Though Kyoto, and Japan as a whole, is most famous for its cherry blossom season, the sakura aren’t the only beautiful thing up on the seasonal menu. Kyoto’s autumn foliage is particularly popular with tourists, and people flock from all over the country, and even from other countries, to catch a glimpse.
With stunning, warm colors from red to yellow, Japan’s maple leaves are particularly prized for their beauty. In the outlying parts of the city the mountain ranges that surround Kyoto make for gorgeous natural scenes, and shrines and temples within the city also change their looks completely as the air turns brisk, taking on an altogether different sense of beauty than they possessed in greener seasons.
Many popular spots hold special nighttime illuminations of the colorful leaves, and photographers turn out in droves for this once-a-year opportunity. Estimates and reports of the fall color peaks can be found on the internet in advance or at the Tourist Information Center in the Kyoto Station building. Any visitor would be remiss if they passed up on autumn in Kyoto, so take a look at a few of our recommendations!
One of the Five Great Zen Temples in Kyoto, Tōfuku-ji's main attraction for tourists is its myriad of amazing gardens. The most famous and sought after in the autumn season here is the Tsūten-kyō bridge, a raised, covered walkway that spans a small valley filled with Japanese maples. Since it parallels a smaller, similar walkway leading to the temple gate, visitors can enjoy gorgeous views of a bridge over a veritable sea of red and orange leaves from two different angles. Make sure you get there early, though, as this temple is one of the most popular spots to visit in the peak season.
When arriving in Kyoto by bullet train you may catch sight of a pagoda rising up out of the city near the station – and that pagoda belongs to Tō-ji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to a considerable collection of impressive Buddhist statuary, this temple is also known for a garden that is laid out in front of its five-storied pagoda. In particular, the garden pond is rimmed with maple trees, and these make for a bright, leafy frame around the famous pagoda. Come here for a stroll, and you won't be disappointed!
Debatably the most famous place for autumn foliage in Kyoto, Eikan-dō's garden is dominated by maples. The grounds of this temple are alternatively bright with fresh greens or brilliant reds, with countless people arriving in pilgrimage during the peak season. Built up against the Higashiyama foothills, a two-story tahōtō pagoda offers a great view of the city and precincts, and the covered stairs winding up to it are architecturally fascinating. Eikan-dō is also known for its Mikaeri Amida, a statue of Amida Buddha with his face turned to look over his shoulder. Whether you attend during the day or the special night illuminations, Eikan-dō is bound to live up to expectations.
Nanzen-ji & Tenju-an
Nanzen-ji is one of the most well-known Rinzai Zen temples in Japan, and its grounds include a sanmon gate, a main temple hall, a charming rock garden, an exquisite European-style canal, and also multiple sub-temples. One of Kyoto’s best spots to view the romantic red and orange autumn leaves in the fall, you won't want to miss the view of the maple-lined path towards the towering sanmon gate, nor the colorful surroundings. Make sure to also check out Tenju-an, a sub-temple to the east of the sanmon gate that is well-known for its low-hanging orange maple leaves over a carefully cultivated rock garden.
One of three temples on Mt. Takao to the northeast of Kyoto city proper, Kōzan-ji truly embodies the vision of a mountain temple, with mossy stone staircases, towering trees, and a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains. Though numerous areas of the temple grounds take on even more beauty with the vibrant seasonal colors, the most famous views as at the Sekisui-in hall. It looks out directly onto the surrounding landscape, close enough to touch, and the architecture of the hall makes for creative ways to view the maples.
Jingo-ji, another of three temples on Mt. Takao to the northeast of Kyoto city proper, stands at the top of an intimidating stone staircase that winds up the mountain, passing teahouses and restaurants that offer delicious local delicacies like momiji mochi and seasonal tempura maple leaves. The grounds of the temple are dyed in all shades of autumn, but the most famous view is the staircase that leads to the temple's main hall, which is framed on both sides by maple trees that turn a particularly vibrant pure crimson. Jingo-ji also hosts a special night illumination in the fall season.
A private villa originally built by a Taisho period statesman, Murin-an is a scenic paradise tucked away between busy streets and larger famous sites. Murin-an contains an absolutely lovely little pond and a stroll-type garden, a small teahouse, a two-story traditional structure that serves as the main building, and a Western-style building with information and photos about the man who owned Murin-an as well as the garden's designer, Ogawa Jihei. The garden possesses a beautiful aesthetic and a sense of layers around its winding stream and a waterfall that can make you completely forget how busy the world just over the garden wall really is.
The former hermitage of a samurai who was famous as a scholar as well as a landscape architect, Shisen-dō received its moniker from the portraits of Chinese poets displayed in the main room. Shisen-dō boasts some interestingly pruned azalea bushes and the clever use of empty space with a backdrop of trees that makes for lush colors in spring and summer, as well as stunning oranges in the fall. You can enjoy this garden view from the tatami mat rooms or step out for a stroll to explore the interestingly layered garden.
Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous and celebrated temples in Kyoto. Its wooden stage is undoubtedly what the temple is most famous for, offering an outstanding panoramic view of Kyoto rising out of a sea of maples. When fall rolls around these surrounding trees turn striking shades of red and orange, and the view is beautiful whether you look from the top or up at the buildings from the valley below. Kiyomizu-dera's autumn light-up is one of the more popular illuminations, so you can visit day or night.
Located in northwestern Kyoto, Kitano Tenmangū is known as the shrine of Tenjin, the god of scholarship many students pray to for success in examinations. This shrine is also home to a sprawling maple garden called the Momiji-en that is opened for special viewings in the spring and fall, and both seasons offer breathtaking views in emerald green and fall's warm palette. It's open at night for a light-up, too! Cross the famous arched bridge and explore the leaf-strewn paths that once served as earthen fortifications around the ancient capital.
Comprised primarily of a charming moss garden and a single thatched-roof building, Giō-ji was originally a nunnery where Giō, a woman whose life is detailed in the classic Tale of Heike, lived her life. The moss garden is particularly lovely in autumn, with lush green moss dotted with contrasting fallen leaves and an orange roof of maples above. Within the single hall is a noteworthy circular window and several wooden statues of the famous historical figures associated with the site, as well as the principal worship image, a statue of Dainichi Nyorai.