The only way to see Kyoto, particularly in the peak season, is before 10am.
Anything later, and you’ve not only missed the most beautiful light, but also the opportunity to shoot without a crowd of equally fanatic photographers fighting for the best spots. So it is with the famous sakura tunnel along the Randen line in Kyoto.
Photography can bring out the worst in people.
Everyone wants the best shot possible. Usually the one we’ve all seen on a poster, or an Instagram post somewhere.
In larger spaces, like the Philosopher’s path, the effect is diluted thanks to its 2km length. But, on the narrow streets of Ninenzaka, near Kiyomizu, or on a tiny one-man carriage train, everyone, from foreign tourists to Japanese grandmas, become intent, aggressive, and opportunistic.
So Tip 1, is to wake up early. The Randen starts running a little after 5am. I arrived around 7am, which is a little late to be honest, and restricted the time I could take.
Tip 2, is to come from a less accessible direction: Kitano Hakubaicho, which is also near the beautiful Kitano Jinja and Kamishichiken, one of the five geisha districts.
I parked my bicycle next to a nearby passport photo booth, hoping this would prevent it from being removed and approached the small terminal. Randen is part of the Kyoto subway unlimited pass, or has a flat fare of 220 yen, payable as you exit the train.
The train arriving at Kitano Hakubaicho disgorged a huge amount of people, all travelling from Arashiyama or Shijo Omiya. At 7am, I only had to contend with one focused but blessedly short photographer.
Tip 3: Get off the train.
After exiting the sakura tunnel, get off at Narutaki, the next station. Nearby, a small street crossing offers the chance to see the trains passing, framed by sakura. Because this is a one line track, trains need to stop at the station to pass each other, and luckily this happens at Narutaki! So every 15 minutes, photographers can capture first one train passing, and, moments later, the other.
On first arriving, I watched an elderly senpai showing an equally wizened student how to dash into the middle of the tracks, as the gates rise, in order to capture the train disappearing through clouds of pink blooms.
In light of the earlier photo from Higashiyama, I feel I need to leave some cautionary notes. This is a car crossing, so do not lie down on the tracks. Also, beware the descending boom gate, as at least one grandma needed to be pulled from harm’s way.
After an hour, all angles seemingly exhausted, I returned to Narutaki station to chimes announcing the approaching train. I scanned the tracks, considering the potential for more snaps, only to notice a man perched up on a small mound nearby. He waved to me and graciously indicated the best spot.
Tip 4: This sakura season, and at all times, let’s all endeavour to be more like that man.