Kyoto without the crowds: Escape like a local
Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto draws crowds of visitors at all times of the year with its sheer abundance of attractions. Countless temples, traditional gardens and Imperial villas appeal to tourists of all stripes.
Still, it can sometimes be a little much -- whisper it quietly, but there are far too many interesting places to even try and pack them all in on one trip and far too many eager travelers trying to do so anyway.
Instead, insiders often prefer to explore some of the less-frequented but equally intriguing sites in Kyoto’s mountainous suburbs.
Here are five must-see destinations just a short train or bus ride away from central Kyoto.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
The symbols of Inari shrines, dedicated to Inari -- originally the god of rice but nowadays also the patron of business -- are red-lacquered torii gates and statues of foxes, which are said to be the messengers of the god.
Thousands of vermillion torii gates span the trails that lead up Fushimi Mountain to the inner shrine area. These gates are sponsored by companies and individuals who seek Inari’s assistance in their commercial ventures.
Further up the mountain slopes, clever businessmen erected their very own Inari shrines decorated with miniature torii and fox statues -- even today, men in business attire can often be seen there worshipping Inari.
There’s a path leading to the top, where some teahouses serve refreshments. A nice view over Kyoto invites you to sit down and rest for a while before descending a trail on the other side of the mountain that leads to Tofukuji temple.
Access: 10-minute train ride from Kyoto Station to Inari Station on the Nara Line. Catch the train back from Tofukuji Station on the same line.
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Katsura Imperial Villa
Located in the southwestern suburbs of Kyoto, this is a gem of Japanese architecture and a masterpiece of traditional garden design.
What you see today are the original Edo Era buildings and garden features, which is rare in Japan, where many so-called historical buildings are actually reconstructions.
Established in the middle of the 17th century, the villa and garden are still administered by the Imperial Household Agency and you need to apply in advance to get in on a guided tour.
This seems like a hassle but a visit will leave you with the desire to check out all the other imperial villas and gardens in Kyoto that are hidden from the public by tall walls and bureaucratic procedure.
Access: 40 minutes by Kyoto City Bus to Katsura-rikyu-mae bus stop, then an eight-minute walk. Alternatively, 10 minutes by train on the Hankyu Kyoto Line to Katsura Station, then a 20-minute walk.
Tours in English are from Monday to Friday at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m. 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Free entrance. Applications for an entry permit must be made in advance.
Sacred Mount Hiei
Mount Hiei’s main temple complex is the renowned Enryaku-ji, a UNESCO World Cultural Asset and the headquarters of Japan’s Esoteric Tendai Sect of Buddhism.
The lanterns in its most sacred spot, the Konpon Chu Hall, are said to have been burning since the founder of the Tendai Sect, Dengyo Daishi, lit them in the early 9th century. Yes, they are claiming the lights have been on for 1,200 years.
The temple buildings are surrounded by a forest of stately old cedar trees and small paths crisscross the mountain leading from one temple to another.
This is where the Tendai monks conduct kaihogyo, an arduous ascetic training that involves running at least 30 kilometers a day on a mountain.
Although they might not appreciate it, you can at least stop and enjoy the views over Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, from the top of the mountain.
Access: 20-minute train ride on the Kosei Line from Kyoto Station to Hiei-zan Sakamoto Station (trains depart every 15 minutes), then a short walk to Sakamoto Cable Car Station. Cable cars run every 30 minutes.
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The rural community of Ohara, also in the north of Kyoto, is nestled into a mountain valley, where rice fields and ancient farmhouses create a very traditional Japanese countryside.
The main hall of Sanzen-in temple is a 12th-century structure set in an utterly silent moss garden. Jakko-in temple’s quaint garden is another good spot for some quiet contemplation.
It's also one of the best places to catch the changing season. In autumn, the leaves of the maple trees in the gardens are ablaze in shades of red.
Ohara’s main visitor attractions are two onsen hot springs in traditional Japanese ryokan hotels. An overnight getaway to Ohara no Sato or Ohara Sanso offers a relaxing soak in piping hot, healing waters that really feels a world away from the central-Kyoto attractions.
Access: One-hour bus ride with Kyoto Bus No 17 from Kyoto Station; bus departures every 20 minutes.
Mysterious Kurama and Kibune
Kurama and Kibune are amongst Kyotoites’ favorite weekend retreats. When the busy streets of downtown Kyoto are crammed with sweaty European tourists (and they are), those in the know like to escape to a quiet evening in these small mountain villages north of the city.
The two villages are connected by a mountain trail that leads to secluded temples in a forest of cedars and strangely shaped wisteria trees whose tangled roots cover parts of the path. The atmosphere can be a bit eerie in late afternoon before the sun sets.
There’s a reason for that. This is said to be the roaming ground of tengu -- red-faced, long-nosed mountain goblins that feature in many of Japan’s folk tales.
On a more positive note, the Buddhist monk Mikao Usui (1865-1926) developed Reiki here while performing religious training.
The roughly five-kilometer hike across the mountain takes two to three hours and you can look forward to having an excellent Japanese-style meal (although at a steep price) in Kibune’s “river restaurants” where you sit on bamboo platforms suspended above the waters of the Kibune River.
The cool atmosphere out here is especially appreciated in summer when the air in Kyoto is stifling and hot and the tourists are thick on the ground. Did we mention the tourists?
Access: 30-minute train ride on the Eizan Line bound for Kurama Station from Kyoto’s Demachi Yanagi Station. On your return, catch a bus from Kibune to Kibune-guchi Station, one stop before Kurama Station on the Eizan Line.
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