Everyone always talks about Kyoto at cherry blossom time or in the fall when the leaves are changing. And it’s true those are beautiful times here. But February is great because it snows. People tend to stay off the streets. The cafés are really crowded, galleries suddenly decide to have bossa nova concerts, and coffee shops can’t serve hot milk with matcha fast enough—in general, the whole town feels like one long après-ski party.
If you wander into Café Indépendants (cafe-independants.com) in the basement of the 1928 Building on an average given night, you’ll find people moving around from table to table, and it doesn’t take too long before you’re picked up and carried along by the energy of the place. When you finally make it outside after midnight with a belly full of the best crème brûlée in Kyoto, it’s often as if you’ve stepped into a silent snow globe.
When it snows hard—and some mornings last year I woke up to four new inches on the ground—it’s worth packing a thermos and heading for Kurama Onsen ($165 a night; www.kurama-onsen.co.jp), a bathhouse and inn about an hour’s hike over a nearby mountain. (The trailhead is a 20-minute ride from the city center on the old Kyoto train line, where the cars are all upholstered like a sixties living room.) All you can hear on the hike is the birds and the snow falling off trees. There are five or six small temples on the mountain, and you can tell you’re close by the smell of incense that comes right through the air.
You may run into one or two people on the trail, but it’s unlikely. You’re usually alone with your thoughts. The onsen is about a 15-minute walk up the road once you have crossed the mountain.
The particular delight of Kurama Onsen in winter is sitting naked in the hot water, your back resting against the Japanese cyprus-plank tub edge, and letting the thick snowflakes fall on your head. This leads to some jokes (at least on the men’s side of the onsen) because it evidently evokes a Japanese game played at home: One partner in the marriage gets really hot and the other partner stands out in the snow to get really cold, and then they, well, you get the picture. The view from the onsen of the surrounding valley is like something from a Hokusai painting, all waving, snow-covered trees.
Walking back to catch a train to Kyoto, you pass by Café Aurora (aquariel.com), an organic tea shop where you can sit on the floor, eat the fresh baked sugar cookies, and, I’d suggest, choose the strawberry-flavored tea from the selection of 25 that the waiters bring you to sniff at before you order. Finally, in what is probably a bit of redundant bliss, pick up a bag of candied yuzu peel at the shop next to the station for the train ride back. And then hope it snows again soon.