Japan in autumn is beautiful with the red maples (koyo/momijigari). So today I suggest 10 great places to visit in autumn in Japan and give lot of useful tips.
Autumn is a colorful and perfect season to visit Japan and Kyoto. In November 2014 i visited Japan and had the chance to enjoy the colors and the atmosphere of autumn, a season that, togheter with spring, is considered very special in this country, thanks to the landscape which assumes tons of different colors due to the high diffusion of maples, gyngko, and cherry trees
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While in spring the cherry trees blossom fills every place with pinky white petals which create long and colorful carpets along the streets and the gardens, in autumn the maples become vermillion red, togheter with the gyngko trees which turn their leaves from green to intense yellow
Thanks to this phenomenon, visiting Buddhist temples with their japanese gardens in autumn or spring can be an unforgettable experience
During my last visit, i saw many different japanese people wearing their kimonos to enjoy a long walk and search for colorful leaves and trees, or to visit temples, a diffused practice which is known as Koyo (or Momijigari)
In planning the trip to see autumn or spring colors, it is important to correctly plan the dates in the right period, depending by the region visited. Infact since Japan is a country which is vertically extended, the autumn for example seems to gradually arrive from north to south within a period of 3 or 4 months. So, depending by the place visited, a different time must be choosen. As an instance, while in Hokkaido it tends to arrive earlier in September, in Kansai (region of Kyoto) i needed to schedule my trip for the second half of November to be sure to enjoy the autumn colors
To better understand the best period to visit a region in Japan during these seasons i’ve found useful to check this link:
MY FAVOURITE PLACES OF KYOTO
And now, following, is the list of what i personally consider among the best places of Kyoto to visit. The list doesn’t want to be necessarily complete. Instead, it’s just a selection of my favourite ones, based on my experience
WHAT IS GION: Gion is an old and important district of Kyoto, situated north east of the central station, between the Yasaka Shrine and the Kennin-ji Buddhist temple. The main attraction is represented by the houses situated along the main streets, called machiya, built with the typical architecture of Kyoto, and the ochaya, or tea houses, where people can spend their time while enjoying the exhibitions of the Geisha women. Infact, Gion, togheter with Pontocho, is recognized as one of the easiest places to spot a Geisha walking on the streets, although from what i have heared, it seems like some of them are just “fake” models to let people enjoying taking some pictures togheter
In particular, Geisha women are usually considered prostitutes in some parts of the world due to a trash subculture probably derived from TV. In reality, with all the exceptions, they are well recognized artists who attend people during their meals or tea ceremonies, with their art forms like singing and playing instruments, while dressing their kimono. It’s not uncommon in Kyoto to refer to Geisha with the terms Geiko for Geisha masters, and Maiko for Geisha apprentices
Personally, i avoided to take pictures of them, since they are continuously bombarded by “paparazzi style” tourists who try to take the right shot all the time, by importuning them. However, i tried to make a nice composition by taking a picture from behind to not show their faces, while they walked along the streets of Gion
The picture above nicely represents the night atmosphere of Gion
WHAT TO DO IN GION: i really enjoyed the streets with their well preserved buildings. I also enjoyed to see Geisha women walking along them and the atmosphere of this place in the evening, with the little lanterns turned on just outside the restaurants. Apart from this there are still 2 interesting places to visit, the Buddhist temple of Kennin-ji situated on the south edge of Gion (picture below), and the Shinto Shrine of Yasaka, situated on the north east corner of Gion
HOW TO ARRIVE TO GION: from the central station of Kyoto, i took the bus number 206 and got off at the stop immediately after the entrance of the huge Yasaka Shrine, visible on the right of the bus window. Moreover, recognizing the stop has been easy since lot of tourists got off there. To get back to the central station, i did the same by taking bus 206 in the other direction, this time at the bus stop which was on the same side of the street of the Yasaka Shrine (it was on the right of Yasaka Shrine, looking at it from front)
OTOWASAN KIYOMIZUDERA AND HIGASHIYAMA
WHAT ARE KIYOMIZUDERA AND HIGASHIYAMA: Kiyomizudera is a buddhist temple situated over a hill in the east side of the city, which in the past has been considered as one of the finalists of the “7 wonders of the world” contest, as reported by Wikipedia. The meaning of the name is “pure water”, Kiyo stands for pure, while Mizu for water. Otowasan in turn is the name derived from the internal waterfall which water, indeed, is considered pure
One of the thing i liked more of this place has been the popular terrace, very crowded in the weekend, during which it is possible to enjoy the landscape, with the temple on the right, and a huge valley full of maples and cherry trees in front, with Kyoto far in the background (since the terrace is situated almost on top of a hill).
The Kiyomizudera architecture is considered special thanks to its unique construction style, which presents a huge wooden piling on the ground visible from the terrace itself
Higashiyama in turn is the popular district situated north west of it, very well preserved and perfect to be visited with the Kiyomizudera during the same day
WHAT TO DO IN KIYOMIZUDERA AND HIGASHIYAMA: togheter with the temple, i liked to visit the surrounding district called Higashiyama (picture below), popular for containing lot of preserved buildings and houses, togheter with the Yasaka pagoda, which can be enjoyed from the terrace of the car park situated north east of it at sunset (second picture below). A famous street of this district is called Ninenzaka (picture below), which is the one presenting the steps which take people into the final street toward the Kiyomizudera temple.
In particular, i visited Kiyomizudera during sunset when the sun shined over the temple and the maple trees, and i personally think that both autumn and spring are perfect moments to do it. Even the night should be a nice moment, since i found on some web pictures that they put in place a lighting system to artificially enlighten the valley and the tree foliage (at least in autumn)
However, this is probably the most crowded place i have visited in the entire Kyoto, and i must say, coming here during sunday has been a terrible mistake, since the queue to enter was interminable
HOW TO ARRIVE TO KIYOMIZUDERA: to arrive here there were some comfortable buses at the central Kyoto station like the bus number 206 (the same which goes to Gion). However, since i visited it during the weekend, the bus terminal presented an endless queue of people, reason why i used another trick. Basically i went on foot from the central station to the Shichijo station, and once there i got off at the Kiyomizu-Gojo station. After arriving, i proceeded on foot for not more than 20 minutes toward east
Following is the official website of Kiyomizudera with all the informations
WHAT IS SHOREN-IN TEMPLE: Shoren-in is a Tendai Buddhist temple situated in the district of Higashiyama, close to the Yasaka Shrine. It could be combined with a visit to Higashiyama itself, or Gion and the Yasaka Shrine for example. The entrance of this place is characterized by a very old and giant camphor tree (picture below) visible outside without buying the ticket. It would be worth to come here just to see this huge wonder of the nature. However, the temple in my opinion has much to offer inside, so it’s worth to spend some time in visiting it
WHAT TO DO IN SHOREN-IN TEMPLE: The temple allows people to stand on the wooden floor over a red carpet to admire the japanese garden, or to walk over a path which takes people inside it, to better admire the plants and the trees. Furthermore, the same path takes also to a tea room separated from the main building where it is possible to attend a tea ceremony, and to a “shinto style” buddhist shrine with a real torii (although not a red one), surrounded by a bamboo forest (i’ve heard from a couple of friends that in the past Shinto and Buddhist architectures sometimes had been merged, reason why it wasn’t so strange to find a shrine inside a Buddhist temple). In the middle of the garden there’s also what i believe to be an old and beautiful maple, with very long branches (picture below). I really enjoyed the visit, especially because it was autumn when i did it, and colors were at their best
HOW TO ARRIVE TO SHOREN-IN TEMPLE: It is only some minutes on foot from the back of the Yasaka Shrine, reason why the usual 206 bus from the central station was ok. As an alternative, since the bus 206 is extremely crowded during the weekend, it was also possible to walk on foot from the central station toward the Shichijo underground stop on the Keihan subway line. Then, from here, by getting off at Gion Shijo stop it required only 20 minutes on foot to reach the temple.
Following is the official website of Shoren-in with all the informations
FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA
WHAT IS FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA: this is a Shinto shrine located south of Kyoto. I was attracted by this place due to the presence of an endless gallery of Torii (picture below), the typical red gates found everywhere in the country at the entrance of a shrine. The reason for this gallery to exist is that Inari is the divinity of rice and prosperity, and so over time companies have decided to donate a Torii in sign of respect and good auspice for their affairs, by making, day by day, this long and unique tunnel. The Torii gallery climbs over the hill on the back of the shrine, and by following it, it is possible to reach a “middle” point called Yotsutsuji from which one can have a rest and enjoy a pretty nice aerial view of Kyoto. Furthermore, along the path to the top there are also some smaller but still very interesting sanctuaries (third picture below)
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The Shrine is also popular for presenting the statues of foxes with red scarf, holding the key to the rice stocks, since as said Inari is considered the divinity of this food. The Shrine itself, apart from the Torii gallery is huge and interesting. During my visit it also included a nice souvenir shop inside, and even a place to enjoy some matcha tea, situated in the middle of the Torii gallery, half way from the top of the hill. Furtherly, along the path i was able to find some drinks machines, very useful to recover some energy, since the climbing was quite intense
WHAT TO DO IN FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA: i personally enjoyed the shrine itself with its main halls and praying rooms, and i think it’s worth to visit it even without climbing over the Torii gallery. However, i really appreciated the challenge of doing it, and so, i decided to go for it and reach the top of the hill. I must say that the climb is not for everyone, or at least in my opinion, is a little bit intense. Eventually, as a comprmise, one can still decide to climb over half of the entire path, and then to come back
HOW TO ARRIVE TO FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA: to arrive here, i took the train from the central station (JR Nara line) and got off at Inari station. As an alternative, i saw it was possible to also take the subway Keihan line and get off at Fushimi Inari station, although a little bit more far. In both cases, the Shrine was on the right direction.
WHAT IS DAIGOJI TEMPLE: this is a fascinating buddhist temple complex situated south east of Kyoto, where the popular Bentendo hall lies, a little building that, thanks to its location, a pond with a typical red curved bridge surrounded by maple trees, has become quite iconographic and representative of this city. Anyway, apart from the Bentendo hall itself, there is a very nice pagoda inside, togheter with a bamboo forest just next to the main entrance, and some other interesting temple halls.
WHAT TO DO IN DAIGOJI: i really liked to visit the Bentendo hall in autumn, very iconographic as said above, togheter with the other temple halls present inside, along the path to the Bentendo, which is at the very end of the complex. Apart from this, i found a museum dedicated to the history of the complex called Reihokan museum, and i heard about a path which can take people to the top of the hill on the back, where further ancient temples can be found. However, while i was there, for reason i didn’t know i found the path to be closed
HOW TO ARRIVE TO DAIGOJI: i needed to take a train from Kyoto central station to Yamashina station (JR Kyoto line), and after that i needed to take the subway Tozai line toward Rokujizo direction, by getting off at Daigo station
Following is the official website of Daigoji with all the informations
WHAT IS ARASHIYAMA: also called Sagano, since Arashiyama is the name of the hill on the back of this place, it is a very nice area situated north west of Kyoto, popular for the presence of many different temples, a bamboo forest, (another very iconographic place of Kyoto), a river where people can have a boat trip, and a scenic train which takes people across a forest of maples, great to see in autumn (and maybe also in spring). The scenario here is very pleasant, and the temples are very well preserved and surrounded by nature
WHAT TO DO IN ARASHIYAMA: many people come here to have a walk in the bamboo forest. Apart from this, there are many temples to visit. In particular, i enjoyed Gioji temple and Nisonin temple, both visible in the pictures below. I appreciated Nisonin (picture above) for its maples and the breathtaking bell, which emitted a deep sound every few seconds, since tourists and japanese people used to continuously hit it to make recall the Buddha spirit. Furtherly, i also appreaciated Gioji (second picture below) because it was immersed in a very deep and “jungle like” scenario, made by bamboo, red maples, and moss terrain. Among other interesting temples there are Tenryuji temple, considered among the best zen temple of Kyoto, and Otagi Nenbutsuji temple, popular for presenting a huge ground full of statues
Apart from the temples, it is possible to enjoy some very nice old preserved streets like the one called Saga-Toriimoto, or to take the Sagano Scenic Train, or to have a ride on the typical old style coach drawn by a japanese guy, to make a short tour inside the streets of Sagano without walking (like in the picture above). It is also possible to visit the shops along the main river, which sell lot of nice souvenirs and good food (very recommended), situated at the beginning of the district itself, in front of the Togetsukyo bridge.
HOW TO ARRIVE TO ARASHIYAMA: from Kyoto station i was able to take the JR Saga line and get off at Saga Arashiyama Station.
HOW TO ARRIVE TO ARASHIYAMA FROM YAMAZAKI RYOKAN: for those staying in the Yamazaki Ryokan, which is a popular low cost accomodation of Kyoto, there was a more comfortable way to get here. Basically, after leaving the ryokan, i turned right and walked over the usual Takahanacho bus stop which takes to Kyoto station. Once there, i crossed the road and turned left. I continued to follow the road on foot, and after a while i reached a crossing. I proceeded forward and after a while on the right i found a bus terminal station. From that station i was able to easily take the bus number 11 to Arashiyama which took me there in very few minutes. To come back to the Ryokan, it was a little bit more complicated. Basically i needed to take again the bus number 11 from the same stop where i got off in the morning, but this time it did a different itinerary. I got off at the Uzumasa Tenjingawa station, and from there i took another bus, the bus number 8, by firstly asking to the bus driver if it stopped to Takahanacho bus stop. After that, i proceeded as i usually did. I waited for the bus speaker to announce the Takahanacho bus stop and i got off to reach the ryokan. Google maps can greatly help in understanding this sequence of transportation changes. Just set Yamazaki as starting point and Arashiyama as destination, and vice versa, by also selecting public transportation as the traveling option
EXTRA….A VISIT TO OHARA
WHAT IS OHARA: during my trip in Kyoto i decided to visit a further area situated in the outskirts of north east of the city. Ohara is a countryside area which includes a well preserved street with a local open market, which takes to some popular temples.
WHAT TO DO IN OHARA: it is very pleasant to visit the open market along the main and popular street. Apart from it, by furtherly following the path, it is possible to reach some interesting temples as well. Among them, Sanzenin (second picture below) is considered the most important, and part of the Tendai Buddhism. It’s full of temple halls and gardens inside, and one of the typical iconography of this place is characterized by the small faces statues which lie on the ground, situated in the very last part of the garden just before the exit
Another interesting temple is called Hosenin, where i had the chance to enjoy a tea ceremony by drinking some matcha tea (picture below), while sitting in front of the beautiful garden which presented a 700 years ancient tree (picture above). Hosenin also presented a zen garden open to public access
A third nice temple, although smaller, was called Shorin-in, not to be confused with Shoren-in in Higashiyama. There was just a huge main hall with a big Buddha golden statue, surrounded by a mixed forest, pleasant and relaxing
Concluding, i enjoyed very much Ohara, and although Sanzenin is the most popular temple, i really liked Hosenin for his ancient tree, for the tea ceremony and for the less touristic atmosphere
HOW TO ARRIVE IN OHARA: I found comfortable to simply take a bus from Kyoto central station, the bus number 17
Following is a more comprehensive guide to Ohara
WHERE I STAYED IN KYOTO, THE YAMAZAKI RYOKAN
Apart from visiting temples and shrines, in Kyoto i also wanted to make an experience inside a ryokan, one of those typical and old style japanese houses often visible inside popular cartoons like Doraemon or Maison Ikkoku
Among the things which characterize a ryokan in general, i can cite the mattress on the floor to sleep, called Futon, the ground made with a tatami, the sliding doors and the fact that one must take the shoes off before entering inside.
I think that most people, especially during the 80’s, had the chance to see a ryokan inside a cartoon. The picture below has been taken inside the room of the Yamazaki Ryokan, an old, but still pleasant one in my personal opinion (although criticized by some people for being too much old for their taste) situated north west of Arashiyama district. I must say that although it can look old, the price on booking.com was very cheap, compared to other accomodations
In the end i have choosen the Yamazaki for 2 reasons: it was the cheapest one of Booking.com at that time, and it was a little bit far from the city centre, enough to make me feel like i was a real citizen of Kyoto instead of a simple tourist (staying far from city centres is something i really like to do in my trips), although still quite close to Arashiyama.
I reached the Yamazaki ryokan with the JR bus number 3, with the stop situated in the Kyoto central station bus terminal. It required from half a hour to 40 minutes depending by the traffic. The place is a little bit far from the centre, however, the atmosphere allowed me to better immerse in the everyday life of Kyoto. An important thing i did once arrived at the bus stop was to check the timetable, to undestand the time of the last bus to come back to the ryokan. It’s very important to do it.
While on the bus (picture below), i was surrounded by common people with their shopping bags rathen than by tourists, and the ryokan itself was old enough to make me feel i was surfing back in the good old days of 80 years and the Doraemon cartoon series.
The personnel inside Yamazaki Ryokan was helpful and very funny. It was composed by mister Yamazaki itself who spoke english very well, togheter with some waitresses and a couple of elderly people (i suppose wife and husband), both very funny, friendly and with a “japanese style” english accent. If at the beginning i struggled a little bit in understanding what they said, after a while i got accustomed and started to speak with them more fluently. As an instance while a typical english man during a breakfast would ask for “tea or coffee”, they tended to say something like “tea o coy”, by cutting out some letters. That happened, i suppose, because the japanese syllables are inferior in number respect to western languages, reason why japanese people in general tend to speak english with a little different and more “dry” accent
The Yamazaki Ryokan presented 2 main buildings, one situated along the main street, house of the reception and the restaurant, while the other one situated 50 meters behind the main street, on the left of the reception building. Both of the areas presented a very nice japanese garden, especially the second one situated on the back, which included a great night lighting system to see the plants and the trees in the night
The restaurant was delicious. I had the chance to try a ramen which satisfied me very much. They also prepared sushi dishes and many more things, all shown in the outside window with the menu. The room was nice, clean and pleasant, with that typical “tatami smell” all around, although some people in the reviews on booking.com lamented that it looked too much old and not so much pleasant. It hasn’t been my case anyway. Everything was clean and good
Regarding negative sides, probably the corridors looked a little bit messed up like it was a real private house, and the ground floor was surrounded by a strong smell of cooked fish for obvious reasons. Moreover the bathroom (not the toilet which was next to the room) was outside the building in a different place which required me to dress up, go there on foot (15 meters), and then have a bath
Anyway, these aspects in my opinion didn’t influence my experience. In particular, the bathroom and my room were almost identical to that of the cartoon “Maison Ikkoku”. Sincerly speaking, although not that comfortable, an old style ryokan is a little piece of japanese culture, and i enjoyed the experience in the end. Moreover, regarding the smell of cooked fish, since this food is an important part of Japan, i accepted it without problems. And lastly, the messed corridors weren’t a problem…I simply didn’t care, since the room in turn was clean and orderly.
To say the truth the only real negative side which impacted my comfort has been the japanese pillow, because it is a little bit hard and tall respect to the european counterpart. Anyway, as a workaround i just tried to push it with great force to flatten it as much as i could
How many days to stay in Kyoto?
In my opinion Kyoto is huge and must be enjoyed with calm and relax. I stayed 6 days including the 2 days to come and go back to Tokyo with the Shinkansen, by visiting all the things reported in the article, and i must say, i did everything too much in a rush. Should i come here again with the intention to visit all the things listed above, i would opt-out for 8 days instead of 6
What’s the best period to visit Kyoto?
For me autumn and spring, since the maples and the cherry trees make the landscape great. I really enjoyed autumn colors in particular
What’s the best month to see the autumn in Kyoto?
The best period and month to see the autumn with the red leaves in Kyoto is the second half of November. I have been personally there during this time, so i can confirm this
What’s the best week time to visit Kyoto and its temples?
During weekend, especially sunday, some temples like Kiyomizudera are very very crowded, and even taking a bus from the Kyoto station can be problematic, especially during the weeks of Koyo, which are represented by the 2 last weeks of November during which autumn is at its best, or during the Hanami in spring
Are the Geisha of Kyoto prostitutes? Can i go for it?
I don’t know the reality, however, i know the theory, and the theory tells me that it’s a different story respect to what western people believe….Geisha women are very nice talented and traditional artists, nothing to do with prostitution. I would suggest to forget about it
Is the food of Japan good?
It’s a question of personal taste, anyway, as it happened to Tokyo, i found the japanese food very delicious and well made. Whatever thing i tried it seemed prepared by a professional chef. My favourite course has been the ramen soup with soba spaghetti. However, it was full of delicious sweets and after a while i got crazy. I can only suggest to try as many things as possible, even the most strangest one. I have understood day by day that the goal of japanese companies is to produce nice appealing food, not trash food like in western countries
How to get to Kyoto from Tokyo?
Shinkansen seemed to be the best option. I just made a JRP Japan Rail Pass, which costed 200 euros for 7 days or 300 for 14 days. After that i took a Hikari train from Tokyo station to Kyoto Station. During my visit i didn’t find any train from Shibuya or Shinjuku, and furthermore, i needed to care about which Shinkansen to take, because not everyone was allowed for my JRP (for example Nozomi and Mizuho were not included). Anyway, Hikari was among those allowed and it didn’t need to make a reservation in advance. HERE Following it is possible to read more some more basic informations about the JRP
Does Shinkansen to Kyoto need a seat to be reserved in advance?
Not in my case. Inside the Hikari Shinkansen there were reservation free carriages available. I just needed to jump in and take the first available seat
How long does it take from Tokyo to Kyoto with Shinkansen?
I don’t remember exactely, however, it required less than 3 hours, more or less
Is it difficult to use a Japanese bus? How to use a bus in Japan and Kyoto?
It’s very easy although at the beginning it could seem complicated. It is possible and it’s convenient to use the daily card. However, i forgot to do it and i did it with single ride ticket all the time. Basically i jumped in from the back. While getting in, i needed to take a small ticket indicating the actual bus station number. Then there was a display indicating the fare depending by the next stop number and the bus station number reported on my ticket. It was very easy, and more or less, for most bus stops, the fare was just a standard 230 yen. After that, when i was ready to get off, i put the exact amount of coins inside the machine, or in case of trouble i showed the money to the bus driver togheter with my ticket bus number to receive help.
It is important anyway to have coins ready. To do this there was also a coin change machine to convert banknotes in coins, especially a banknote of 1000 yen. Anyway, in case of a ride around the centre of the city, i remember that the standard fare was 230 yen, no matters what. However, in case of distant bus stops, the fare was greater, and i needed to use the ticket taken at the entrance of the bus to understand the exact amount of money to insert. Once again in case of trouble just show the ticket and the coins to the bus driver
Following it is possible to download the bus map of Kyoto
While here are present more detailed instructions to use a bus in Kyoto
Do people in Japan and Kyoto speak English?
Although i heard bad stories about it, i have found enough japanese people who spoke english (at least enough to speak with a tourist and give indications). I also noticed that they always made all they could to make me understand what they wanted to say (it looked like they consider a tourist a very important person). Lastly, inside transportations, trains, subways, and buses, the automatic speaker provided passengers with very clear informations in english language all the time, so i found riding on them enough comfortable and easy. Anyway, the magic phrase to ask them if they speak english is “eego hanasemasu ka?” (pronounced “eego hanasemaska?”)
Is it worth or difficult to sleep in a Ryokan?
Although i understand that it’s a question of personal taste, and that some traditions inside a ryokan can sound strange for us, i can only say to make an effort and visit a ryokan at least for cultural reasons.
Above i have indicated a link which tells about how to stay and live inside a Ryokan
It’s too much an unforgettable experience. For me, a trip in Japan without a ryokan is not a trip in Japan
Concluding, i really appreciated Kyoto, and today i consider it as one of my most favourite cities. Its well preserved ancient atmosphere, togheter with the beauty of its temples, shrines, and the colors of the japanese autumn, made my experience really unforgettable. Now it’s clear for me why most of the part of Kyoto is considered a World Heritage site
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