Our final day in Kyoto gave us a taste of both the very best and some of the the very worst a traveller can experience. In a single day we were left first supremely underwhelmed and disappointed at an inauthentic tourist attraction, only to then be reminded why independent travel and a determination to explore can be so utterly rewarding.
First, we went to the large temple of Kinkaku-ji, a very famous temple on the northern edge of Kyoto. It is famous because it is coated in gold leaf, perched on the edge of a pretty little lake, and surrounded by pristine gardens. It sounded like a very interesting way to spend a few hours.
Sadly, it seems this temple is also very firmly lodged on the local tourist map, part of the standard tour route for anyone visiting Kyoto.
It was thus with immense regret that we saw Kinkaku-ji hasn’t been able to resist the inevitable pressures of mass tourism.
Rather, it has adapted itself to them, and has in the process come to bear all the hallmarks of a standard tourist trap.
A large coach park sits at the entrance of the temple. A coach park should be a warning sign that anything anywhere is going to be a letdown.
Before seeing the temple, guests have to pass through a ticket office and part with 400 Yen each – about £2 – for a ticket.
The hoards are then sent on a circuitous and inescapable route along a gravel path around the temple and its gardens which, beautiful though they are, are hardly helped by the sense that this is all really little more than a tourist’s theme park.
Along the route I counted no fewer than three complete gift shops, a handful of souvenir stalls, and several ice cream vendors.
The temple itself isn’t even that good, being honest. I mean sure, it’s very beautiful, and the gardens surrounding it are lovely.
But you just can’t escape the sense that there is just something fundamentally inauthentic about the whole place.
For our part, we arrived and immediately felt disappointed by what we saw. It just felt like something special had lost its value.
We spent a few minutes snapping obligatory selfies in front of the temple itself (its obligatory to snap selfies everywhere in Japan) and then made our way with some haste around the route of the path circling the temple and gardens. We slalomed our way around hoards of excitable tourists. We didn’t loiter. This wasn’t a place worth our time, and we simply wanted to pass through as swiftly as possible.
We went back to our capsule hotel to have some lunch and rest a little. Despite the rain, we decided to continue onto our next destination – the temple at Fushimi Inari. We were hoping for something better than we’d been given in the morning. And something better we got in absolute bags!
Kyoto boasts literally hundreds of temples and shrines, and choosing between them is an immensely difficult task. But Fushimi Inari stands out on account of its famous winding paths, bridged by thousands upon thousands of red torii gates.
It’s a photographer’s dream, a romanticist’s paradise, and for the humble tourist it brings precisely that mix of authenticity and unique character that makes something worth travelling thousands of miles to see.
Even better, you don’t need to buy a ticket – visiting the temple was free. You’re not met when you arrive by gawdy stands flogging expensive souvenirs. There are no coffee shops selling price-inflated lattes. There is no coach park, and although of course you’re not alone, the place doesn’t feel overwhelmed with visitors.
Indeed, you feel Fushimi Inari exists entirely in its own right, and that if the tourists weren’t there, it would still keep going simply because it isn’t there for tourists! Its primary function is not to be a nice place for tourists to visit. Thus, when we visited, we didn’t feel like we were visiting a tourist attraction. We felt like we were looking at a temple, which is what we wanted to see in the first place!
That makes such a huge difference in my book. It adds so much value to a place, and it made the hours we spent strolling round beneath the densely packed gates forever memorable. Fushimi Inari is a truly special place, spectacular and unique. It is unlike anywhere else in the whole world. Wandering along beneath the canopy of torii gates is an unforgettably beautiful experience. Each torii has been donated by a Japanese business, and their names are inscribed on each gate.
And without a tourist bus in sight and only a handful of other visitors, there were even precious moments when we felt like we had the whole place all to ourselves.
One day, two experiences at either end of the traveller’s spectrum of experiences. Of course you’ll always get both when you travel, but we’ll continue in the hope of more of the latter…