Surviving Kyoto (at New Year’s) in the Snow

Forget a white Christmas. How about a white New Year’s?

New Year’s Day started beautifully, with a crystal blue sky and nary a cloud in sight. By noon, however, the clouds had rolled in and the first few snowflakes began drifting down. By the time I finished lunch there was almost two inches of sticky wet snow clinging to everything. It looked like a winter wonderland — could this be Japan? I hadn’t seen snow like this here in over a decade. Then, the internal debate began — should I go to the shrine for hatsumode (the first Shinto shrine visit of the new year, usually done within the first three days)? On the one hand, the shrine in question, Fushimi Inari Shrine, arguably the most famous shrine in Kyoto, would be swarming with visitors. It receives 1-4 million people in the new year (accounts seem to vary on the actual numbers). On the other hand, it was cold and wet and that would likely keep people away. Plus, I might be able to get some atmospheric photos of the shrine in snow. So I went.

Fushimi Inari Shrine, New Years Day

Fushimi Inari Shrine, New Years Day

I thought it would be alright in that there weren’t that many people on the train going to the shrine, but I realised what a fallacy that was once I arrived. There were thousands and thousands of people there. There were men in uniforms actually controlling when people could enter or leave the train station. As always in these situations, it’s best to (literally) go with the flow. Follow the crowd and stick to their pace. Trying to get ahead will only lead in frustration, especially when you have thousands of people carrying umbrellas (as they do with falling snow here) and not really paying attention as to whether they’ll stick you in the eye with them or not. Surprisingly, the walk up to the shrine was not as bad as I would have thought, even with the entire walkway leading up the shrine full of vendors on each side selling everything from grilled mochi balls to large sausages on sticks. On my way up behind the shrine I passed  men emptying out the bulging collection boxes — I can only imagine how much money shrines bring in at new year’s — I wouldn’t be surprised if most of their income comes from the first three days of the new year.

Snow and umbrellas at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Snow and umbrellas at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Well, I have to admit it was very atmospheric walking through the torii gates with the snow, even with the people…but it was impossible to get any good photos because of both. Most snow that falls in Japan is the wet, sticky kind, and it was coming down in clumps. Not great for camera gear. And with the amount of people there, distracted (as most people are when they are in groups) and carrying weapons that will put your eyes out, it was actually kind of dangerous to stop and take a photo unless you could get off the main path somewhere. That being said, I saw plenty of people try to take photos within the gates, especially selfies, and they got totally knocked around — there were just too many people there for it to be safe to stop for anything. By the time I got to the first stop point I realised I was playing a losing game. So I bought some charms for the new year, and a hamaya (an arrow sold at new years to ward off misfortune and attract good luck). At Fushimi Inari you could choose an  eto-hamaya with one of four choices of a prayer/wish plaque (ema). Of course, as this is now the year of the sheep/ram (take your pick) they all featured sheep or rams of varying designs, but I chose one that had a large sheep and the red torii gates of Fushimi behind it. I really like it when shrines incorporate some feature of themselves onto the ema – my favourite of all time was one from Miyajima shrine in Hiroshima during the year of the snake – it had a very large snake going through the large torii gate Miyajima is famous for. With charms in hand and night falling I somehow made it home without falling, as now the slush was freezing into ice.

And the snow kept falling. So I knew I would be going to Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavillon) first thing in the morning. I’ve always wanted to photograph it in snow, and I knew that this would be my chance. I ended up getting there earlier than planned (about 30 minutes before opening) but I’m lucky I did. There were at least 250 people ahead of me, waiting for the gate to open. And there were probably 10 times that behind me by the time the gate opened. I’ve been to Kinkakuji probably more than any other site in Kyoto and thought I knew what to expect, but I was in for a shock. When the gates opened at nine there was a rush for the ticket counters like people trying to scramble for the remaining tickets of a nearly sold-out concert. I was in and out of there pretty quickly, but when I got to the viewing area it was already 3-4 deep with people.

The crowds at Kinkakuji

The crowds at Kinkakuji. It looks orderly and safe, but trust me, it’s not.

Luckily I knew that with patience it’s possible to get right up to fence, and I was lucky I did, because soon it was about 10-15 people deep and I was getting crushed against the ropes. People were under me, on top of me, crawling up on my camera bag. I’ve never seen such disregard for human life! Luckily I don’t panic in those types of crowds and know how to hold my ground, but at one point I had visions of people being trampled to death in Shanghai just a few days before and understood exactly how that had happened. I’ve seen Kinkakuji at other peak times of the year (cherry blossoms, maple leaf viewing), but none of those can come close to the press of humanity (if you can call it that) that was there to get a snapshot on their phone of the temple in the snow. I suppose the fact that it happens so rarely, coupled with people having not much to do while on new year holiday, made it the perfect storm of tourist madness.

Kinkakuji in the snow

Kinkakuji in the snow

I was finally able to escape the grounds. Less than an hour had passed since I entered, but already the number of people was increasing and the snow was melting. Huge clumps were raining down from the sky, freed from branches and power lines by the warming sun (and maybe birds). As I went to catch my bus I had to push past the thousands of people making their way to the front gate. If I thought 9:00 was bad, 10:00 was much worse! I quickly scuttled all other plans to visit other famous sites in the snow, knowing that it would be an exercise in frustration with the number of people and the very dangerous ice beneath my feet.

Looks like snow again tomorrow. Wonder where I’ll go next? 😉

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