Best Of Off The Beaten Path Kyoto / by Shane Henderson

One of the most common complaints we have heard about Kyoto is that it is too crowded and too touristy. We would have to disagree. Sure, if you visit the popular sights in the middle of the day it's going to be a complete zoo. The same could be said of any major city. Head to the famous temples first thing in in the morning before the crowds arrive and you will have a much better time. Many visitors also tend to stick to the most popular areas, neglecting to explore all the other cool places in and around Kyoto where you can get the same sights without the hordes of people. Here are some of our favorite less visited spots in Kyoto to help you avoid the crowds on your next visit. 

Lake Biwa Canal
If you go to Kyoto you will hear a lot about the Philosophers Path, a peaceful canal-side walkway with beautiful cherry blossoms in the spring and colorful foliage in the fall. The problem is that when the path is lined with hundreds of tourists it isn’t so peaceful. Instead, take the subway just one stop further to the quiet residential area of Misasagi. There is another canal walk there that has even better fall foliage, plus amazing views of the surrounding area. And best of all, no one goes there. Our apartment was three blocks away and even we didn’t know about it until we stumbled upon it on a walk. On a nice evening, it is a beautiful quiet place to take in the fall colors and sunset over the city.

Tenzan No Yu Onsen
Easily the best onsen in Kyoto, and one of the best we visited in Japan, Tenzan No Yu is a “super- sento” with large bathing areas, multiple relaxation areas,  and a restaurant with great affordable food. We saw a few foreigners during our visits but for the most part this onsen is full of locals. They have many different indoor and outdoor baths to choose from. My favorite was actually the freezing cold bath because its perfect for cooling off after the sauna or in between the other hot baths. The men’s sauna is huge, with enough room for 20-30 people, and every few hours there is a live Japanese comedy show...in the sauna!! Apparently, the women’s sauna isn’t as exciting, but to make up for it, the woman’s area has a herbal salt steam room. Don’t miss the restaurant which has a large menu of Japanese classics at really affordable prices.

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Mt Hiei
Kyoto’s highest peak is not exactly a secret, but it’s mountaintop temple complex is relatively crowd-free compared to Kyoto’s more popular sights. Supposedly, Mt. Hiei once had thousands of temples on it, but many were burned down by a warlord in 1571. Although there aren’t anywhere near that number now, the complex is still huge, with many different temples and shrines to choose from. Although you can reach the temples either by tour bus or a cable car from either side of the mountain, we would highly recommend the hike up to the top from Kyoto. It is a difficult but beautiful trail that winds through quiet forests and offers multiple viewpoints that look out over the city.  Here is a helpful post that explains how to get there in more detail.

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Honen-in Temple
This stunning little temple is just off the beaten path (considering its location right near the Philosophers Walk) and doesn’t get the crazy crowds like the other temples in the area. It isn’t a particularly large temple, but the thatched-roof entry gate surrounded by forest feels like a portal to another world.

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Myoshin-ji Temple Complex
This huge complex made up of almost 50 temples is compared to the much more popular Daitoku-ji temple complex. We aren’t quite sure why Myoshin-ji doesn’t get as many visitors, its temples and gardens are just as lovely, but we were happy to have the complex mostly to ourselves on a weekday visit.  The standout temples are the Taizo-in temple for its magical little garden and the Keishun-in temple for its quiet meditation room which you can sit in, unlike at many other temples where you aren’t allowed inside the rooms.

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Hike along the Kiyotaki-Gawa river
For those who are overwhelmed by the insane crowds that head to Arashiyama every day, we suggest taking the train a few stops farther to Hozukyo, where you can take a beautiful hike along the Kiyotaki-Gawa river. We took the train to Hozukyo and hiked 5 miles to Takao where we caught a city bus back to the city. The hike is very easy, most of it is basically a sidewalk alongside the river, but it offers a variety of beautiful scenery including cliff-top river views, deep forests, and some amazing, crystal-clear swimming holes. One detour we would recommend is the Kuya-no-taki waterfall. It adds about 2 miles and one hour to the hike, but its worth it for this strange waterfall temple seemingly located in the middle of nowhere. Here is a great guide to the whole hike with step by step instructions, although it details the reverse route to the one we took, starting at Takao and ending at Hozukyo.