Where to find Kyoto’s glow

After the sun goes down, geishas recede behind closed doors and teahouses shut down for the night, the ancient Japanese city offers spectacular nighttime charms.

Few visitors come to Kyoto for the nightlife. With traditional teahouses, countless kōyō (maple trees) and sakura (cherry blossoms) and 17 castles, shrines and temples on the Unesco World Heritage list, the Japanese city is far better known for its daytime splendour.

But after the sun goes down, geishas recede behind closed doors and teahouses shut down for the night, Kyoto offers spectacular nighttime charms.

Night lights
On a recent trip, I took a summer evening stroll through the neighbourhoods of Gion and Higashiyama, nestled in eastern Kyoto between the Kamo River and Higashiyama mountains. The area’s narrow alleys and machiya (traditional wooden buildings) were filled with small shops, cafes and restaurants that catered to visitors. But as the tourists disappeared from the streets and dim light bathed the closed wooden storefronts, I felt as though I had stumbled upon a sleeping 15th-century town.

Even asleep, though, Kyoto was filled with sights even more beautiful at night. From one overlook in Higashiyama, the wooden, 15th-century Yasaka Pagoda, at 49m high, juxtaposed the modern 131m Kyoto Tower. Finished in 1964, the latter resembled a launching rocket; its long base was lit white and its circular observation deck and needle spire glowed in a blaze of orange. 

A short walk from Higashiyama, on the border of the historic Gion district, was the ornate red-and-white gate of the Yasaka Shrine. Open 24 hours a day, the shrine is the most popular place in Kyoto to count down to midnight on New Year’s Eve: traditional worshippers flock here to take home a flame from the shrine’s sacred fire, which they use to cook the first meal of the year. It is also an important site during Kyoto’s annual Gion Matsuri, a religious festival that runs throughout July. But at this time of year, the shrine remained calm and peaceful, glowing from hundreds of paper lanterns hanging in the temple.

The path from the shrine wound up a steep hill to Kodaji Temple. Kodaji is illuminated at night at three different times each year: in August, to commemorate the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the pre-eminent daimyo warrior in the 16th Century; from late October to early December for momiji-gari (autumn foliage viewing); and from mid-March to early May for hanami (cherry blossom viewing). I was here in August, and the 17th-century Zen Buddhist temple had been transformed from a peaceful cluster of teahouses and gardens into an eerie space where multi-coloured spotlights shone down on the rock garden, lit the bamboo grove with a neon glow and turned the pond into a spectacular mirror that reflected the maple trees above.

Kodaji was one of the first sites in Kyoto to light up during momiji-gari and hanami. It was so successful that, now, many others also light up during Japan’s favourite times of year. Kiyomizu Temple in the Higashiyama District, and nearby Maruyama Park in Gion District, home to Kyoto’s famous giant weeping cherry tree, are illuminated during hanami season, giving Japan’s famous pink flowers an otherworldly glow. Many temples and shrines in the area surrounding Nijo Castle and Arashiyama also are lit up throughout hanami, as well as momiji-gari, when the lights seem to ignite the burnt orange and red maples.

Every year during hanami and momiji-gari, Kyoto illuminates 5km-long walking paths during a 10-day event called Higashiyama Hanatouro, when approximately 2,500 lanterns light the pedestrian- and-rickshaw-only streets leading up to Higashiyama Mountain. Some 1,000 bamboo lanterns also stand along the Yoshimizu Stream, transforming Maruyama Park into an enchanting wonderland. Flower arrangements and art exhibits embellish the rest of the park. (In 2014, the event for hanami takes place 14 to 23 March). 

While tourists flock to Kyoto to experience the change of seasons in the spring and autumn, locals believe that the calm winter is the best time to enjoy the city’s spiritual side. Therefore, Kyoto hosts a similar event in December, usually the second to third weekend of the month, when a 5km section of Kyoto’s Arashiyama ward is illuminated for the Arashiyama Hanatouro. Visitors can delight in specially curated flower arrangements, glimpse a rare night-time view of the Togetsukyo Bridge and surrounding foothills, or stroll through the mystical bamboo forest that glows from Nonomiya-Jinjya Shrine to Okouchi Sanso Villa.

Tunnel of trees
At night for one week every April, depending on when the cherry blossoms reach full bloom, visitors also can get a glimpse of glowing cherry blossoms from Kyoto’s Keifuku train (also known as the Randen train), the last of the two-car trollies that were widely used throughout Kyoto from 1895 until 1971, when they were largely replaced by diesel buses. After visiting the temples and shrines in the foothills west of Kyoto, such as the Unesco World Heritage Ninnaji Temple, the train interior goes dark as it passes through floodlit neon pink tunnel of blossoms.

In the autumn’s momiji-gari, meanwhile, the small hill town of Kibune, about 13.5km north of Kyoto, is lit up and the Kibune shrine hosts a variety of cultural performances, including live music, traditional dancing and calligraphy demonstrations. As an added bonus for Kibune visitors, the Eizan train line, which connects the town with Kyoto, goes through a fall foliage tunnel of illuminated trees in the second half of November.