Kyoto Is One of the Best Places to Travel in 2023 — and Winter Is an Underrated Time to Visit

Winter is a magical time to visit Kyoto — here's how the plan the perfect trip.

A pond surrounded by snow covered bushed in Kyoto, Japan

Courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto

Though many people flock to Kyoto in the spring, when it's awash in pink and white sakura (cherry blossoms), here’s a travel tip: Winter is an especially underrated time to visit the Japan’s cultural capital, which was just named one of the best places to travel in 2023. Rather than bemoaning the frigid temperatures and lack of light, locals embrace all four seasons and the shifts in nature. “You finally get to enjoy stillness,” says Reiko Yokota, pastry chef at Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto, reflecting on the changing seasons in her artful afternoon teas. “The cold brings silence in the air, and the black-and-white monochrome look of our city gives you a very serene feel.” 

Without the usual throngs of tourists, Kyoto’s must-see attractions, from Fushimi Inari Taisha to Kinkaku-ji, are more accessible in the winter and take on an even more profound feel. If you’re in town between January and February on a blustery Saturday, check out Kifune-jinja Shrine. Depending on the amount of snowfall, the ancient shrine, tucked in the quaint village of Kibune, will illuminate cherry-red lanterns lining the craggy stone steps leading up to the main hall for a wonderfully poetic effect.

Winter is also a terrific time to discover solitude by a karesansui, or Japanese dry garden. These stylized arrangements of rock and sand found at many area temples — the one at Ryōan-ji being the most famous — are raked to resemble rippling water, encouraging contemplation and helping calm your gaze.

Related: 6 Destinations in Japan Where the Locals Love to Go

Red archway and lights with everything covered in snow

Courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto

The cold months also bring excellent seasonal eats. Duck and seafood, including crab and buri (Japanese amberjack), are abundant now, as are root vegetables like the delicate, snow-white Kyoto turnip. Senmaizuke, a pickle made from paper-thin turnip slices marinated in sweet vinegar with kombu, is a delicacy that’s only available during the winter months. Locals also tuck into nabe (hot pot dishes) like oden, fish cakes simmered in a soy and dashi broth. Yudofu, a silky, custardy fresh tofu simmered in water with kombu, is another popular comfort food. And given the lack of crowds come winter, restaurant reservations that are typically tough to nab, like Michelin-starred and kaiseki-focused Sen, Lurra° by chef Jacob Kear, and Sushi Wakon, are far easier to secure.

Another way to enjoy Kyoto this time of year is by diving into Japanese bathing culture, or more specifically, sentō. Though these public bathhouses can be found all around town, beloved options include Funaoka Onsen — dating back to 1923 and adorned with intricately carved wood ceilings and colorful tiled walls — Goko-yu Sento, with its bracingly hot sauna, and Kyoto Tamano-yu. (Just brush up on sento etiquette before your visit.) If you’re feeling more modest, you can indulge in a complimentary ofuro (traditional hot bath) and sauna session as a guest of the Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto. 

A blurred figure walking through the streets of Kyoto in the evening during winter

Courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto

But perhaps one of Kyoto’s best-kept secrets is its ume (plum) blossoms. Like sakura, these flowers are regretfully short-lived and fleeting, but a particularly welcome sight during the depths of winter, thanks to their white and purple-pink hues. They begin appearing in February and serve as a gentle yet stirring reminder that every season serves a purpose.

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