Explore Kyoto Without Crowds During the City's Empty Tourism Campaign

As the former capital of Japan, Kyoto’s centuries-old temples and traditional Japanese architecture makes it one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. However, recent fears surrounding the coronavirus outbreak have left Kyoto feeling like a bit of a ghost town. In an effort to win back would-be visitors, Kyoto's Arashiyama district has launched the “Empty Arashiyama” campaign, touting the benefits of visiting during this low period. Read on to learn more about the campaign and how you can take part in this rare opportunity.

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Experience the Historical Beauty of Arashiyama

From the moment they exit the train station in Arashiyama, visitors are greeted by the 155 meter long, picturesque Togetsukyo Bridge. Spanning Katsura River, the not-so-distant rolling hills and the sight of traditional fishing boats gliding effortlessly across the water make for the perfect travel photo. Under normal circumstances, the bridge would be packed shoulder to shoulder with visitors, cameras in hand, all vying for the perfect snapshot. To see it today, you would think you’ve found a hidden Kyoto gem with crowds only a fraction of their normal size.

Though just a 25 minute drive from downtown Kyoto Station, Arashiyama feels far removed from its nearby neighbor. While typically a benefit for those looking to escape the confines of the city, it makes for a localized economy that is almost entirely dependent on outside tourism. With fears about the coronavirus spreading, Arashiyama’s small businesses are feeling the effects. In order to make the best of a bad situation, its “Empty Arashiyama” campaign aims to excite potential visitors with the prospect of having the area more or less to themselves.

In flyers and social media posts being circulated, pictures of the district’s most popular attractions show scenes void of all people. In one example, the text below a picture of their mountaintop monkey park reads, “There haven’t been more monkeys than humans in a long time”. In another, a photo from a Hozugawa River boat ride is captioned with, “Now you can ride down the river without waiting”.

Find Peace in a Bamboo Grove

Arashiyama’s winding bamboo grove feels like something out of a Studio Ghibli movie. Its towering green and yellow stalks swaying gently in the breeze make it one of Kyoto’s most iconic scenes and should not be missed. Normally, enjoying the serene ambiance of the grove requires a very early wakeup call to beat the crowds. However, the recent tourism dip should provide you with plenty of time to leisurely explore at your own pace and take photos without contesting with a sea of unintentional photo bombers.

Enjoy a Sightseeing Tour by Train and Boat

There is perhaps no better way to enjoy the sights of Arashiyama than by travelling aboard the Sagano Romantic Train. This old-fashioned diesel engine train travels along the Hozugawa River and through the hills of Arashiyama. In spring, cherry blossoms transform the route into a mesmerizing tunnel of pink and white flowers. In fall, crisp red and yellow leaves beautifully contrast the river’s bright blue water. The train features special window and roof-less cars for unobstructed sightseeing in the warmer months, and enclosed cars heated by coal stoves for when the temperatures start to drop.

Once the train reaches its destination in the city of Kameoka, passengers can board a nearby traditional boat for a Hozugawa River cruise. Along the way, skilled oarsmen will explain the history of the area and point out some of the more impressive natural features. The cruise lasts roughly two hours and ends back in Arashiyama.

See Monkeys in Their Natural Habitat

The hilltops of Arashiyama are home to troops of Japanese macaque monkeys. While normally a rare sight outside of zoos, visitors willing to hike to the top of one particular hill can experience these fascinating animals roaming freely. At Arashiyama Monkey Park, the macaques have learned that stopping by this area is typically rewarded with a tasty snack. While standing inside a  safety enclosure, visitors can pass specially prepared treats through the fence to the macaques on the outside. Visitors are also able to walk freely (but carefully) among the macaques, so with far fewer people around, it feels less like an attraction and more of a natural experience.

Explore the Grounds of Kinkaku-ji

Kyoto’s golden temple, Kinkaku-ji is considered a must see for anyone visiting the area. Sat upon a reflecting pond and nestled among the trees, it’s hard to imagine a more quintessential Japanese scene. Under normal circumstances, one would be hard-pressed to find a time when the temple grounds and surrounding garden aren’t jam-packed with visitors. During the spring holiday of Golden Week, it can be downright impossible to navigate the crowds. Visitors coming now or in the near future have the chance to explore at their own pace and take time to appreciate the beauty of Kinkaku-ji.

Eat and Drink Along the Kamogawa River

The Kamogawa River which runs through the heart of downtown Kyoto is considered to be one of the city’s most iconic sights. With its walking trails and restaurants lining the riverbank, it’s a perfect place to unwind after a long day of sightseeing. When the weather warms up, most of the bars and restaurants overlooking the river open their outdoor seating areas. Understandably, enjoying the local cuisine with the gentle breeze coming off the water is a popular activity. As a result, most restaurants along the river require a reservation or come with a lengthy wait time. Now is the best time to sample all of the local flavors without waiting.

Enjoy Kyoto at Your Own Pace

If you've ever dreamed of visiting Kyoto without waiting in lines or braving the seemingly endless crowds, there has never been a better time than now to do so. With Arashiyama's Empty Tourism campaign, you can experience a quieter side of the city that few have seen for many years.

Header credit: Kanisorn Pringthongfoo / Shutterstock.com

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Matt Vachon
Matt Vachon <https://www.mattvachon.com/> is a Tokyo-based photographer and writer. He loves discovering new restaurants and getting lost in the city with his camera in hand.
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