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The best time of day to enjoy Kyoto

Kyoto is an amazing city. And despite all the talk in the years before the pandemic about over tourism, it is still a special place. It is a magical place where time seems to have stood still. The city’s town houses - Kyomachiya - are still constructed using age old building techniques and materials. Old houses and buildings are maintained to look (almost) as good as new, and the 2000 shrines and temples that dot the city and the surrounding areas give it an almost otherworldly aura.

We consider ourselves immensely lucky, because we have been able to visit Kyoto many, many times. In fact we love it there. If it were up to me, we would live there. But, Ayako is a Tokyo girl, through and through, so it will likely never never come to pass…

Despite going there multiple times a year for the last few years, there was one thing that we had never done; something that we, or I, at least, have always wanted to do. And that was see the historical streets when no one else was around.

Surely, this is the best time of day to enjoy Kyoto: when the city is asleep. The trouble is, the only time the city streets are deserted is in the dead of the night/early in the morning. If you are neither a night owl nor a lark this can present a challenge.

The trouble for us is that whenever we go to Kyoto, we are in job-mode. We are focussed on getting the job done; making sure the couple is happy before going back to the hotel, ready for the return trip to Tokyo the next morning. If we have time, we might fit in a nice quiet meal at one of the many awesome restaurants in Ponto-Cho, the picturesque alley that runs parallel to the Kamo river that runs through the city.

Our last visit there was very different however. And, in view of the fact that the borders have finally started to reopen, and to provide a little inspiration for your next trip to Japan, we thought we would share a little about our favorite city in Japan.

Pandemic Era Kyoto

In April 2021, the Delta COVID variant was still rampant. Because of this, there was a state-of-emergency across many parts of the country. This meant many eateries had to be closed by 7:30pm, and travel was pretty much discouraged. However, business travel was permitted. This particular trip actually coincided with Ayako’s birthday, so we wanted to do something special in our favourite city.

So, following the successful completion of another beautiful elopement ceremony at one of Kyoto’s gorgeous world heritage temples, we went out for dinner before the curfew set in. Then, promptly, at 7:30pm, we left the restaurant in Gion and were greeted with something we had never seen before.

The best time of day to enjoy Kyoto - Gion
The streets of Gion were deserted!

You see, Gion is the heart of Kyoto city. It experiences something akin to rush hour right throughout the day. Yet, this day was different. There was no one around. Barely a soul. And the night was yet young! Everything was closed or closing and so we had nothing to do, except stop by Starbucks for an evening cuppa (take away, of course) and return to the hotel. But not before we performed a little personal pilgrimage.

A Special Place

The best time of day to see Kyoto - Yasaka Jinja
Yasaka Jinja - even more beautiful when no one is around.

Saying a spiritual “hi” to Ayako’s grandfather at Yasaka Jinja has become something of a Saito/Harrison tradition. He was born nearby and grew up around the shrine, so no trip feels complete with out a visit. But, this time, it was eerily quiet. And, you know what? It was all the more beautiful and meaningful!

To be stood (almost) alone in a place with a history stretching back over 1,300 years is something to behold. The feeling is palpable. Well, it was for me. Whether we were feeling a tad melancholic because of the pandemic, or whether something really spiritual was actually happening can be debated. But, what cannot be debated is the beauty of the place at night, with so few people.

We stood for ages just soaking in the atmosphere; staring at the lanterns almost in a trance-like state. Whatever stresses we were feeling about the continuing pandemic seemed to just fall away; all that mattered was the here and now.

At any other time, to get the place all to oneself, you would have to come here at three o’clock in the morning, yet here we were at eight o’clock in the evening: a time when it is usually still bustling with the energy of people passing through, market vendors and other visitors.

With nothing else open, we made our way back to the hotel and were in bed by 9pm!

The next morning.

Up at 4:00 AM. Excited. Like a kid on Christmas morning. Still dark; to be expected, this was late April, after all. At 4:15 AM I am out of the hotel and on to the historical streets of picturesque Ninnenzaka. If you are not a night owl, then early morning must be the best time of day to enjoy Kyoto.

Now, one might think that walking through narrow historical alleys in the dark would be quite creepy. But, quite the opposite! It was incredibly peaceful, almost spiritual, and I am not a spiritual guy. By this time it was about 4:30 AM, and the sky was slowly starting to brighten behind the hills to the east of the city. Silhouettes were starting to form revealing the unique, beauty all around.

The first unmistakable form is of another favourite, Hokanji Temple Pagoda. It is a shape that is instantly recognisable to any Japanophile and those with merely a passing interest.

The best time of day to see Kyoto - Hokanji Temple
Hokanji Temple - perhaps the most recognisable pagoda in Japan.

As the sun rose higher into the sky, I just had a blast with the camera. It was so quiet, I was alone (Ayako hadn’t joined me yet) and I could just take my time and think about each shot.

Kiyomizu Temple

But the experience wasn’t over yet. Kiyomizu-dera, perhaps one of the most recognizable temples in Kyoto and/or perhaps the whole of Japan was just up the road. We couldn’t go back to Tokyo without a visit; especially so early in the morning.

At opening time, 6:00 AM, there were already a few others waiting to get in. But not the thousands upon thousands that you would find later in the day, during normal sightseeing times.

Kiyomizu sits on the side of a hill, over looking a valley and with clear views back to the city. By the time we entered the temple complex, the sun had lit up the hills on the opposite side of the valley. It was stunning. I shot one of my all time personal favourite photos here. My only regret? I hadn’t taken more time to frame up a second shot in landscape orientation. But, it makes a great wall paper for my phone!

Early morning is the best time to enjoy Kyoto
One of the Kiyomizu Temple Pagodas waiting to be kissed by the morning sun.

The temple side of the hill, was still in the shadow. But standing virtually alone on the main temple deck overlooking the valley and city: something else!

The next items on the bucket list will be to visit the temple in Autumn to get the changing leaves, and then again in Spring, during the cherry blossom period. Perhaps next year?!

One the way back to the hotel for breakfast, the sun was fully up and the streets, still deserted, now had a lovely peaceful charm. Taking our time, we continued to soak up the calm quiet of the area, wondering, if and when we will be back.

Obviously, there is a lot more to Kyoto than Gion, Ninennzaka and Kiyomizu. There is Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji, Ryoanji, Sanjusangendo and the famous Philosopher’s Path to name a few other places of note. However, on your next trip out here, be sure to make time to see the city in the wee hours of the morning, when most people are asleep, which is surely the best time of day to enjoy Kyoto.

And the best part about seeing it at this time of day? It doesn't cost anything!

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