Travel

Kyoto without tourists

How the ancient capital looks without its crowds

Kinkakuji, otherwise known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 and attracts over 5 million visitors per year. The current pavilion dates to 1955 after the original was burned down by a novice monk, though the complex is much older, dating back to the 14th century. | OSCAR BOYD
Kinkakuji, otherwise known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 and attracts over 5 million visitors per year. The current pavilion dates to 1955 after the original was burned down by a novice monk, though the complex is much older, dating back to the 14th century. | OSCAR BOYD

Kyoto has developed a love-hate relationship with tourists: It is one of the most popular cities to visit in Japan besides Tokyo, recording 8.31 million overseas visitors in 2019.

But while tourism brings in vast amounts of yen (estimated spending is at around ¥34,000 per visitor), it has also led to the city frequently being cited by locals as overcrowded with visitors, its residents at odds with the mass tourism that brings so many people to the city.

It is rare to see Kyoto’s most popular tourist spots with so few people, but due to COVID-19, the number of visitors to Japan, and to Kyoto, has plunged to record low levels, leaving many of these places deserted.

Even in February, when the virus had not yet closed Japan to tourists entirely, Kyoto was seeing a drop in visitors, with merchants in the Arashiyama neighborhood — famous for its bamboo grove — launching an “empty Arashiyama” campaign to encourage people to the city.

These photos were taken in late April, and capture the city without the crowds it has become known for.

[Click on photos to enlarge.]

Fushimi Inari Shrine attracts around 2.7 million visitors each year, and is known for its senbon torii (literally '1,000 torii,' although there are 10,000 torii total) gates that line the paths of Mount Inari. If you wake up and visit early in the morning, there’s a chance that you might get that shot of an empty tunnel, but it’s a long waiting game. This was taken around midday, the shrine grounds deserted but for a handful of locals and one Sagawa Express delivery man. | GABRIELE BORTOLOTTI
Fushimi Inari Shrine attracts around 2.7 million visitors each year, and is known for its senbon torii (literally ‘1,000 torii,’ although there are 10,000 torii total) gates that line the paths of Mount Inari. If you wake up and visit early in the morning, there’s a chance that you might get that shot of an empty tunnel, but it’s a long waiting game. This was taken around midday, the shrine grounds deserted but for a handful of locals and one Sagawa Express delivery man. | GABRIELE BORTOLOTTI

Dubbed 'Kyoto’s Kitchen,' Nishiki Market runs for about 1.5 kilometers between Kyoto’s Teramachi and Shinmachi districts. Though more modern shops and souvenir stores catering to tourists are becoming more prevalent, the market street is still home to purveyors of traditional Japanese foods, knife shops and all things kitchen related. Even in February, merchants were reporting that sales were at less than 30 percent of their usual levels. | OSCAR BOYD
Dubbed ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen,’ Nishiki Market runs for about 1.5 kilometers between Kyoto’s Teramachi and Shinmachi districts. Though more modern shops and souvenir stores catering to tourists are becoming more prevalent, the market street is still home to purveyors of traditional Japanese foods, knife shops and all things kitchen related. Even in February, merchants were reporting that sales were at less than 30 percent of their usual levels. | OSCAR BOYD

Winding through the foothills of the Higashiyama mountains, the wooden buildings of the Higashiyama district have maintained an architectural tradition. The area is popular with people seeking an 'older' Japan, one not dominated by concrete, glass and neon. | OSCAR BOYD
Winding through the foothills of the Higashiyama mountains, the wooden buildings of the Higashiyama district have maintained an architectural tradition. The area is popular with people seeking an ‘older’ Japan, one not dominated by concrete, glass and neon. | OSCAR BOYD

Ginkakuji — the Silver Pavilion — was built at the end of the 15th century in the style of the Golden Pavilion. Despite its name, the pavilion is not actually covered in silver and the complex has become best known for its extensive and elaborate Japanese garden, which attracts around 5 million visitors each year. | GABRIELE BORTOLOTTI
Ginkakuji — the Silver Pavilion — was built at the end of the 15th century in the style of the Golden Pavilion. Despite its name, the pavilion is not actually covered in silver and the complex has become best known for its extensive and elaborate Japanese garden, which attracts around 5 million visitors each year. | GABRIELE BORTOLOTTI

At the upper end of the Higashiyama district is the Yasaka Pagoda, one of the area’s most visible landmarks, and the last standing structure of Hokanji Temple, built at the end of the 6th century. | OSCAR BOYD
At the upper end of the Higashiyama district is the Yasaka Pagoda, one of the area’s most visible landmarks, and the last standing structure of Hokanji Temple, built at the end of the 6th century. | OSCAR BOYD

Kiyomizudera temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site built into the side of Mount Otowa, at the eastern edge of the Higashiyama district overlooking Kyoto. Founded in 780 and reconstructed in the 15th century after it was burned down, renovations of the Okunoin Hall (pictured) finished in March. The temple usually attracts around 5 million visitors each year, yet despite its magnificent restoration, it was virtually empty. | OSCAR BOYD
Kiyomizudera temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site built into the side of Mount Otowa, at the eastern edge of the Higashiyama district overlooking Kyoto. Founded in 780 and reconstructed in the 15th century after it was burned down, renovations of the Okunoin Hall (pictured) finished in March. The temple usually attracts around 5 million visitors each year, yet despite its magnificent restoration, it was virtually empty. | OSCAR BOYD

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