Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Japan in April to see the blooming cherry blossoms. Their undeniable and fragile beauty is one of the most fantastic views to be held. However, if you come to Japan in fall, you’ll get treated to sights of the equally impressive Momoji (Japanese maple) autumn leaves.
Locals and travelers agree that one of the best places to see fall colors in Japan is Kyoto. During this time of year, you can explore historic temples and shrines as the whole city comes alive in hues of red, orange, and gold. The following is our travel guide to the best times and places to see autumn foliage in Kyoto.
1) Togetsukyo Bridge
The Arashiyama district in the suburbs of Kyoto was the Heian period nobles' favorite vacation destination. Thousands of maple trees pepper the surrounding mountains and draw visitors from all over the world as they change colors. One of the best places to take in the view is from the Togetsukyo Bridge, which is a masterpiece of traditional Japanese aesthetics and architecture.
2) Tofukuji Temple
Locals rank Tofukuji Temple at the top of their lists of places with the best autumn colors in Kyoto. Visitors can catch the most spectacular views as they cross the Tsutenkyo Bridge, which spans over a lush valley. Continuing through the complex, you’ll see the temple’s massive buildings and gates, some of which date back to the 1300s. Tofukuji Temple is also famous for its several gardens that employ different styles of Japanese sensibilities.
3) Kiyomizu Temple
Kiyomizu Temple is one of Kyoto’s most visited landmarks. The Main Halls sits on a massive wooden stage that overlooks maples and cherry blossoms. After taking in the view, you can follow the walking path along the mountain to see the cityscape. Or, you can take the staircase down to the Otowa Waterfall and explore the forest floor.
4) Kodaiji Temple
As the sun sets on Kodaiji Temple, strategically placed lights illuminate the maple leaves. The breathtaking sight becomes twice as lovely as the branches reflect on the surface of the temple’s central pond. Fall festivals like this happen all over Kyoto as the leaves reach the height of their colors, so the exact dates slightly vary from year to year, but generally begin in mid-November.
5) Nanzenji Temple
Nanzenji is a large complex of Buddhist temples near the Philosopher’s Path and within walking distance of Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion). Its sub-temples, Nanzenin and Tenjuan, are particularly attractive in the fall and host night festivals. During the day, visitors love to see the displays of painted fusuma (sliding doors) in the Hojo and the Zen Buddhist rock gardens on the grounds.
6) Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle was the home of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the relatively peaceful Edo period. Its buildings are among the best surviving examples of Japanese castle architecture from the feudal era. Plum and sakura trees bloom in the gardens in late winter and early spring. In autumn, thousands of gingko and maple leaves take their place.
7) Kinkakuji Temple
Kinkakuji (the Gold Pavilion) is a Buddhist temple with a “shining” reputation. Gold leaf covers the top two floors of the impressive main building, which sparkles in the central pond below. Several maples surround Kinkakuji and lead you through the massive gardens that populate the temple’s grounds.
8) Fushimi Inari Shrine
Most visitors go to Fushimi Inari Shrine to see its thousands of vermillion torii gates. After passing through the main sections, many people turn around and continue to their next destination. However, they’re missing out on the other colors on the mountain. Continuing up the trails of Inariyama, not only will you find more gates and small shrines, but thousands of trees turning several shades that match the famous torii.
9) Kyoto Imperial Palace Park
The imperial family lived at this palace until they moved to Tokyo in 1868. The Kyoto Gyoen Park surrounds the grounds and is home to several types of trees and plants for your strolling pleasure. Some places in Kyoto tend to get crowded in the fall, but the Kyoto Gyoen park is so large, you’ll have no trouble viewing the Momoji trees at your pace.
10) Tenryuji Temple
UNESCO World Heritage Site Tenryuji Temple is one of the most tranquil places where you can see autumn foliage. After visiting the dedication room to Emperor Go-Daigo, head back to entrance where you can view the Zen and landscaped gardens. The central garden is home to several maple trees and also provides an unobstructed view of the surrounding mountains.
Generally speaking, the autumn season in Japan starts in September and lasts through December. However, if you schedule your vacation in Japan from the first of September, you might save on airfare, but probably won't see very many leaves changing colors. Temperatures in the northern regions like Tohoku and Hokkaido start to cool down in September, but these areas usually don’t start seeing autumn leaves until closer to October.
The length of Japan’s archipelago supports several climates, and Kyoto tends to stay warm until the middle of the season. Although the exact dates of when the leaves change colors vary from year to year, you can start seeing a few here and there around early November. By mid-November, they turn their brightest hues and last through the first two weeks of December.
1) See the Autumn Leaves at Night
Around Kyoto, several temples and shrines stay open late and hold illumination festivals. Exact dates and times differ by location because they wait until the foliage turns its most radiant colors. Any of these celebrations are well worth the visit to see the lustrous hues against the starry skies.
2) Watch Geisha Perform the Gion Odori
In early November, you can watch Geisha and Maiko perform traditional dances during the Gion Odori. Most of these kinds of events take place during the cherry blossom season, and this is the only one of its kind in fall. By reservation, you can partake in a tea ceremony before the show begins.
3) Eat over the River in Pontocho in September
You might not see any leaves in Kyoto in September, but you can enjoy dining along the Kamogawa River in the lively Pontocho district. From May to September, restaurants in this area set up temporary platforms so that guests can dine outside and take in the view.
4) Ride the Sagano Scenic Train
If you want to see the sights but skip the crowds, hop aboard one of the Sagano Scenic Railway's old-fashioned trains and ride through the winding mountain paths. The line runs between Arashiyama and Kameoka and takes about 25 minutes to complete its route.
5) Stay in a Ryokan Onsen Hotel
During your stay in Kyoto, take the opportunity to experience a traditional Japanese inn. You can find the best ryokans outside of the city center. After a long day of dashing between some of Japan’s most beautiful sights, nothing is better than relaxing in a hot springs bath under the shade of a Momoji tree.