Kyoto is one of the best places to enjoy autumn foliage in Japan. The leaves usually start to turn red from middle of November, peak around the last week of November finally tapering off by middle of December. The best time to go? Last days of November to first week of December. You can be assured of catching the flaming red foliage whether the season starts earlier or later.
Get Ready To Pay
Due to the surge in demand during autumn, be prepared to pay to enter temples where usually they are free. So line your pockets with lots of ¥¥¥.
Consider getting the day Bus or Subway Passes. The 1-Day Bus & Subway Passes cost 600¥ each and allow either unlimited bus or train rides within a restricted area. The combined Bus+Subway 1-Day Pass costs 900¥ and is good for further places like Ohara. There’s also a Bus+Subway 2-Day Pass (1700¥). For more details, refer to this comprehensive Pass Guide. Note that these Passes do not cover travel on the Hankyu Line.
Ok, without further ado, here’s the sample itinerary.
Day 1 – Tokyo-Kyoto/Tofukuji
From Tokyo to Kyoto it takes half a day. Do that in the morning. In the afternoon, explore the Kyoto Station area (lots of shopping below and above ground) then get on a train to Tofukuji (JR Nara Line). Alight at Tofukuji Station and follow the signs to the temple. It’s a 10-minute walk but you hardly feel it because it is a very nice one, especially in the late afternoon.
The highlight of the 784-year-old Tokukuji 東福寺 is the Tsutenkyo Bridge 通天橋. The view from the Bridge is spectacular during peak autumn period. Admission closes at 4pm but they will still let you pass the Bridge after that (free). Temple gates close at 430pm.
Day 2 – Sanzen-in/Ruriko-in/Jisso-in
These 3 temples are all in the north-east area so you can cover them on the same day.
Take the Karasuma Line to Kokusaikaikan Station 国際会館駅, the first station on the Karasuma Line. Go by Exit 4-1, take the lift up to level 1, the bus terminal is right in front. The Kyoto Bus 19 bound for Ohara 大原 is at bus stop #3. Bus 19 also stops outside Exit 1 and Ruriko-in. During peak season, there are additional express buses which make the usual 20-minute route in 10 minutes.
Take Bus 19 to the Ohara terminus station. Cross the road and follow the signs up slope to Sanzen-in 三千院. The meandering walk uphill takes about 10-15 minutes.
Sanzen-in is by far, one of my favourite temples. Be there early to beat the crowd (opens 830am). Before you enter the temple, spend some time walking the outer grounds because it is so beautiful and much less crowded. Buy your entrance ticket (700¥) at the door then get ready to be mesmerised by the beautiful gardens inside. Plan to spend spend 1-2 hours walking inside.
After Sanzen-in, take Bus 19 back to Ruriko-in 瑠璃光院. Cross the bridge to purchase tickets first. By then the crowd will have built up so you can only buy tickets to enter 1-2 hours later. Use this time to get a quick lunch from the pop-up stores nearby (lunch options are limited). If you are in for some up-class options, there are some international restaurants at the 4-star resort/hotel XIV Kyoto Yase Rikyu nearby.
Ruriko-in’s entrance fee is a whopping 2000¥. Bring your ticket, look for the signboard indicating your entrance time and join the queue. Then, like pre-school kids, you will be led to the entrance where you join another queue to enter. Not a bad idea to stop people from blocking the small entrance taking selfies. But not very fun.
Ruriko-in is small. It is famous for the iconic photos of autumn foliage reflected on its lacquered floor and a square table. That’s why you will see a heap of 20-30 tourists crouched over the table attempting to land a shot. Then there’s another room where people are hunched over low tables writing sutra scripts in front of yet another well endowed window (nice red leaves stretching to fill up the canvas). No way I can be zen with so many people disturbing the peace.
After these 2 rooms, the rest of the temple can be finished quickly. Overall, the 2000¥ feels like a rip-off even if Ruriko-in is known as one of the most beautiful temple in Kyoto. Maybe the 2000¥ will make its worth felt during peak autumn season.
After Ruriko-in, hop back onto Bus 19, get off at the Kitano stop, then cross the road to take Bus 24 to Jisso-in 実相院. Bus 24 will deposit you right outside the main gate of Jisso-in.
Jisso-in is even smaller than Ruriko-in (500¥) and it too can boast that it has an equally famous photo of the autumn foliage reflection but it goes further: no photograph of that sacrilege spot is permitted.
Besides that Jisso-in has a smallish stone raked garden which is a peaceful haven after Ruriko-in. The main room is just as tranquil – perfect for recuperating from the mental torment caused by crowds and tourists.
After you are done taking in the positive energy at Jisso-in, walk out and take Bus 24 back to Kokusaikaikan Station.
Day 3 – Takao Area Jingo-ji/Saimyo-ji/Kosan-ji
Should you do Takao 高雄 on a Sunday? No, you don’t want to jostle with the weekenders. But if you still want to do it, go really early. Be at the JR 3 bus stop outside Kyoto Station before 8am. The bus ride is a whopping 50 minutes so sit if you can.
Tip 1: The bus ride is covered by the JR Pass.
Tip 2: Always board a popular-route bus at the first stop.
Make Jingo-ji 神護寺 your 1st stop. Alight at Yamashiro-Takao 山城高雄 and take the steps (behind the bus stop) down to Kiyotaki 清滝.
Cross the bridge and you will come to a flight of steep stairs that climbs upwards with no end in sight. Climb it anyway because the almost 1200 year-old Jingo-ji is worth it. This is not really recommended for old folks with mobility issues but if they are fit, cheer them on.
The view along the way is gorgeous (Takao turns red earlier than the rest of Kyoto). On the way down, take a breather at one of the 3 tea houses basking luxuriantly under the maple trees. Sip some tea, eat a bowl of soba and watch the world go by.
Retrace your steps to the river, cross the bridge then follow the signs (along route 138) to Saimyo-ji 西明寺and Kosan-ji 高山寺. You are walking on a car-road but there are few cars so it is quite pleasant.
Officially, Saimyoji is known as Makiozan Saimyo-ji 槇尾山 西明寺. Follow 138 until you come to a little red bridge with a tiny wooden ticket-hut at the end. This is Shigetsukyo指月橋 and is the approach to Saimyoji. In autumn, the bridge becomes a maple tunnel and is enchanting.
Continue on 138 until the road merges with Route 162, Shuzan-Kaido. Turn left at the junction for Kosan-ji, officially known as Toganōsan Kōsan-ji 栂尾山 高山寺. It’s a 10-minute walk.
Kosan-ji is a UNESCO Heritage Site and is renowned for 3 things: pictorial scrolls dating from the Heian era hailed as Japan’s first manga, the first cultivated tea plantation in Japan and the gorgeous momiji path in autumn. Unfortunately, the September 2018 typhoon toppled 300 cedar and cypress trees, damaged the roofs of its buildings so it is now undergoing restoration. Looks like it will not be open for at least the next 2 years.
Replicas of the manga scrolls are housed in Sekisui-in 石水院, a tiny temple just outside the main temple grounds. Entrance fee is 800¥ which is a hefty price to pay just to see replicas (the originals are at Tokyo National Museum). A better option (and free) is to walk down the path outside Sekisui-in to the backyard. There, steps leading down to Route 162 bring you directly to the Toganobus stop for the bus back to Kyoto.
On the way back you may want to visit Kitano Tenmangu which has hundreds of maple trees in its beautifully landscaped garden. I didn’t go but here’s a beautiful video by Japan BackpackersXpress that showed it all.
Day 4 – Arashiyama area, Jojakko-ji/Daikaku-ji/Jikishi-an
There’s a lot to cover at Arashiyama so aim to arrive by 8am. I prefer taking a bus because I get to Arashiyama directly in under 45 minutes. From Karasuma-Gojo, take bus 73.
Move aside bamboo grove! In autumn, the vibrant colours, they which flourish unabashedly in the temples, dominate the competition completely. Explore the outer area of Tenryuji 天龍寺 first (free); you may be rewarded with clusters of pink and red. After that, move on to the bamboo grove, walk the full length of it until you reach the end. Turn right Jōjakkō-ji 常寂光寺; on the way, you will pass Torokko Arashiyama Station and Ogura Pond.
Jōjakkō-ji’s austere main gate belies what lies inside. The footpath after the ticket box (500¥) leads immediately to a foliage framed entrance. Cross the threshold and you will be greeted by gorgeous maple-lined steps climbing up to the main temple. When you are almost there, have a look-back at the beautiful scene before you. Jōjakkō-ji is small but every inch of it is beautifully landscaped. If you can only visit 1 temple in Arashiyama, make it Jōjakkō-ji.
From Jojakko-ji, retrace your path back to the bamboo forest but go straight instead of turning left. This brings you to the Arashiyama Park Observation Deck which yields a nice panaroma of the river. From the Deck, there are trails that you can follow down to the river bank. Have soba at the famous Arashiyama Yoshimura.
After lunch, if you can, cover Hōgon-in 宝厳院 first. Then take a taxi to Daikaku-ji 大覚寺 (taxi fare ~700¥, entrance fee 500¥). As a former imperial residence turned temple, Daikakuji’s layout and building design differ quite substantially from the rest.
Keep your ears peeled as you walk on the corridor that connects the buildings. Known as ‘Nightingale Boards’ 鴬張り (Uguisubari), they sound like birds chirping and was meant to warn occupants in those days of yore when intruders visit.
Retain your ticket for entry to the Osawa Pond 大沢池 and garden after you are done with the main compound. Walk back to the main road (Route 136) then turn left towards the pond.
From Daikaku-ji, it is a 10-15 minute walk to Jikishi-an 直指庵 through a quiet rural neighbourhood.
Jikishi-an (500¥) is a small temple with pretty paths and very few visitors. It should be stunning during peak autumn season.
After Jikishi-an, walk back to Daikaku-ji then take Bus 91 or Bus 28 back to Kyoto.
Day 5 – Komyo-ji, Nanzen-ji, Eikando, Shinnyodo
Take a train to Nagaokakyo Station 長岡京then take a bus (20, 22) to Komyoji. Nagaokakyo is such a quiet, organised town you won’t know that it was once, for 10 years, Japan’s capital (784-794).
Komyo-ji opens at 830am so target to arrive just before that. Komyo-ji is famous for it beautiful Momiji Sando (Path of Maples) which you will only get to see after you finish touring the main temple.
Instead of going through the main exit (where you will be accosted by pop up stores), go out by the side door on the left. You will know it when you see it. The momiji path looks best when all the maples turn red.
Have an early lunch at Furaibo 風来房 near Nagaokakyo Station (take a bus). Furaibo serves the most wonderful dan dan tsukemen (opens 1130am).
There are 6 types of soups to choose from, all named after great mythological beasts from Chinese folklore: White Tiger (Byakko), Black Tortoise (Genbu), Vermilion Bird (Suzaku), Yellow Dragon (Kouryu), Phoenix (Houou), Azure Dragon (Seiryu). By default, they are all spicy but you can ask for non-spicy versions.
Furaibo: Ōbari-8 Kōtari, Nagaokakyo, Kyoto 617-0833
Nanzen-ji 南禅寺 will always be packed to the brim with tourists but it does look better in autumn. Go ahead and pay 500¥ to climb up Sanmon 三門 for a panoramic view of the compound and skip the minor temples if you have no time.
After Nanzen-ji, continue on to to Eikando 永観堂 and Shinnoydo 真如堂 if there is still time but note that the temple gates close by 5pm.
Day 5.5 – Kiyomizudera
Kiyomizudera 清水寺 is best explored early. Really early. Be there by 730am because 8am is the time when it starts to get busy. To access the temple, take a bus and alight at either outside Matsudara-dori or Gojozaka. It is a 10 minute walk to Nio-mon, entrance to Kiyomizudera.
An alternative and more relaxed route is to take Bus 82 and alight along Route 116 near the Kyoto Shiei Shimizuyama Cemetery. There is a trail that cuts through the cemetery to the back gate of the temple. I assure you hardly anyone goes there.
As consolation, I decide to feast on these drool-worthy collections from Damien Douxchamps.
Visited 15-19 November 2019
References: Traditional Kyoto, JR Sagano Line, Arukumachi Kyoto Route Planner, Ohara Guide, Souda-Kyoto Autumn Foliage Update, Kyoto Off-the-Beaten Track Fall Foliage Itinerary Kyoto: Peak Colours 2019, The 15 Top Fall Color Spots in Kyoto