Winter in Kyoto
Snow at Honen-in
No cherry blossom, of course, no autumn leaves, but then no crowds either. And for anyone who’s experienced the city in peak season that’s a big plus. Cheerful crowds can be fine - hanami parties along the banks of the Kamo or in Maruyama park are part of the fun - but when you have to jostle for space in Renge-ji or Koto-in, the lure of these places begins to slip away. Even in November 2021, when Covid was still keeping most foreigners out of Japan, Shisendo was a scrum. By contrast, I visited it again this February and for half an hour didn’t see a single fellow tourist. It was the same story in temple after temple. Ten years on from starting KWC, I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that if you really want Kyoto without crowds, you need to think about a visit in January or February. It can be bone-chillingly cold, but the winter light is often magical, the smaller temples are more or less empty, the gardens have an austere clarity, and there’s always the chance that the whole scene will be transformed by a bewitching fall of snow. Add to this the returning beauty of the plum blossom that signals the end of the season - subtler and more touching than the cherry, many would claim - and you have reason enough to be grateful that these early months will attract so few other takers.
One thing is more or less guaranteed whenever you go: many of the temples in KWC will have hiked their entry fees in response to the Covid squeeze on income. Taizo-in has jumped from 600 yen to 1,000, Funda-in from 300 to 500, Obai-in from 800 to 1,000 and so on. At Sanbo-in there always seems to be some reason (special opening, peak season or whatever) to pile on the charges. In February it cost 1800 yen to get in there - it’ll be my last visit for a while. If temples and gardens are the focus of your holiday, the costs mount up.
Sadly, Koto-in is still closed, with no indication of when it's likely to re-open. Also closed at the moment is the main hall of Zuishin-in, which is currently under scaffold. Another temporary closure is the treasure house of Chishaku-in, but a new building to exhibit Hasegawa Tohaku's wonderful paintings is due to open next month (April 2023) slightly closer to the temple entrance. Elsewhere, you can again get to see the areas of Shoren-in that were roped off during Covid. Even better, it looks as though Obai-in is now going to be open throughout the year. And yes, it’s well worth the 1,000 yen.
One other amendment, in this case about the bowls beside the go board in Ryogen-in. The temple has switched them round so that the one decorated with the hollyhock crest of the Toyotomi clan is now on the left, the one with the Tokugawa paulownia crest on the right. I'll note this when I update KWC later in the year.