This is the insider tip no one talks about.
The famous Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, once wrote in a haiku:
京にても Kyou nitemo Even while in Kyoto
京なつかしや Kyou natsukashiya I long for Kyoto
The poem is a paean to the city of Kyoto and, having lived there for a year when I was 20, I can attest that there’s something special about this ancient city that leaves you longing for more. For many American travelers, Kyoto is a brief stop on a longer tour of Japan and often is timed to witness the fleeting beauty of the spring cherry blossoms or the equally short-lived, fiery foliage of the Japanese maples in the fall. While both of those are absolutely worth seeing, neither spring nor fall are my favorite season to explore Kyoto. Summer is too hot and humid to even think about leaving the A/C of your hotel room, much less exploring the city on foot. No. The honor of my favorite season goes to winter. On a recent trip to this famed city, using the Fodor’s Finest hotel Hoshinoya as a base, I was reminded that, from the temples and shrines to the quiet serenity of the Hoshinoya, winter has much to offer.
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As long as you avoid the few days before and after New Year’s (and lunar New Year), you’ll often have many of Kyoto’s famous temples, shrines, and gardens to yourself. Many of these sights were built for quiet contemplation and reflection. That’s difficult to do in the peak seasons, when a thousand other tourists are jammed in next to you, all jostling for the best spot for a selfie. But to see these sights in winter is to truly understand them. This is no less true for the Hoshinoya, which was built over a century ago as a quiet retreat for a noble family and prides itself on its privacy and quiet, relaxed atmosphere, both of which are only enhanced during the winter.
The lack of crowds has another benefit—flights and hotels tend to be a bit cheaper than they are during the peak periods in spring and fall, meaning you can potentially stay at a nicer hotel than you’d otherwise be able to. And who wouldn’t want to stay at a hotel like the gorgeous Hoshinoya for a price that can be as little as half what you’d pay in peak season (if you can even get a reservation during those busy times)?
Though the depth of the annual snowfall is measured in meters in some parts of Japan, Kyoto typically only gets a few snowy days per year. If you’re lucky enough to be there when it does, you’re in for something truly special. The snow adds a beauty to rival the blossoms and foliage of the more popular seasons, but with a quiet, peaceful drama not found at any other time of year. Everyone should experience the golden Kinkakuji temple enrobed in white at least once in this life. It actually did snow briefly while I was at the Hoshinoya and it made the vista from my room overlooking the resort’s immaculately landscaped grounds and a small river gorge a sight worth flying across the Pacific for.
Much of Japanese culture revolves around the changing of the seasons (the fact that Japan has four distinct seasons—called shiki in Japanese—is a point of pride for many people) and this is especially true for the food. From delicacies like oden (an assortment of tofu, vegetables, fish cakes, and other things stewed together in a hearty broth) and nikuman (pork filling inside of a fluffy bun, like Chinese bao) available in any corner convenience store to nabe hotpots and sukiyaki, winter fare in Japan is warming, filling, delicious, and generally difficult or impossible to find once winter is over. It’s also worth mentioning that the coveted yuzu citrus is in season and makes an appearance in many dishes only in winter. Breakfast at the Hoshinoya was served in-room and consisted of one of the best hotpots I’ve ever eaten—assorted vegetables, mushrooms, and other items boiled in a beautiful and light dashi broth, cooked tabletop in a spectacular hammered copper pot.
Even if you don’t have the good fortune of visiting Kyoto when it snows, you’ll be glad to visit when the average temperatures are in the 40s and 50s during the day. Although that may seem chilly, you’re going to be doing a lot of walking and the cooler temps help keep you comfortable. By contrast, summer can be unbearably hot and humid, with highs in the upper 80s and humidity above 90% much of the time. Great if you’re a tropical fish, but literally unbearable for most people.
While you won’t see any cherry blossoms or maple leaves, the flora of winter is not without its own beauty. Plum trees bloom earlier than their more well-known cousins and are just as gorgeous. In fact, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto has a plum blossom festival at the end of February every year that is spectacular. In addition, red nandina berries, pink camellia flowers, and white Japanese daffodils, among many others, can only be enjoyed in winter. The grounds of the Hoshinoya contained all of these, along with cherry and maple trees and many other flowering plants and shrubs, ensuring that the grounds are beautiful 365 days a year.
If you happen to visit around New Year’s and are a shopaholic, you might just get lucky! Many shops in Kyoto and across the country offer fukubukuro, or “lucky bags” in the first week or two of the year. These bags usually contain a random selection of whatever wares that shop sells, with a few bags that include very expensive items mixed in among the rest. If you’re feeling lucky, buy a bag and see if you’ve hit the jackpot! Even if you don’t, though, the total value of the goods the bag contains is always greater than the price that the shop charges for it, so everyone is a winner. In the Arashiayama neighborhood where the Hoshinoya is located, I picked up a couple of fukubukuro from local shops—one from a local deli selling spices and pickled items that Kyoto is famous for and the other pretty hand-crafted clothing and textiles. In total, I estimate that I probably would have had to pay three times the amount if I had purchased all of the items in the bags separately.
If the randomness of fukubukuro doesn’t appeal to you, don’t worry! Discounts and sales abound in the first week of the year, thanks to the concept of hatsuuri. Literally meaning “first sale,” the idea of hatsuuri is that the first day or week of business sets the tone for the rest of the year—if business is strong, the year will be a good one. In order to tip the scales in their favor, many shops offer steep discounts that practically guarantee that business will be brisk at the start of the year—and a visit in winter is the only way to take advantage of these prices. Although the Hoshinoya didn’t offer any special pricing, their gift shop had some unique finds at surprisingly reasonable prices. I picked up a beautiful metal keychain of the kind that the resort uses for their room keys, hand-crafted by a local artisan exclusively for them.