Kyoto, Japan is known the world over for its beautiful seasons. In spring, the cherry blossoms create mesmerizing landscapes and cityscapes across much of Japan, but Kyoto is known to be particularly beautiful in this season. Come summer, Kyoto’s unique gardens and mountains display lush green foliage and in the autumn months, the changing colors of Japanese maples, among a myriad of other trees especially suited for changing colors, have caused photographers to salivate and pilgrimage to the Land of the Rising Sun for decades and more. In winter, though, Japan has a special stillness. Whether you choose to attribute this stillness to traditional Zen Buddhist past, the frigid stillness of the air, or the overall quiet nature of Japan; winter is an oft-overlooked season for travel to this incredible country and one that we were very happy to experience at the beginning of 2016.
Top 5 Places to See Kyoto in the Snow
While it might be said that much of East Asia, and particularly the rural and traditional areas, is enhanced by a light dusting of snow, sometimes the struggle is finding locations away from crowds where you can experience the peaceful wonder of snow falling during your time in Japan. Below we’d like to share a five places to experience snow where the Japanese Winter came alive.
While this temple is one of the most important Zen Temples in all of Kyoto, it makes our list especially for its relatively unknown status. While looking through suggested places to visit in Kyoto, you’ll find several temples lised before Tofukuji, and this means it’s far less crowded than the others. This temple is large and has multiple areas (main temple buildings, pagodas, bridges, pavilions, and Zen gardens) that are incredibly picturesque when covered in snow. A walk through Tofukuji is a worthy venture in any season, but we found ourselves among only a handful of other people spread across its sprawling grounds, which enhanced the Zen/snow experience. The rock garden was especially stunning as the snow mounded on the raked gravel that was perfectly raked into Zen patterns. The peaceful delight of falling snow in such a place made this our first choice for seeing the snow in a peaceful, yet stunning, location.
Kyoto Instagrammer @yah_s
The Golden Pavilion northwest of Kyoto city is surely on every list of “must see places in Kyoto,” but pictures of this gilded architectural gem in the winter are often a bit dull. While the pond shimmers a gorgeous reflection of the pavilion in all seasons, it primarily shines while the trees boast leaves and color. The one exception in winter is to visit with snow on the ground and atop the eaves of this beautiful building. Without snow, the greys and blues fail to accentuate the building’s intended luster; but with snow, you’ll find it rivaling the more popular seasons.
Like mentioned before, Zen gardens offer a terrific escape from the city during a light snow. Often quieter than other temples, these temples often have large rock gardens and peaceful sitting areas where visitors can enjoy the calming dance of snowflakes in an iconic display of Asian religious practice. Rock gardens are meticulously hand raked with patterns to imitate the flowing and interconnected patterns of the universe. Sitting and contemplating these beautiful gardens in the winter is a perfect way to spend some time reflecting on your life and travels before setting off to warm your fingers with some tea or coffee.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Image from One Minute Kyoto
In my book, this shrine can do little wrong. Is it overrun by tourist groups on almost 365 days of the year? Yes. Is it worth a visit and a return visit, then maybe one more time? Yes. While we weren’t disappointed by the things we were able to see while snow fell for half a day, we lamented its cessation as we realized we would not be able to get to the shrine before the snow became completely trampled. If we could have that day back, we’d have set out before sunrise and headed far past the shrines main area, deep into the mountain, to catch the snow in secluded areas on these iconic and brightly colored gates. The orange stands out against the snow brilliantly, and we kick ourselves for not getting to experience that contrast. Ideally, you should get to the shrine early with snow falling and head toward the top of the mountain. Tourists will blanket the main areas near the entrance, so we’d head in and up until the sun rose, then backtrack toward the entrance with camera in hand. Higher up the train you could get some really unique perspectives on the shrine in the wooded areas, and this would surely be a highlight of any trip to Kyoto in the winter.
While we can’t point to specific, foolproof alleyways to visit and guarantee a serene snowy experience; we’ve found that walking away from the overcrowded tourist areas for back alleys is a wonderful experience. A neighborhood a few blocks away from the historic Gion District, for example landed us in an area without foot or automobile traffic. Not only are these areas often deserted and exceptionally quiet, but they also offer intimate glimpses into normal Japanese life in a way that many of us only dream of experiencing. We are known for favoring destinations off the beaten path for their more organic and peaceful interactions with a place, and Kyoto’s alleys are certainly that.