Kyoto in summer is blisteringly hot. By midday, the banks of the Kamo River are crowded with locals dipping their feet in the clear water and sipping on ice-cold beers. Elderly shopkeepers close up early to retire to residences above their tiny stores, sitting on tatami flooring and fanning themselves in the afternoon humidity. Citywide, people mumble “ah, it’s too hot,” to no one in particular, the ineffective but constant mantra of the season. Dusk is still hours away, but even the setting sun will offer little respite from the stifling humidity. It’s going to be another long, uncomfortable night.
This is the curse of summer in Kyoto. Inescapable heat and humidity, all thanks to the wisdom of the city’s founders in the 8th century. A valley basin surrounded by mountains and away from the ocean is ideal in Chinese geomancy, but renders the city almost unlivable in the hotter months. Kyoto residents boast of the city’s numerous cultural treasures, but they secretly long for the one priceless gift that Kyoto will never be granted: Osaka’s cooling ocean breeze, just out of reach beyond the city limits.
Thankfully, there are ways to cool off. Here are a few of our favorite ways to escape the heat - even momentarily - and enjoy all that Kyoto has to offer.
The #1 Must-Have Summer Item
Look around you on a train platform or when waiting to cross the street. Almost everyone is using fans; men, women and kids alike. Both the flat uchiwa type (pictured right) and the folding sensu are popular, regardless of gender. There's an old piece of supposed wisdom that says fanning actually makes you hotter, but you'll find that isn't the case on a hot Kyoto afternoon. When the humidity rises, the sweat will pour forth from you but have no way to evaporate thanks to the wet air. This is where the fan comes in. It's not to cool you, but to dry you off so that your body can keep sweating to keep you comfortable. Just be sure to drink plenty of fluids to keep your body replenished.
You can find fans of all sorts throughout the city. Fancy ones can be bought for a hefty price in high end specialty shops, and cheaper ones available at 100 yen stores. Cheap plastic uchiwa are often distributed at festivals or outside of businesses for marketing purposes... and they work just as well as the expensive ones! In the muggy Kyoto summer, all fans are equally useful.
Icy Treats Galore
Japan have elevated the art of summer snacks beyond all other seasonal treats. Ice cream is a year round thing here, but summer is when it really shines. Walk into any convenience store like 7-11 or Lawson and you'll find a large cooler of fully stocked ice cream bars, sandwiches, cups, cones, and a few other styles you've probably never tried before. This changes out every week or so and varies from region to region, so don't assume you've seen all that Japan has to offer after just one store.
A visit to Baskin Robbins 31 is an interesting experience as well. Yeah, they have chocolate and cookies & cream just like in the west, but the vast majority of what you'll find here will surprise you. Green tea, pumpkin, cantaloupe, sweet potato, red bean, and a whole lot more that is wilder than any of those exotic flavors. The mix of such unique flavors in an otherwise recognizable western setting is a surreal shock (and so are the higher than normal prices, but it's worth it).
The ultimate summer snack is kakigori, Japanese shaved ice. This isn't the simple snowcone you may have grown up with. Kyoto locals prefer a mountain of fluffy ice shavings topped with refined flavors like matcha green tea or soy bean powder. This is almost always accompanied with sweet red beans and a few mochi, gummy rice balls with little taste but a sticky texture. There are often sweeter flavors as well, like strawberry, peach, or the perplexingly hard-to-pinpoint taste of the famous "blue Hawaii" flavor. Plenty to choose from.
Hide From the Sun
When the temps peak during midday, consider getting our of the sun and heading indoors. This is a no-brainer, right? Sure, but be careful, because not all indoor places in Kyoto are equally comfortable.
There are plenty of indoor sightseeing locations in the city, but you'll want to avoid certain old buildings in the really hot hours between noon and 5:00pm. Nijo Castle draws a lot of visitors in this season because it's mostly indoors (the gardens are great there but the sun reflecting off the white gravel pathways is killer). Unfortunately, due to the lack of airflow in the palace and the large attic spaces above each room, the heat gets trapped in the building and the place turns into a sauna. Nijo Castle is best experienced as soon as it opens at 9:00am if you're visiting in summer.
Sanjusangendo - another absolute must-see spot in Kyoto that is part of our popular Kyoto Highlights Tour - gets similarly stuffy inside as the day goes on. Consider visiting this one when they open at 8:00am as the best way to enjoy the amazing statues on display there.
So instead of old stuffy halls, think about visiting modern buildings with air conditioning during peak heat hours. The Kyoto National Museum in Shichijo, Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts Fureaikan near Heian Jingu Shrine, and the International Manga Museum downtown are all comfortable and are a great way to to spend an hour or two indoors. Gardens with shady trees and flowing ponds are perfect for cooling off in the afternoon. Traditional Nishiki Market and the nearby Teramachi shopping arcade are also great on hot days. Not only are they covered, but the air conditioning leaks out from all the shops and ends up creating a fairly pleasant semi-outdoor atmosphere.
All About Timing
As a continuation of the above point, put some thought into scheduling your day around the hottest hours between noon and 5:00pm. That's the best time to plan on shopping for souvenirs indoors, visiting museums, or signing up for workshops and activities.
Organize your travel between cities around the heat as well. Instead of getting on an early train to Tokyo, stay in Kyoto for some morning sightseeing and catch a ride out when heat peaks after lunch. You'll arrive at your destination in the late afternoon when things have hopefully cooled down a bit.
Be realistic in how much you can handle in a single day of sightseeing. At KyoTours Japan, we always encourage guests to select an early meetup time for one of our tours so that we can beat the heat. Even if you come from a warm climate, it's a whole other story to be out walking in the heat for the duration of the day. Before you know it, you'll be exhausted and ready to head back to the hotel for a shower. Keep your days short, and leave plenty of time for indoor breaks.
Get Outta Town
You hear a lot of suggestions from locals to get out of Kyoto to escape the heat. This is great advice, but where to go? Most tourists head to Kibune and Kurama, a mountainous area past the northern border of the city. Kibune is especially famous for restaurants where low platforms are set up over the cool stream flowing through the valley. It's a relaxing way to have a meal surrounded by the coolness of nature, but you won't be the only tourist there nowadays, that's for sure.
Another option is to go higher up! Mt. Hiei overlooks the northeast corner of the city, and is noticeably cooler at the summit. Don't worry, it's not a serious hike. There's a cable car and ropeway to get you to the top, but once you're up there this is some walking between areas on the summits. Some of the regions best views can be enjoyed from up here, as well as some impressive temples and forest pathways snaking along the mountain ridges.
If you skirt around Mt. Hiei via JR train from Kyoto station, you'll reach Shiga, our neighboring prefecture. Shiga is home to Biwako, Japan's largest lake, which cools things down considerably. Otsu city is usually much cooler than Kyoto, and only a 10 minute ride from Kyoto Station! Miidera temple complex in Otsu offers shady walkways and cooling breezes from the lake as you ascend the hillside steps to a variety of colorful temple buildings. Farther up the western coast of Lake Biwako is Hiyoshi Shrine, a forested paradise of exceptional natural beauty. Nearby is a cable car that takes you up Mt. Hiei, so you can do a full day loop through Shiga, up Mt. Hiei, and then down the west side of the mountain back into Kyoto.
Osaka and Kobe are also great day trips out of Kyoto that offer cool ocean breezes. If swimming is your preferred way to beat the heat, head up to Omi Maiko beach in Shiga via the JR Kosei line from Kyoto Station. One of the best beaches in the region and occasionally frequented by some colorful local characters (that's a nice way to say Japanese mafia).
Additional Helpful Products
Walk into a drugstore and you'll immediately see a display of summer goods to help you cool down. From spray to give your tshirt an icy tingle, to cool body wipes that dry you off, the selection is endless. I particularly like the patches you put in the freezer or refrigerator and then stick on your forehead. The special fabric collars that you wet in cold water and then wrap around your neck are also excellent for outdoor activities. Salt candies that help to replenish the nutrients that you loose when sweating are also popular, and everyone has been sucking on these this summer. Try some of these useful goods out for yourself and see what cools you off best.
Good luck this summer, and make sure to drink plenty of water!