There’s never a bad time to visit Japan’s former capital, but May is an especially good time.
Kyoto is one of the most popular travel destinations in Japan, and with good reason, The former capital of Japan is packed with beautiful, historically significant temples, shrines, and other cultural sites to see, and boasts some of the most refined hospitality and cuisine in the country.
The most popular months to visit Kyoto are April and November, when the cherry blossoms and fall colors, respectively, are at their most beautiful. Summer is another time when the city receives plenty of out-of-tow guests, many of whom stop by as part of their summer vacation or to witness the Gion Matsuri festival, while others hold that seeing Kyoto’s centuries-old architecture under a blanket of winter snow has its own mystique.
But Kyoto isn’t just a city for all seasons, but a city for all months, and right now, May, is a fantastic time to go. Why? Because…
1. It’s a rare chance to experience Kyoto in pleasant weather
Kyoto’s local geography is such that the city is essentially poured into a basin, with mountains rising at its outer edges. This creates especially extreme weather, even for a country where most regions are already swelteringly hot in the summer and piercingly cold in the winter.
But May is one of the few sweet spots in Kyoto’s weather patterns, with afternoon temperatures usually hovering around 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).
While mild weather is always a plus when you’re sightseeing, it’s especially nice in Kyoto, with its wealth of temples, shrines, and gardens to stroll though and relax in. It’s a lot easier to soak up the atmosphere when you’re not wiping off sweat or shivering from the cold. Plus, by the time May rolls around, most of the pollen that causes Japan’s infamous spring hay fever is no longer swirling around in the air.
If you’re looking to take advantage of the weather by adding one more spot to you itinerary, a unique choice is Kawai Jinja, a shrine located on the grounds of yet another shrine, Shimagamo Jinja. Many shrines are said to convey a specific benefit upon those who visit, and in the case of Kawai Jinja the blessing is supposed to be increased beauty.
Because of this, Kawai Jinja’s ema, boards on which Shinto shrine visitors right the requests they make of the gods, are not the standard pentagonal shape. Instead, they look like a mirror, and visitors draw a (beautiful) face on the wooden surface.
2. The unforgettable experience of a kawadoko ryori meal
Kawadoko literally means “riverbed,” but for a kawadokoryori meal you won’t be sitting at the river’s bottom. You’ll be right above the water’s surface!
Kibune Fujiya, the restaurant pictured above, is one of a number of establishments that offer this elegant dining option. The exact fare varies from restaurant to restaurant, but most make use of ingredients and recipes indicative of Kyoto. When we visited, our meal started with a cup of green tea and confectionary, and included tempura shrimp and yuba (tofu skin), the latter being one of the must-eat foods on a Kyoto trip.
Everything tasted fantastic, but what really makes things special is how your other senses are stimulated at the same time, with the texture of the tatami reed floor mats, the sound of the flowing water, the cool breeze rising up from below, and the deep green leaves coming together to soothe even the most harried heart.
While kawadoko ryori is something you can do in the summer as well, May is an especially enjoyable time for it. In summer, the intense heat can have you wishing for the air-conditioned comfort of indoor seating, and planning your kawadoko meal for May means you’ll also be able to focus on your food and surroundings instead of swatting away Japan’s persistent mosquitos that start showing up in June.
3. The limited-time maple light-up nighttime train ride
We mentioned the deep green leaves above, and while they’re pretty enough during the day, their beauty takes on a whole new quality at night.
On weekend and holiday nights in May, Kyoto’s Eizan Railway runs what it calls the Aomomiji Shinryoku (“New Green Maple Leaves”) train. Between Ichihara and Ninose Stations, the forest on either side of the tracks are illuminated, and the train’s interior lights are turned off so that passengers can feel completely immersed in the surrounding greenery.
The conductor even slows the train down so that you can enjoy the view a little longer, making it the perfect, leisurely day to cap a day in one of Japan’s most tranquil cities.
Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’s ready to pack his bags and go to Kyoto right now.
[ Read in Japanese ]