Kyoto guided tour: Delicate, tranquil, poetic

Timelapse: Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Shrine

Take a high-speed tour of Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. This important site is famous for its thousands of bright red torii gates over trails through a beautiful hillside setting. Video: Craig Platt

"Very few things are more pleasant than having a cup of tea on a tatami mat while looking through windows onto the rain," says my guide Chris Rowthorn.

We gaze out at the raked Zen garden of Komyo Temple as fat raindrops tumble, plopping like jumping frogs on the pebbles. Fortunately, Chris isn't one of those people that requires an answer. We sit in companionable silence as the rain splutters. A trio of maple leaves flutters and falls. The rich smell of the tatami mats is a soothing, olfactory lullaby.

I'm in Kyoto, Japan's deservedly most popular tourist destination, but there's no one else interfering with the moment. On my third visit to the ancient capital, I've been lured by Chris' promise of a more subtle city visit, away from the chittering tourist crowds of its more famous temples. "What's great about Kyoto is that, right around the corner from a really busy temple, you'll often find another just as lovely that has hardly any visitors," he says.

This isn't just a tour guide's vague claim. When Chris is pressed on details, he quickly cites Otoyo Shrine as perennially tranquil, even though it's just off the ever-popular Philosopher's Path. And Honen Temple, he says, is his favourite in all Kyoto for its moss-draped gates and gardens, stone bridge and superlative Amida Buddha. He walks there with his children.

This isn't the part of town we're in now, however. Our first stop is Tofuku Temple in the city's southeast Higashiyama or Eastern Mountain district, Chris' favoured walking destination. The temple is popular in autumn because of its spectacular foliage, but otherwise the crowds that jam temples nearby are curiously absent. Its leafy hill-gazing grounds are dotted with compact sub-temples around a grand main hall.

"Look up in a Zen temple, because there's always a dragon on the ceiling," Chris advises. The main hall's dragon is white as a ghost, fierce and spooky. I'd probably have missed it on an independent visit. This is what I like about tours, especially one with an expert. Chris was born in the UK, grew up in the United States and lived briefly in Melbourne and Sydney before moving to Kyoto in 1992. The fluent Japanese speaker has produced dozens of guidebooks on Japan, and clearly loves this city.

"Don't look to your left as you enter, since the garden is much better first seen as you go around the building from the side," he suggests as we approach the temple's Hasso Garden. "Anyway, you shouldn't miss going around the back of the abbot's house for views of the valley."

From here, our walking tour takes us along a residential street banked with azaleas to Komyo Temple. A cherry tree weeps in the first courtyard, and behind the temple a steep hillside is lush with maples and azaleas. Its Zen garden is dotted with upright stones in a sea of regimented pebbles, said to represent Buddha preaching to his disciples. We linger until the rain shower blows over, leaving a delicate smell of wet leaves and water on rocks.

Soon we're walking through the woods of Mount Inari, where the serried tangerine tori gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine lead up the hillside. Chinese tourists pose and push at the shrine's elaborate main gate.


"The Japanese call those who stick to the tourist trail onobori-san or climbing people, because they climb the direct route up through temples," says Chris. "But as you're about to see, you only have to step to the side in Kyoto's temples to find real treats."

As we climb the hillside, tour groups fall away and selfie-seekers thin out, leaving just a few hikers to admire the forest shrines. We pause at a wayside tearoom of age-blackened wood for a snack of tofu-wrapped sushi. I feel I ought to be writing a haiku. Bamboo leaves rustle. Tiny purple flowers are jewels on cushions of moss. A dragon spout drips rainwater, and time seems to still for a moment, as if entranced by Kyoto's delicate charms.




Chris Rowthorn Tours offers various private, guided walking tours in Kyoto and other Japanese destinations. Full-day tours cost around $500 per group. See


Japan Airlines flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Osaka's Kansai airport, an hour on the train from Kyoto. Phone 1300 525 287, see


Iori Machiya Stay provides a variety of sensitively renovated machiyia or traditional houses in premium and standard categories and varying sizes. Phone +81 75 352 0211, see

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Kyoto Convention & Visitors Bureau and Chris Rowthorn Tours.