Going into this trip, Kyoto was the place I was most looking forward to seeing. After all, for a history and culture buff like me, this was supposed to be the Japanese version of nirvana. It was not.
Don’t get me wrong; there are some incredible sights in Kyoto, and those are worth seeing. However, I feel the city is overrated as a whole, and here are three reasons why.
1. Kyoto is a fairly ugly city
The Kinkaku-Ji Temple (pictured in the cover photo) opens at 9am, so I was there by 8:30. Making the mad dash to see the Golden Pavilion (rebuilt in 1955), I had about 3 minutes to take this photo before I and the other few tourists who had managed to get in as soon as it opened were, literally, pushed out of the way so that bus loads of Japanese schoolchildren could each have their picture taken in front of it by their teachers. By 9:15, the complex was overrun, and I was left with the rest of Kyoto.
It seems as though the modern city planners decided that since Kyoto was home to stunning temples and palaces, no additional effort needed to be put into beautification. Architecture is blocky and drab; public spaces are cement-y and drab. Once the tourist sights are too crowded to be worth entering (more on this in point two), the city itself has little to offer, compared to a place like Tokyo.
2. The crowds are terrible
Kyoto is a top tourist destination, so some crowds are to be expected. However, what I found was beyond my wildest nightmares. By 10am, the Nijo Castle (across the street from my hotel) had a line so long it made crossing the street not worthwhile.
The worst instance of overcrowding for me came at the Fushimi Inari Shrine. A stunningly beautiful complex, it is best known for its paths of torii, or gates marking the transition from the profane to the sacred. In the afternoon, when I was there, it was so packed that one could not move through these walkways.
Such overcrowding makes it hard to visit more than one site per day. You can choose the one you most want to see, get there when it opens, and have a few minutes of peace before the masses descend.
3. Kyoto is a tough city to get around
This comes with a caveat: in comparison to the majority of cities in the US, it is still a dream. But when put next to Tokyo or Osaka, Kyoto has a very limited transportation system. There are only a couple of rail lines, and while the buses are good, they are slow. And, since the places you’ll want to see are spread out, this makes efficient sight-seeing tough.
More importantly, unlike Tokyo, the announcements of upcoming stops on the Kyoto trains and subway lines were not done in English. In fact, there was significantly less English present in Kyoto as a whole, making navigating the city tougher.
Kyoto is home to a couple of the most beautiful temples I’ve ever seen, but the city itself really did not meet expectations. I’d recommend spending a day or two there and prioritizing your top two or three sights, then using a city like Osaka as your base for seeing the region.