As the year comes to a close, Kyoto dons its vibrant autumn cloak, transforming into a picturesque canvas of reds, oranges, and golds. Known for its breathtaking fall foliage, Japan’s old capital offers a plethora of spots where you can immerse yourself in its seasonal beauty. Here are some must-visit locations for a memorable autumn experience.
When’s the best time to see Kouyou in Kyoto?
The best time to see Kouyou (Japanese for the “changing of the leaves”) and Momiji (Japanese for red maple leaves) can vary dramatically depending on where you are. In Kyoto, most leaves are in peak season around mid November. That being said, some areas mentioned here (namely Mt. Hiei and Kifune Shrine) frequently peak towards the beginning of November. You can double check the official Kyoto Travel Guide Autumn Leaves Calendar as well (as of writing it hasn’t been updated yet for 2023, but it should be within the coming weeks.) Without further ado, on to our recommended spots!
1. Kiyomizu Temple
Undoubtedly one of Kyoto's most iconic landmarks, Kiyomizu Temple provides a stunning vantage point to witness the city's autumnal transformation. The view from the main stage (Kiyomizu Stage) is nothing short of magical, with a sea of fiery leaves stretching out below, framing the cityscape in a riot of color. As this is one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions, even outside of the Kouyou season, you can expect it to be quite busy.
2. Tofukuji Temple
Tofukuji Temple is renowned for its magnificent Tsutenkyo Bridge, which provides an awe-inspiring platform for leaf-peeping. A leisurely stroll through the temple's various gardens and pathways will lead you to enchanting scenes of maple trees ablaze with color. You can also enjoy Honbo Garden, Tofukuji’s renowned Zen garden, which surrounds the abbot’s quarters. Like Kiyomizu Temple, Tofukuji is an incredibly popular fall foliage spot, so we recommend going early in the morning on a weekday to beat the crowds.
3. Kitano Tenmangu Shrine and Momiji-en
Nestled in the Kamigyo ward not far from Kinkakuji, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is a haven for nature enthusiasts during autumn. The shrine's meticulously manicured gardens and ancient camphor trees burst into fiery brilliance, creating a captivating atmosphere. Stroll through the pebbled paths and enjoy the over 300 Japanese maple trees planted alongside the Tenjin River at Momiji-en as well. During the fall foliage season, this area of the shrine is illuminated at night! It's a stunning way to enjoy autumn’s natural beauty, making Kitano Tenmangu Shrine a must-visit spot for Kouyou aficionados.
4. Kodaiji Temple
Steeped in history and surrounded by meticulously designed gardens, Kodaiji Temple is a prime location to witness the juxtaposition of traditional Japanese architecture against the vivid hues of fall. The temple's illuminated night views during autumn are particularly enchanting, as you can enjoy reflections of the vibrant foliage in the iconic Garyuchi Pond. Kodaiji Temple also features a light show using projection mapping every year! We recommend going later in the evening (after 8 PM) on a weeknight, as this is another incredibly popular spot for both tourists and locals alike.
5. Kyoto Gyoen (Imperial Palace Park)
Right in the heart of the city, Kyoto Gyoen provides a peaceful escape from the urban hustle and bustle. The vast park, which surrounds the Imperial Palace, transforms into a kaleidoscope of colors during autumn. It's an excellent spot for a leisurely stroll or a serene picnic amidst nature's autumnal symphony. The sheer amount of space available should help with crowding, as well. Speaking of escaping the crowds…
Interlude: Foliage Further Afield
These next few recommendations aren’t quite in Kyoto city proper, but if anything that gives you better chances to avoid the crowds. Some of the best fall foliage in the region are up in the mountains surrounding Kyoto, offering spectacular views of the city from above. Don’t worry, though! While these lovely locales aren’t in the city, each of these spots are still accessible via public transportation.
6. Mount Hiei and Enryaku-ji
For a unique perspective on Kyoto's fall foliage, make your way to Mount Hiei and Enryaku-ji. A short cable car ride from the base takes you to this mountain sanctuary. The sprawling complex and its dozens of temples offer sweeping vistas of Lake Biwa and the city, all enveloped in a sea of red and gold leaves. You can also enjoy the lovely views on the way up the mountain by riding the Eizan cable car and ropeway!
7. Kifune Shrine and Kurama-dera Temple
A bit off the beaten path to the north of Kyoto, Kifune Shrine offers a quieter, more secluded experience of Kyoto's autumn magic. The shrine's stone steps, flanked by vibrant trees, and the shrine’s iconic lanterns, create a mesmerizing pathway leading to the main hall. It's a place of tranquil beauty that should not be missed. Do note that this shrine is in the mountains, and consists of many winding stone staircases that are not handicap accessible.
Further recommendations and closing thoughts:
In addition to the spots we’ve listed here, there are plenty of other fall foliage spots worth checking out. Some recommendations from the Bento&co team have included:
Ohara - Sanzen-in Temple and Hosen-in Temple
The Sagano Romantic Train between Sagano and Kameoka
Kyoto Botanical Gardens
With its rich cultural heritage and stunning natural beauty, Kyoto is a destination that truly comes alive in the fall. These handpicked locations promise a sensory feast of autumn hues, ensuring an unforgettable experience. Don't miss the chance to witness Kyoto's fall foliage while you’re here – it's a spectacle well worth the crowds.
If you're looking for more ways to get in the autumnal spirit the Japanese way, check out our previous blog post on 4 Traditional Japanese Ways to Enjoy Fall.