Following the reopening of Japan to tourists, we returned to Kyoto and spent several weeks in the city. Suffice to say, a lot has changed. We revisited every major temple and shrine, checked in on hotels, wandered Gion, Arashiyama, Higashiyama, and other districts to see what things are like as of 2023.
This update shares Kyoto photos, how things that have changed in the last few years, and commentary on what to expect if you’re visiting in 2023. Essentially, there are two big stories in terms of Kyoto travel. The first is the ongoing damage and recovery from the pandemic related closures and precipitous drop-off in tourism.
The second is the completion of major projects and additions, many of which were intended to arrive ahead of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, but were delayed. Even though Kyoto is the epicenter of traditional Japan, there are plenty of new additions to the city, and plenty more is under transformation.
Let’s begin with the post-reopening recovery and we should start by saying that reports of Kyoto’s demise are greatly exaggerated. This isn’t to minimize the extent of the pain inflicted upon individuals and business owners in the tourism-reliant city. Rather, it’s in response to the widespread media reports of Kyoto going “bankrupt” and the way those were tied to the pandemic closures.
By all accounts, Kyoto faces a tax revenue shortfall and its finances are in poor order. If it fails to turn things around, the city faces government intervention in the next decade. And it hasn’t helped that Kyoto is increasingly reliant on tourist spending to power its local economy. However, the notion that the city is on the precipice of economic devastation because of the lack of tourism is nonsense. Kyoto’s woes have existed for years; the border closure only amplified them.
Even knowing there was much more to the story than the headlines suggested, we were preparing to return to a very different Kyoto than the one we last left in late 2019. Our biggest surprise was how little had actually changed.
Some tourist-centric restaurants, retail, and hotels are still closed, but it’s an exceedingly small and almost unnoticeable number. Most have reopened, and business is booming. In the main tourist districts of Gion, Arashiyama, and Higashiyama, new spots have sprouted up. Others are the same as ever, selling the same shirts and hats that have been on offer for the last decade plus.
More than anything else, we found ourselves surprised by how alive everything felt. We feared returning to a Kyoto that was a shadow of its former self, a shell of the city that we fell in love with so many years ago. In actuality, it felt almost like we had never left. There were only a couple of reminders of how different Kyoto was as compared to three years ago. Let’s start with those…
Face Masks & Health Safety Measures – If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you’ve likely heard that masking is common. This isn’t hyperbole; to the contrary, it’s an understatement. Use of face masks is nearly universal, both indoors and out. Plexiglass barriers are likewise ubiquitous, and you can expect to encounter them at the vast majority of restaurants.
The ongoing health safety measures make Japan feel like the United States or Europe, circa Summer 2020. The health safety rules & social expectations and the experience of being a foreign visitor during reopening are all covered in Japan’s Face Mask Rules v. Reality in 2023. Without question, this is the biggest difference in visiting today, and Kyoto is no different than other major cities in Japan.
Crowds – In addition to Kyoto’s looming bankruptcy, the other hot topic of the last three years was the city reevaluating its relationship with tourism in an attempt to find a happy medium of sustainable visitor numbers. To be sure, this would be an admirable goal, as the growth of the prior 5 years had overwhelmed infrastructure and created a certain surface level tension between locals and visitors.
However, that did not happen. Tourism is back in Kyoto and it has returned in full force. At present, the numbers have not yet returned to their late 2019 levels, much less the increase once forecast for 2020. On top of that, there’s a different dynamic to the crowds. There are far fewer foreign tourists, and far more Japanese visitors.
This shift is likely owing to a mix of pent-up demand and domestic travel subsidies that have fueled trips within Japan. There’s also a complete lack of Chinese tour groups, which is a significant change for certain sites like Fushimi Inari and the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. They’re still incredibly busy, but not busting-at-the-seams busy like a few years ago.
Our expectation is that the makeup of crowds shifts gradually over the course of 2023, but not the volume. This is explained in When to Visit Kyoto, Japan: Best & Worst Times (2023), which also offers insight about when to visit for lower crowds, seasonal beauty, special events, and more.
Cashless is King – Japan’s transition to a more cashless society is a trend that began pre-pandemic and accelerated even further in the last few years. It’s now to the point that you can (almost) get by without any yen on hand during a trip to Japan.
Our practical advice on this front is getting a Suica or Pasmo IC cards, and loading that into Apple Wallet or whatever digital wallet you use on your phone or other smart device. You can reload this with your credit card, and do so before even leaving home when the conversion rates are most favorable. IC cards can be used at train stations, restaurants, retailers, and even certain vending machines.
In Kyoto, you will still find plenty of places that are cash only and you’ll almost certainly need yen as a result. Fortunately, there are 7-Elevens all over the place, and you can easily use your bank card to withdraw money as needed.
Kiyomizudera Temple’s Main Hall – After undergoing major renovations over the course of the last decade as part of the Heisei Big Renovation, work on Kiyomizudera Temple is finished. During this massive refurbishment project, nine of the temple’s buildings, including the main hall, were covered by scaffolding and restored.
For several years, the iconic main hall essentially had a giant warehouse built around it. The visual impact this had at Kiyomizudera Temple was significant, as the wooden stage jutting out from the main hall with Kyoto in the background is the iconic scene at this temple, and the scaffolding around the main hall was visible from pretty much everywhere in Kiyomizudera.
We returned to Kiyomizudera for last year’s fall colors season, which was far and away the busiest we had ever seen the temple. We made separate visits during the daytime hours and for nighttime illumination, and the temple was packed beyond belief both times. To be sure, Kiyomizudera is always busy this time of year, but we had never seen it like this.
Expect something similar during sakura season, as international tourists descend upon Kiyomizudera (like always) and are joined by Japanese visitors returning to see the temple in its completed glory. Even with the crowds, Kiyomizudera is not to be missed. The renovation results are fantastic.
Airbnb Changes & Consolidation – New laws were implemented that required short term rental hosts to register and comply with other procedural requirements. This private lodging law went into effect pre-pandemic, and had a significant impact on the number of available bookings at the time.
Between these onerous restrictions and the border closure, there are definitely fewer Airbnb options in Kyoto. Equally as noteworthy is that there appears to have been consolidation, with new owners buying up properties and the same management companies–with physical offices for check-in–running a huge chunk of the rental market.
This isn’t necessarily good or bad, just different. We prefer using Airbnb while traveling Japan, and it remains (by far) the cheapest option for booking more spacious accommodations and also allows you to live like a local, whether that means doing some laundry halfway through your trip or getting food to prepare you own meals. We were able to rent from independent hosts, and had zero issues whatsoever. (Already, we’re seeing prices increase for 2023 dates, which is unsurprising given the pent-up demand among international visitors.)
New Luxury Hotels – In the last 5 years, Kyoto has seen a proliferation in the number of flagship luxury and boutique hotels, many of which are operated by Western chained-brands. Of these, the highlight is the Park Hyatt Kyoto, which is located in the heart of the Higashiyama District, within walking distance of Kiyomizudera and the iconic Yasaka Pagoda. We’ve already stayed here–see our Park Hyatt Kyoto Review, Photos & Video for more on this highly-recommended option.
This is far from the only new option. Over in Northwestern Kyoto, you’ll find the Aman Kyoto and Roku Kyoto nearby one another in the foothills of Mount Daimonji in a beautiful forested area. These are bona-fide destination resorts, with sprawling campuses that are far removed from the hustle and bustle of Kyoto. In our view, that’s precisely the problem with many luxury hotels in Kyoto–they aren’t truly in Kyoto. (Both of these are north of the Golden Pavilion, which itself is pretty far from everything else.)
In addition to these luxury retreats, there’s the trendy and modern Ace Hotel in Kyoto’s centrally located Karasuma Oike district. Not too far from that is Hotel the Mitsui Kyoto, adjacent to Nijo Castle on the site of the Mitsui Family’s residence, a historic property the family maintained for over 250 years. Hoshino Resorts has 4 new hotels in Kyoto, including conveniently-located OMO concepts in Toji, Sanjo, and Gion.
This just scratches the surface of the new and newly-revitalized hotels in Kyoto. Each day while walking through Higashiyama, Gion, Downtown, and around Kyoto Station, we spotted something new. There’s a surplus of trendy upstart options, that offer budget-friendly accommodations with local flair and artsy designs. Work also continues to restore more of Kyoto’s iconic machiya, which are traditional wooden townhouses that were once disappearing at an astonishing rate.
While we’re aware of Kyoto’s evolving hotel scene, we frankly don’t care too much and would encourage visitors adopt a similar approach. In our view, too much of the mainstream travel coverage of Kyoto focuses on its newer, more luxurious accommodations. Kyoto is brimming with things to do, and prioritizing a hotel is like the tail wagging the dog. No resort grounds, tranquil location, amenities, or high-caliber of service can justify staying in some far-flung area outside Arashiyama. Choose accommodations in Kyoto based primarily on location.
Returning Festivals & Events – With only a handful of exceptions, all of Kyoto’s nighttime illuminations for last year’s fall colors season had returned. It’s safe to say the same will be true for sakura season. If autumn was any indication, expect larger crowds. These events are particular popular with domestic tourists, and seemed busier than ever. (And we had attended these events for several consecutive years pre-closure.)
More noteworthy is that festivals will make their long-awaited comeback in 2023. Kyoto’s famed Gion Matsuri is set to return in full force in July 2023 following a multi-year hiatus. In August, Kyoto will celebrates Gozan Okuribi, a bonfire celebration visible across the city that marks the close of Obon. Speaking of conflagrations, Kurama Fire Festival will be back again in October 2023. Suffice to say, the calendar of events should closely resemble 2019.
Museums – Located near Heian Shrine and Okazaki Park, the Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art has reopened after a 3 year construction closure. The redesigned main building is joined by new wings for contemporary art and events.
Over in Arashiyama, the Fukuda Art Museum is also now open. This clean and modern building overlooks Katsura River and the historic Togetsu Bridge. Both museums offer historic and contemporary windows into Japan, but it’s incredibly difficult to recommend either to a visitor with 4 or fewer days in Kyoto. If you’re going to do museums, the highest-priority options should be Kyoto Railway Museum and Kyoto National Museum.
Super Nintendo World – We’ll end with one that’s not actually in Kyoto, but has become one of the top draws in all of the Kansai region. That’s Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. Although the name suggests an all-encompassing world of Nintendo franchises, it’s really just Mario & Co. for now. (Okay, there are a few hidden Pikmin.)
This is a really cool addition, but we have to warn you: Universal Studios Japan is one of the busiest theme parks in the world. Even on a normal weekday, many attractions have triple-digit wait times. Arrive early if you’re planning on visiting–at least 90 minutes before official park opening. See our Ultimate Guide to Universal Studios Japan (2023) for more advice to beat the crowds.
Ultimately, that’s a wrap on what’s new in Kyoto, Japan as of 2023. If you’ve visited in the past, the most noticeable change will unquestionably be the masking and other health-safety measures, followed by shifting crowd patterns (lower in the foreign tour group hotspots, higher in spots beloved by the Japanese) and increased development.
Once you get past that, the most noticeable thing, we think, is how much has not changed in Kyoto. Obviously, it’s a historic city known for temples and shrines that are hundreds of years old, so this is partly to be expected. But even many of the little things in Nishiki Market, Kyoto Station’s massive malls, Gion, and other shopping districts–areas we’d expect to see differences, are largely unchanged. Suffice to say, it was great to be back at our home-away-from-home, and hopefully this update provided you with worthwhile information for your visit to Kyoto in 2023 or beyond.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Any thoughts about what’s new in Kyoto as of 2023? If you’ve returned since Japan reopened, have you noticed any changes or differences as compared to pre-closure? Concerned about the rise in crowds? Any topics you’d like to see us tackle in future posts about Japan? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
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