Whereas the cherry blossom front begins in the south and ends in the north, it’s the other way around for autumn leaves. The viewing of autumn leaves in Kansai typically starts at around mid-November, and can last until early December. Now’s a great time to head to Western Japan and check out those beautiful leaves amid gorgeous scenery. Don’t know where to start? Maybe this guide will help!
Kyoto, in general, is one of Japan’s top spots to see autumn leaves, and that’s why it has an entire section of its own here. Take note: these are just a few of Kyoto’s beautiful foliage viewing spots; it’s no exaggeration that there are many places in Kyoto to see the autumn colors. It’s consequently unsurprising that Kyoto gets insanely crowded in autumn. If you’re planning to go there, better start making reservations already! Departing from Tokyo? Here are the fastest and cheapest ways to get to Kyoto. (And don’t be shocked if most transportation and accommodation options are pricey! As of this writing, though, Shiki no Tabi, which we wrote about previously, is still accepting bookings for a tour that departs from Tokyo on the night of December 2nd.)
Arguably Kyoto’s most popular temple, Kiyomizu-dera sees loads and loads of tourists each day, and expect even more of them in autumn. This huge, sprawling complex is the temple to see for those who are pressed for time and can’t visit too many temples in Kyoto. It’s in central Kyoto, and is covered by several bus routes. It has a very impressive view from the balcony in autumn, and if seeing them during the day isn’t enough, then stay until nighttime for their special illumination from November 14-December 6.
Address: 1-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward
Hours: (For the autumn season, Nov. 14-Dec. 6) 6:00 am-5:30 pm
Illumination: Nov. 14-Dec. 6, 6:00 pm-9:00 pm
Admission: 300 yen
Japan’s largest and oldest Zen temple, Tofukuji has gained national recognition for its Sanmon—Japan’s oldest Zen main gate, it was designated as a National Treasure—and its Honbo Garden, which has the honor of being a National Site of Scenic Beauty. See the beauty of Tofukuji for yourself this autumn, as the temple grounds are home to several maple trees. It’s an approximately 10-minute walk from JR’s or Keihan Railway’s Tofukuji Station, but it’s also accessible by bus.
Address: 15-778 Honmachi, Higashiyama Ward
Hours: (From November to early December) 8:30 am-4:30 pm (last entry: 4:00 pm)
Admission: 400 yen
3. Kitano Tenmangu
This long-standing Shinto shrine built in honor of Sugawara no Michizane, the god of wisdom and learning, has a garden that’s only open a few times a year for seasonal attractions such as plum blossoms and autumn scenery. The garden has about 250 maple trees that are about 300-400 years old, and you can enjoy them not only in their natural splendor during the day, but also lit up at night. The entrance may seem a bit steep, but just look at that scenery! Besides, entrance gets you a small sweet.
Address: Bakurocho, Kamigyo Ward
Hours: (Temple grounds from October to March) 5:30 am-5:30 pm, (garden, open only from Oct. 25-Dec. 6) 10:00 am-4:00 pm
Illumination: Nov. 14-Dec. 6, sundown-8:00 pm
Admission: Free for temple grounds; 700 yen for the garden
Kodaiji is a Zen Buddhist temple where warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi and his wife, Nene, are enshrined. (Nene also happens to be the founder of the temple.) Aside from its main hall (which used to be decorated with lacquer and gold before it burned down several times), it has some gardens, a bamboo grove, a museum (admission already included in the 600 yen fee), and even a sub-temple called Entoku-in (which requires a separate admission fee).
Address: 526 Shimogawara-cho, Higashiyama Ward
Hours: 9:00 am-5:30 pm (last entry: 5:00 pm)
Illumination: Oct. 23-Dec. 13 (except Dec. 11-12), sundown-10:00 pm (last entry: 9:30 pm)
Admission: 600 yen
This is the head temple of the Jodo (Pure Land) Buddhist sect; as such, its founder, Honen, is honored here. The temple grounds are extremely spacious; in fact, its Sanmon (main gate) is one of the largest in Japan. It has two gardens, one of which—the Hojo Garden—goes back all the way to the early Edo era and was designated as a Famous Scenic Spot of Kyoto. The other garden, Yuzen-en, has two teahouses; it also happens to be one of three sites in the temple grounds that will be illuminated nightly for most of November until early December. The other two sites are the Amida-dou (Amitabha Hall), which houses a 2.5-meter statue of the Buddha, and Kuromon, the Black Gate.
Address: 400 Rinkacho, Higashiyama Ward
Hours: 9:00 am-4:30 pm (last entry: 4:00 pm)
Illumination: Nov. 6-Dec. 5, 5:30 pm-9:00 pm
Admission: Free for temple grounds; 400 yen for Hojo Garden; 300 yen for Yuzen-en Garden; 500 yen for both gardens; 8oo yen for night illumination
This is not a temple, shrine, or garden; it’s an entire area in western Kyoto. With temples, shrines, a monkey park, bamboo forest, and more, it’s a popular tourist attraction, but it’s noticeably more rural than central Kyoto (i.e. the part of Kyoto where most of its tourist spots are clustered), so you can feel closer to nature here. You can get to Arashiyama by bus or train (Saga-Arashiyama Station via JR; Keifuku Arashiyama via Keifuku Railways; or Hankyu Arashiyama via Hankyu Railways). The view of the mountainside—with its trees a vivid crimson – from Arashiyama’s famous bridge, Togetsukyo, is extremely popular. You can also enjoy Arashiyama’s breathtaking landscape by taking a scenic train, aptly called the Sagano Romantic Train, from Torokko Saga Station (which is very near JR Saga-Arashiyama Station) for 620 yen one-way.
A short walk from the Genko-an-mae bus stop, this temple is famous for its two windows—the round Window of Enlightenment (being circular, it symbolizes harmony) and the square Window of Confusion (which symbolizes suffering)—from which you can see its garden. It’s also known for something more chilling: its “blood ceiling,” made of floorboards stained with blood from fallen samurai.
A word of caution, though: due to ill-mannered, disruptive tourists, a photography ban was imposed at Genko-an last autumn. It remains to be seen if the ban will also be in effect this year, but you might want to keep that in mind. But don’t let a possible or actual photography ban stop you from going; just taking in and remembering the beauty of a place with your own senses is becoming a lost skill nowadays, but it is a valuable one nonetheless.
Address: 47 Kita-Takagamine-cho, Takagamine, Kita Ward
Hours: 9:00 am-5:00 pm
Admission: 400 yen
While trickier to get to and significantly more expensive than the other viewing spots, as this isn’t in the touristy part of Kyoto, Rurikoin is worth going to because it’s a photographer’s dream come true, and it’s not always open to the public due to structural concerns. Now that it’s open throughout November, hurry and make a visit to this temple with amazingly colorful views. With three beautiful gardens and a tea room, you can enjoy the autumn leaves in relative tranquility. Rurikoin is a 5-minute walk from Yase-Hieizanguchi Station on the Eizan Main Line, nearly an hour away from central Kyoto.
Address: 55 Kamitakano Higashiyama, Sakyo Ward
Hours: 10:00 am-4:30 pm (last entry 4:00 pm) – Nov. 1-30, 2015 only
Admission: 2,000 yen
1. Lake Biwa and surrounding areas (Shiga Prefecture)
Japan’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Biwa was often alluded to in ancient Japanese literature. Within the vicinity of the lake, there are some attractions known for their autumn leaves. One is Keisokuji (10 minutes from the Kobashi bus stop, which in turn can be reached by bus from JR Kinomoto Station), a temple on a mountain north of the lake. The beautiful national treasure that is Hikone Castle (10 minutes from JR Hikone Station, entrance 600 yen, hours from 8:30 am-5:30 pm with last entry at 5:00 pm) has a garden called Genkyu-en, which is illuminated at night throughout autumn. The autumn moon at Ishiyama-dera (10 minutes from Keihan Ishiyamadera Station, entrance 600 yen, hours from 8:30 am-4:30 pm), where Lady Murasaki is said to have begun writing The Tale of Genji, is traditionally considered to be one of the Eight Views of Omi (the ancient name for Shiga Prefecture), so head on over to see for yourself if it deserves the recognition. It also has a nighttime illumination from the 14th to the 29th, from 5:30 pm-9:00 pm for an additional 600 yen (yes, that’s separate from the daytime entrance fee). Lastly, there’s Mt. Hiei, on the southwestern side, which stands on the border of Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures.
2. Mt. Koya (Wakayama Prefecture)
Mt. Koya, or Koyasan in Japanese (-san is the suffix for “mountain”), is holy ground for Shingon Buddhists, as their founder, Kukai (a.k.a. Kobo Daishi) established a monastery there. It’s both a pilgrimage and tourist spot, albeit a quieter and more tranquil tourist spot than most. With temples making up most of its tourist attractions, the sacred aura of the place really gets to you, so it’s a good place for a spiritual retreat. Or, if you’re not the spiritual type, it’s still a good place to clear your mind. It also happens to be a very scenic place throughout the four seasons, so locals know that it’s a good place to see autumn leaves. It might be more crowded than usual during autumn, but it’s still relatively quieter than most other viewing spots. You can read about Koyasan here; it takes about 2 hours to Koyasan from Osaka.
3. Mt. Yoshino (Nara Prefecture)
Mt. Yoshino is better known for its cherry blossoms (in fact, it’s said to be Japan’s best viewing site for cherry blossoms), but this World Heritage Site also has a view to offer in autumn. Parts of the mountain are even lit up at night. Yoshino Station can be reached from Kyoto Station in 100-130 minutes via Kintetsu Railways’ limited express (2550 yen) or express (1230 yen). From Yoshino Station, a ropeway can take you up the mountain for 360 yen one-way, and there are buses to take you to town.
4. Nara Park (Nara Prefecture)
This vast expanse is where most of Nara’s main tourist attractions—Todaiji, the famous temple with one of Japan’s largest Buddha statues; and Kofukuji, the temple with an iconic pagoda, among others—can be found. (You can read about Nara Park here.) There are several maple trees around the park, and their beauty is complemented by temples, shrines, ponds, stone lanterns, and so on.