During our latest trip to Japan, we stayed in Kyoto for 11 nights. As this time we visited this beautiful city in autumn, I will share with you my Kyoto in Autumn guide.
Japan is all about seasons. Everything is seasonal and many temples and gardens have been built with that in mind. No matter what season you visit, there will always be something nice to see. However, I find that there are places that shine more during a specific time of the year. In this guide, I will share with you some of the best places where you can enjoy the beautiful autumn colours in Kyoto.
I have already shared with you my posts on Uji, Ohara, Takao, and Arashiyama. They are all day-trips you can make from Kyoto that are an absolute must in autumn, so make sure to check those posts out too!
But let’s talk about Kyoto city.
Ginkakuji (also known as the Silver Pavilion) is a Zen temple in Higashiyama. It was originally built as in 1482 as shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s retirement villa. The villa was converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimasa’s death.
Today, Ginkakuji consists of the Silver Pavilion, half a dozen other temple buildings, a beautiful moss garden, and a unique dry sand garden.
The area is enjoyed by walking along a circular route around its grounds, from which the gardens and buildings can be viewed.
The first thing you see when you enter is the meticulously maintained dry sand garden, known as the “Sea of Silver Sand”, with a massive sand cone named “Moon Viewing Platform”. Next to the garden stands the Hondo (main hall).
The walking path then takes visitors through Ginkakuji’s moss garden, which features ponds with islands and bridges, little streams and various plants. The path climbs a hill behind the buildings from where there are nice views of the entire temple grounds and the city beyond.
At the end, you get to enjoy some closer views of the Silver Pavilion before exiting the grounds.
Lovely in all the seasons (we saw this in spring as well), I really liked the autumn colours here!
The Philosopher’s Path (aka Tetsugaku no michi) is a pleasant stone path through the northern part of Kyoto’s Higashiyama district. The path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University.
Approximately two kilometres long, the path begins around Ginkakuji and ends near Nanzenji.
The path follows a canal which is lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Usually, in early April these trees explode with colour, making this one of the city’s most popular cherry blossom viewing spots. However, I love this area in all seasons (we have visited in spring, winter, and autumn!).
Restaurants, cafes, and boutiques can be found along the path, as well as a number of smaller temples and shrines which are a short walk from the canal.
The most notable of the temples off the Philosopher’s Path (and one of my all-time favourites!) is Honen-in, with an entrance moss-covered gate that is quite spectacular especially during the autumn leaf season.
Once inside, you will pass between two sand mounds that are said to purify the visitor.
You then cross a lovely stone bridge over a pond and then make your way through a moss-covered garden to find yourself at a secret grotto behind the main hall.
Here you can find a beautiful bronze statue of Amida Buddha. And Buddha’s footprints.
I love Honen-in, so I may be biased, but having visited it in spring, winter, and autumn I can easily say that even though it ALWAYS deserves a visit, autumn is definitely the best time to see it.
Off the beaten tracks of Kyoto, Shinnyodo is a beautiful autumn colour spot which provides lovely autumn colours usually around late November.
Shinnyodo’s grounds encompass quite a large area with multiple buildings, including a three-storied pagoda.
This place was a beautiful surprise.
Yoshida Shrine is a very important Shinto shrine. It is also very close to Kyoto University.
We briefly saw a ceremony when we visited it.
Kurodani Temple/Konkai Komyoji
A short walk south from Shinnyodo Temple, Kurodani Temple is a large Buddhist temple complex with some impressively large gates and halls.
The temple grounds have a number of sub-temples and the main gate to the south is particularly impressive in scale.
During autumn, the temple opens its back garden, which is amazing!
Look at the autumn colours!
There is also a beautiful pond.
We even managed to see winter sakura!
The historic cemetery just outside it contains the graves of Aizu clan warriors, who were stationed on the temple grounds during the final days of the Edo Period, and later killed at the Battle of Fushimi-Toba.
Sekizan Zen-in Temple
Located in the northeastern area of Kyoto not far from the Shūgaku-in Imperial Villa, Sekizan Zen-in is a relatively small Buddhist temple. It is also one of the temples on Kyoto’s Seven Gods of Fortune pilgrimage circuit, venerating Fukurokuju, the god of wisdom and longevity. He is traditionally portrayed as a bald old man with a very high forehead, and the small Fukurokuju figurines that hold the omikuji fortunes offered at the temple are shaped exactly like that!
Sekizan Zen-in is particularly beautiful in autumn when its lush maple foliage turns red.
With a big torii gate as a starting point, the passage going through the temple gate is lined with colourful flags, and you will also notice a gigantic stone lantern immediately beyond the gate. The temple complex of Sekizan Zen-in lies atop a short flight of stairs, with a water basin for purification on the right and a prayer hall at the front.
Right in the middle of the roof of the prayer hall, you will see a statue of a monkey sitting under a metal net. It is holding a gohei, a wooden wand decorated with zigzag streamers, and suzu bells, both of which are used in rituals for exorcising negative energy. The monkey serves as a sacred guardian.
Soon, you will come across two large rings of wooden prayer beads, one at the temple’s main hall and another near the end of the route past the Fudō-dō hall. Think of a wish when you step through the first ring and continue to meditate until you pass through the second. If the wish still feels important, pray to the deity for help in your effort to make it come true. Be careful not to step on the beads, as they have the wishes of many people inscribed on them!
In a spot between the hall enshrining Jizō and the hall dedicated to Benzaiten, one of the seven gods of fortune, you will see 16 moss-covered stone statues of arhats and 33 statues of Kannon against a bamboo grove backdrop. Arhats are disciples of Buddha who have attained enlightenment but remain in the world, protecting the Buddhist faith.
Here too we managed to see winter sakura.
Manshu-in is a Buddhist temple close to the Shugakuin Imperial Villa. The temple is also called Monzeki temple, indicating that it used to be headed by priests of imperial or aristocratic lineage in the past.
Manshu-in temple is known for the paintings by leading artists that decorate the sliding doors (fusuma) and folding screens (byobu) in its various rooms.
The temple’s garden is a nice representation of karesansui, whereby raked gravel is used instead of water. There are two islets in this artistic sea of pebbles, one of which accommodates a 400-year-old pine tree in the shape of a crane.
Manshu-in is known for its beautiful autumn colours.
Enkoji Temple is located in northern Kyoto close to the Shugakuin Imperial Villa. It is famous for its autumn colours which are usually best in late November.
At the entrance, there is a nice zen garden.
In its courtyard, Enkoji has a beautiful garden with a pond and many maple trees. It provides lovely views of greenery in summer and stunning autumn colours.
Do not miss the short climb up the hill behind the garden, from where a bird’s eye view of the temple and the city can be seen.
Another feature of the garden is an underground water basin that allows visitors to appreciate the delicate sound of dripping water.
There is also a beautiful bamboo grove.
Shisendo Temple is in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district. Former samurai, Chinese classics scholar, and landscape architect Ishikawa Jozan built the shrine in 1641 as a retirement villa.
The shrine is known for its karesansui, or dry landscape garden, which is especially beautiful in the spring when filled with bluish-purple azaleas. These flowering bushes symbolize islands in the sea and add to the garden’s tranquil charm.
However, this temple is beautiful also in autumn.
A small temple located in northwest Kyoto, Genkō-an is a Soto Zen temple that is famous for its original windows.
People come from all over the world to sit in front of the “Window of Confusion” and the “Window of Enlightenment” in quiet contemplation.
The rectangular window is known as the “Window of Confusion”, with each of the four corners representing the suffering mortals are destined to go through in their life: birth, old age, disease, and death. Beside it is the circular “Window of Enlightenment”, whose lack of corners represents the Zen concept of the universe and an enlightened life beyond the pain of mortality. These two windows and the view through them are most famous in autumn. They are really breathtaking.
With a history spanning centuries, a somewhat macabre draw of the temple are its so-called “bloody ceilings”, which are made from the floorboards at the site of a mass ritual suicide.
During the Warring States Period a great battle took place at Fushimi Momoyama Castle in 1600 between the forces of Torii Mototada, entrusted with the castle’s defense by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Ishida Mitsunari. Faced with overwhelming odds and impending defeat, Torii and his remaining forces committed ritual suicide. Once Tokugawa defeated his enemies and became the shogun, he ordered the blood-stained floorboards be installed as the ceilings of several temples, most notably: Genkō-an, Hōsen-in, and Yōgen-in. If you look up at Genkō-an’s temple ceiling, you can see the bloody hand and footprints of warriors who died four hundred years ago, as well as the imprint of a man’s armored side in browned old blood.
Beyond its architectural and historical features, the temple is also home to a charming garden.
The whole area near Koetsuji Temple (which is very close to Genko-an) was given by the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa to the artist Honami Koetsu (1558-1637), who constructed an artist’s colony here and invited many of his friends and family to come and live.
Koetsu was a master of many arts including sword polishing, calligraphy, ceramics, lacquer, and the Japanese tea ceremony.
Koetsu’s interest in the tea ceremony is reflected in the layout of Koetsuji Temple, which rather than containing religious halls consists instead of a number of tea houses (seven in total) set in a strolling tea garden.
Koetsuji Temple is well-known for its lovely garden which is particularly popular during the autumn leaf viewing season in Kyoto and for its cherry blossoms. At the end of the garden, there are views down over Kyoto city.
Maruyama Park is beautiful all year round. It is very close to Yasaka Jinja (my favourite area of Kyoto).
It is lovely in autumn too!
The Kyoto Imperial Palace used to be the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family until 1868 when the emperor and capital were moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. It is located in the spacious Kyoto Imperial Park.
The complex is enclosed by long walls and consists of several gates, halls and gardens.
Formerly only accessible on guided tours that required advance reservations, the palace grounds can now be entered and explored without joining a tour and without any prior arrangements.
Visitors can see the palace buildings and gardens, but note that none of the buildings can be entered.
Shorenin is a Buddhist temple in Higashiyama. It is one of the city’s monzeki temples, which are temples whose head priests were traditionally members of the imperial family. A winding route takes visitors through Shorenin’s various temple buildings and gardens.
This is a big favourite of mine!
After passing through the entrance, you first walk through the Kachoden drawing-room. The drawing room opens up to a garden with a pond, which you can admire from the building while sitting on tatami mats.
You can also stroll around the garden paths to get a closer look.
There is also a small shrine and a bamboo grove. Spread out in front of the Shinden is a moss garden that is surrounded by massive camphor trees. Every spring and fall the temple is open for special evening hours, during which the gardens are dramatically illuminated.
Eikando is yet another Buddhist temple. Located just north of the large temple complex of Nanzenji, Eikando is very famous for its autumn colours and the evening illuminations that take place in autumn.
Eikando’s main buildings are built alongside the base of the hillside and are connected by wooden corridors.
Eikando’s most recognizable building, however, is its Tahoto Pagoda, which is nestled in the trees on the hillside above the temple’s other buildings. Tahoto style pagodas are two-story structures, whose first stories are square and second stories are round.
You can walk up to the pagoda, from where the rest of the temple grounds and the city of Kyoto can be seen. The view from the pagoda is particularly attractive in autumn when the maple trees of the temple grounds are changing colours. So beautiful!
Another attractive spot during autumn is the Hojo Pond, with its attractive garden.
Nanzenji Temple is one of the most important Zen temples in all of Japan and it includes multiple sub-temples.
Nanzenji’s central temple grounds are open to the public free of charge, but separate fees apply for entering temple buildings and sub-temples. Visitors will first come across Nanzenji’s massive Sanmon entrance gate, which extends over the treetops.
We had already visited Nanzenji in the past, so we just strolled around the gardens to enjoy the autumn foliage.
I particularly like the large brick aqueduct that passes through the temple grounds.
Built during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the aqueduct is part of a canal system that was constructed to carry water and goods between Kyoto and Lake Biwa.
Kodaiji is a beautiful Zen Buddhist temple in Higashiyama. It was established in 1606 in memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s greatest historical figures, by Hideyoshi’s wife Nene who is also enshrined at the temple.
Kodaiji’s main buildings were constructed in the lavish style of the era of Japan’s unification with the financial support of Hideyoshi’s successor Tokugawa Ieyasu. They feature richly decorated interiors and are surrounded by beautiful Zen gardens which are lit up during special illumination shows in spring and autumn.
One of the gardens is a rock garden consisting of a large field of raked gravel meant to represent the vast ocean.
The other garden is an impressive tsukiyama style garden featuring a pond, man-made hills, decorative rocks, and beautiful pine and maple trees. That’s why it gets so beautiful in autumn!
Up on the hillside behind the temple lies a mausoleum for Hideyoshi and Nene. The interior is richly decorated with special lacquer work.
The return path to the temple buildings passes through a bamboo grove.
From here you can also see part of the city.
And the massive Kannon statue of nearby Ryozen Kannon Temple!
Tofukuji is a large Zen temple in southeastern Kyoto, not far from Fushimi Inari, that is particularly famous for its spectacular autumn colours.
In autumn, people come from all over Japan to see Tofukuji’s autumn colours.
The most popular view is of the Tsutenkyo Bridge overlooking a valley of lush maple trees.
The view from the bridge is equally spectacular, and the covered walkway becomes extremely crowded when the colours reach their peak in mid to late November.
The tall Sanmon Gate is the oldest Zen gate of its kind, dating back to 1425.
The Hojo, the head priest’s former living quarters, is one of Tofukuji’s two paid areas (the other one being the Tsutenkyo Bridge).
Rock gardens were often built alongside hojo buildings, but the gardens at Tofukuji’s Hojo are unique for surrounding the building on all sides.
Each garden has a different character, employing pebbles, large rocks, moss, trees, and checkered patterns.
This place was amazing. We loved it. However, even if we arrived pretty early, it was packed with people. So be advised!
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates and trails that lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari.
However, this time we somehow we got sort of lost! So, instead of reaching the top, we ended up on a side trail.
On the way down we arrived at this shrine that features a pair of guardian frogs. In the middle of the Torii, you will see an offertory box called “Fuku-kaeru” (happiness returns) with a pun on kaeru, meaning both “frog” and “return.”
It was absolutely breathtaking. However, be prepared for the crowds!!
The temple buildings were beautifully lit.
And so were the maple trees.
Check out the view!
We stayed in a rental house (Kiyomizu Machiya Inn) in Kyoto, check it out here.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN KYOTO
We found that the best way to get around Kyoto is by bus (or on foot) as the bus network connects most major sights in the city.
The tourist offices provide a useful English network map for the Kyoto City Buses, which makes it quite easy for foreign visitors to access tourist attractions by bus. We also had maps provided in our house.
We had heard that buses tend to be slow, but we never had a problem. They can get quite crowded in peak hours, but not more than in any other big city around the world.
Buses are entered through the back door and left through the front door. The fare has to be paid when leaving the bus.
There are two subway lines in Kyoto, the Karasuma Line which runs from south to north along Karasuma-dori and stops at JR Kyoto Station, and the Tozai Line which runs from east to west and crosses the Karasuma Line at the intersection of Karasuma-dori and Oike-dori. But we never used the subway.
All JR lines including the Tokaido Shinkansen pass through or commence at JR Kyoto Station. JR trains are a good option for accessing the Arashiyama area (Sagano Line) and some attractions in southern Kyoto along the JR Nara Line, like Fushimi Inari.
Keifuku Railways (also known as Randen) operates two tram-like train lines in north-western Kyoto. For train lovers, a ride on these trains is a small attraction by itself, both because the cars are really nice and for the beautiful panorama that you get to see, especially around Ryoanji.
Kyoto Sightseeing Card – Unlimited use of Kyoto’s two subway lines and of Kyoto City Buses and Kyoto Buses in central Kyoto and outskirts, including Arashiyama, Takao and Ohara.
Kyoto One Day Bus Card – Unlimited use of Kyoto City Buses and Kyoto Buses in central Kyoto and Arashiyama on one calendar day. Unlike the Kyoto Sightseeing Card (see above), the one-day bus card does not cover other outlying areas such as Takao and Ohara. This is what we used. You validate it with the machine only the first time you ride the bus, to print the date on it and then you show it to the driver every time you get down the bus. Easy.
Kyoto Subway One Day Card – Unlimited use of Kyoto’s two subway lines on one calendar day.
Prepaid cards like SUICA (or ICOCA) don’t give you any discounts, but they make the process of taking trains and buses easier, as you do not always need to buy a new ticket for each ride.
RESOURCES ON MSM
TRAVEL IN JAPAN:
Don’t forget to pin this Kyoto by Night guide!
HOW TO GET TO KYOTO
You can easily reach Kyoto by Shinkansen. It takes about 2.5 to 3 hours from Tokyo and 1.5 hours from Hiroshima. Kyoto is also just a half-hour away from Osaka.