I’ve traveled to Kyoto before, twice. The first time was several years ago for only a night I think, and then I took just a day trip there once again a year later. I traveled to completely different but equally touristy places on each trip. Both trips were fun and very memorable in their own way, but because of the short and hurried nature of the trips, I felt like I really didn’t see Kyoto, if you know what I mean.
I left rather unimpressed, rushed, and still couldn’t understand what all the hype was about. I’ve traveled around a lot of Japan and frequent the Machiya streets of Kamakura, so a part of me felt like what I saw there really wasn’t all that much different. But Kyoto is constantly ranked as one of the best cities in the world, so after going there twice, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was seriously missing something.
So in my typical travel planning fashion last week, I booked a last-minute trip this past weekend to Kyoto. Just a note, this is not recommended, especially this time of year! I told a Japanese friend of mine today about this and she looked at me and gasped “honto!” That means “really!?” She claims she usually books at least 8 weeks in advance this time of year.
But the last two weeks in November are some of the busiest weeks out of the entire year because it’s the peak time for viewing the autumn leaves all around the city. I was concerned that a ton of tourists may compromise our enjoyment, but honestly, it didn’t feel crowded at all, at least at the places we chose to go to.
But after seeing some incredible pictures of Kyoto in the Fall, I knew that if I wanted to give this city one last chance, I might as well go at the height of its beauty. Fortunately, I found a very last minute hotel right in the heart of the Gion district called Hotel Sunline Gion Shijo.
I’ll write a review on it later but it was a pleasing stay. Almost every other hotel on TripAdvisor was either sold out, located all the way in Osaka, or $800USD a night. This one wasn’t cheap, but neither is any hotel this time of year, especially in the Gion district. But we considered 35,000 yen a night a bargain particularly because of its fabulous location.
I was thrilled that my husband could finally see Kyoto as well. He really hasn’t traveled as much of Japan as I have, mostly because he says he’s not interested haha. Let’s just say this trip helped to change his mind a little!
We stayed from Friday through Sunday and I had four missions that I wanted to accomplish this trip:
Photograph a REAL geisha on the streets of Gion. And get a good picture.
See and photograph some amazing autumn leaf spots.
Go back to the most beautiful streets I’ve ever seen in Asia (Sannenzaka, Ninenzaka)
And really see Kyoto. Fall a bit in love with it.
Well, I’m happy to report that we accomplished ALL of this and more. Kyoto truly is a fabulous city and I’m so happy that I was able to finally experience the peak of its glory during autumn. I just knew there was more to it and of course, the trick to really traveling is to travel less. Staying in one spot, soaking up a single location, and really getting to know a place is my preferred travel style and it always yields a richer experience.
In addition, we ate some incredible Kobe and wagyu beef in a private tatami room, I discovered my all-time FAVORITE Japanese sweet, and Daniel loved Kyoto so much he’s already talking about coming back. We spent nights wandering the ancient cobblestone streets of Gion, peeking into dimly lit windows, and waiting for geishas to turn a quiet corner. Daniel was “on watch” and we were both armed with our cameras.
Spending a great deal of time in the Gion district is precisely what was missing from the equation on my first two trips to Kyoto. It felt like the Japanese version of Bruges or Disneyland. Wandering the narrow streets packed full of tiny shops and cafes, you can turn a corner and find yourself on the path to a beautiful zen garden or an ancient temple.
The homes and buildings are all of Machiya style, yet despite its proximity to the main road, you still feel a distinct quietness and sense of peace while walking the streets. We peeked in windows, often secluded by bamboo blinds, only providing a faint outline in the glowing light of the life happening inside.
Parties, private gatherings, tea, and entertainment all of which beckon both the presence of geisha and maiko. Yet these beautiful females remain as elusive as ghosts, scurrying down a dark alley out of the light.
Well, we both shot a ton of photos. Daniel has picked up a lot over the years from my photography so he’s really gotten pretty good with the camera. He ended up capturing the best geisha shot of the trip! But Kyoto in the Fall truly is stunning and there were times when I honestly couldn’t stop staring at the light coming through the vibrant orange and red leaves or the stunning vivid landscape of colors in front of us.
There were quite a few pinch-me moments on this trip, and after three whole years in Japan, I’m really not at all surprised when I continue to discover such beauty. This is why I’ll never tire of traveling; something surreal is always there awaiting your discovery. This trip was simultaneously relaxing yet also packed full of sights – but just a few really incredible selected sites. Less traveling, more wandering.
Below are some photos of highlights from the trip, though I will write several more specific posts related to Kyoto travel as well later. But here’s a bit of why I finally fell in love with Kyoto.
Kyoto Travel Photography
I literally teared a bit because I know what you mean about .. Falling in love with a place . Ugh
Really lovely pics. This brings back very good memories of my trip to Kyoto in November 2013. I also stayed at Sunline Kyoto Gion Shijo which is in a great location. Yasaka shrine is just a few meters away and there’s a big Lawson’s just across the street from the shrine. My tip to avoid tour bus crowds is to venture out early in the morning. Apart from 2 or 3 caretakers, I had Yasaka pretty much to myself at 7:30 AM. As well, if you get to Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka in the morning before the tour busses unload, you can have the streets to yourself for photo ops.
Thank you! Kyoto is such a special place. Yea, the hotel is in such a great location! We had the best time. I do agree though. We went to Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka quite early and it was a lot more beautiful than when all the tourists arrived.
Wow, your pictures are gorgeous. I’m visiting Kyoto next spring and I’m super excited!
I’m happy I’ve found your blog, very inspiring 🙂 looking forward to reading more!
Great write up and gorgeous photos. I lived there for five months last year and it’s safe to say that it will always have a special place in my heart. It’s truly a magical city.
Thank you! I’m happy I was finally able to experience its essence.
Kyoto has been on my hit-list for awhile. I never seem to get there despite having tried twice before, something always diverts me. That photo of the dog is <3. Your photo blog is amazingly inspirational!
Thank you Jessica! I hope you’ll be able to travel there one day too eventually!
Beautiful pictures! We are talking about possibly going to Japan this summer and I would really love to go to Kyoto. I think though, as evidenced by your pictures, autumn is obviously the best time to visit. From the photos, it really looks like you’ve stepped back in time! Like no modernization has taken place in Kyoto. I love it! I would love to see a geisha too. 🙂
Thanks Anna! Autumn is great but so is Sakura season too. There are a lot of parts of Kyoto that are modernized but I found most of my inspiration in the more traditional parts of the city. It’s lovely how the city is woven with so much history.
Clearly you have been inspired 🙂
Thanks Oliver 🙂
Wow, you picked a good time to go (who am I to say, I’ve never been! haha) – the trees look AMAZING, and you captured the autumn beauty really well. From the images, Kyoto definitely doesn’t look ‘touristy’, it looks really pretty! I’d love to go there one day and encounter real Geishas.
Yea, I think autumn and cherry blossom season is the most beautiful time of year but the city has so much richness to it already that it’s always wonderful. Strangely, it wasn’t as touristy as I thought it would be! But I did shy away from some of the more popular spots…I do highly recommend going to look for Geishas! It’s really exciting when you see one!!