfie walking through the tori gates. Here is how to leave them in your wake.
Follow the crowds through the first set of gates, moving as fast as is possible, then again through the second set of gates. Most people will take the left path here back to the main shrine. Be different. Take the right path. Head up the hill. Continue up following the signs and checkpoints that lead to the top of the hill.
After checkpoint 6 I had the track pretty much to myself. Also the views at checkpoint 6, otherwise known as the Yotsutsuji intersection are breathtaking. Even if you only make it this far, the views are worth it. This is also a good place to leave any members of your group who are not keen to continue as the loop at the top of the hill rejoins itself at this point.
The whole walk from the main shrine to the top and back to the main shrine took me 1 hour and 20 minutes. But I do walk fast, so maybe allow yourself 2 hours. If you do this walk in summer make sure you take plenty of water. It’s a long slog to the top but most certainly worth it!
The hidden gems of Kyoto
I walked to Fushimi Inari twice and both times made sure to stop in here. Tofukuji may not look like much at first glance, however there are some excellent thought-collecting hidden spots on the grounds that I just adored. The first spot is outside the temple looking in (as below). I was here in summer but in the autumn this is meant to be even more spectacular – click here for an example.
My other favorite place here is at the back of the Sanmon Gate. The view of the pond in summer with the lilies was just magical. Most of the grounds can be accessed free of change, however if you want to enter the Tsutenkyo Bridge and Kaisando Hall there is a 400 yen fee. To be honest, you don’t need to walk the bridge or access the Kaisando Hall to get the feel for this place. It is best as a free lunch spot, stopover, safe-haven and rest spot from the tourist masses (unless you’re here in November when this place is swarming with camera clicking leaf-watchers). Plus… the road from Tofukuji to Fushimi Inari is a stunning walk.
Imakumano-Kannonji is a sub temple to Sennyuji temple, which is located just u the hill, accessible via a seperate entrance way. It is also one of my favorite places in Kyoto. It is a little bit of a hike to get here, not a strenuous hike, but just a bit of a walk from the main road. I picked this temple at random as a place to break up the walk from Kiyomizudera temple and Fushimi Inari and ended up spending longer here than at either of those other two place! It’s not that Imakumano-Kannonji is big, it’s just… touching. moving. other worldly in it’s charm.
The garden is completely covered in moss and plays host to so many shades of green that I could not even begin to describe them all. This temple, although small, had a host of great signage about the place, including history and maps, so you really get to know what you are looking at, as well as appreciating it for it’s stunning aesthetic.
I’m not gong to rabbit on about this temple. It is small but the garden is top quality. The still nature and serenity of the space within the temple walls really has the effect of taking you out of Kyoto, and into a small town in regional Japan. Just hop along and see for yourself (yes, this is a temple dedicated to bunny rabbits!). Okazaki is located closeby to the larger and more popular (read: crowded) Heian-jingu shrine as well as the Museum of Kyoto and the International Museum of Modern Art. The Heian-jingu shrine has a nice grassy patch out the front which is perfect for sleeping off a hangover after you’ve had to check out of your hostel early, and the shrine itself is really worth a cursory look around too.
Is along the Path of Tranquility. The Path itself is nice walk along a flowing lake filled with carp, however the temples that are hidden on the eastern side of the river are something you have to see to believe. So secluded. So quiet. So beautiful.
Just along the Path of Tranquility from the Honenin Temple is the Otoyo Shrine. It has been in many fires, earthquakes and wars and every time has been reconstructed. It is now considered a guardian shrine for the local residents. The Shrine is also home to many, many animal sculptures.
If you continue along The Path of Tranquility (below) you can pop into any number of small and somewhat hidden temples and shrines. I did not see them all, but the ones I did see were just wonderful. Pick a midweek day to do this walk as it can get busy on the weekends.
Tips for uncovering your own special places
- Head down every small alleyway and pathway. Japan is very well sign posted and if you’re not allowed somewhere, there will be sign telling you so. No sign = adventures to be had.
- Use a paper map instead of google maps. Google maps tells you exactly where to walk and usually takes the main roads. This is no place to find hidden gems! With a paper map you can pick your own adventure and if you want, just leave the map in your back pocket and enjoy the mystery of not knowing what you will stumble upon!
- Don’t take others advise as gospel. It is good to talk to other travellers and locals about what is great to see and what you should avoid, but use your own intuition on top of that. If you think that there must be something of interest in the hills, then walk the hills. If you want to follow the river and see where it leads, even though you have been told that it goes nowhere, then follow the river! There is every chance that the last person did not see the secret pathway the leads to a lookout or did not veer away from the main flow of traffic long enough to take a different look at the scene playing out in front of them.
- Walk. Public transport is not interesting, novel or new. The only way to find your own slice of paradise is to use your legs and walk, cycle, skate, blade or hover-board (we wish!) your way around town.
- Spend long enough in each town to see the ‘major attractions’ and get your bearings. Once you have your directions sorted you can explore the town more deeply without fear of getting lost or having to consult your map at every corner.
- Pack everything you need for a big day out. Exploring the unexplored means not having access to cafes, running water or toilet paper sometimes! Make sure you are carrying everything you need for the whole day. This also includes sunscreen and bug repellent in the hot Kyoto summer!
- Take a buddy if you’re fearful of getting yourself lost. Chances are that between the two of you, you will find your way back to town. Plus there is much less chance of you panicking with a buddy next to you if things go wrong.
- If you’re goung somewhere dangerous or really off the beaten track then make sure you let someone know where you are going and what time you plan to be back. Plus the details of someone to contact if you have not surfaces after a reasonable amount of time. It may seem like overkill, but it’s much better to be safe than sorry.