Oh. my. goodness. What an insane week.
If you’ve been following me on facebook, you’ll know that I just wrapped up a nearly week-long trip to Kyoto to see the fall foliage. Normally, Kyoto is one of my absolute favorite places to see the changing leaves but this year … man, this year was something else. Poor weather (meaning subpar foliage in my opinion) coupled with TERRIBLE crowds AND a three-day holiday weekend … never again, I say. Never again. Learn from my mistakes and never EVER visit Kyoto on the three-day holiday weekend in late November. You will find yourself standing in lines for temples that stretch around city blocks.
With all that said, Kyoto is still a place of supreme beauty and my foliage experiences on the weekdays surrounding the three-day holiday were wholly different and much more enjoyable. Add to that the few relatively untrammeled locales I did manage to track down (culled from three years’ worth of visits now) and I do have a hefty helping of pictures with relatively few crowds.
Just don’t go to Arashiyama on a Sunday. You’ll be sorry.
Alright, I thought I was playing it super smart by booking a special lunch program at Taizo-in, in the anticipation that the temple’s lovely garden was only open for those of us participating. Not so, but the crowds were still much lighter than in other locales. For ¥4500, you can arrange to join a tour of the temple (my tour guide had fluent English thanks to a two year stint in Canada) and a very tasty lunch of shojin ryori (vegetarian Buddhist cuisine). But for only ¥500, you can simply enter the stroll garden and enjoy views of the pond and waterfall, while paying a small extra supplement for tea and a sweet.
**I booked my lunch and tour online but I did see the Kyoto Tourism Office at Kyoto Station had info on the tour as well. They would most likely be able to help you book a place, if one were available.
2. Konkai Komyo-ji
This hillside temple sits on the much-trafficked route between the Okazaki area and the Philosopher’s Path. But I had never even heard of it nor bothered to stop in before this last trip. Happily, they open the temple garden in November (¥600) for visitors to view the scarlet maples in a forest setting around a pond and tea house. But my favorite moment (and photos) came from one of the small subtemples in the rear of the complex that generously left its door open so that those of us taking the back way home could step into the garden and admire the incredibly stunning maple. Just wander around the back of the main hall towards the cemetery and you’d be sure to find it.
Ninna-ji is a massive temple complex just a short walk north of the equally sprawling complex of Myoshin-ji (where hidden spot number 1 on this list is located) in northwestern Kyoto. Granted, I visited on a Tuesday after the weekend crowds had gone home but it still wasn’t very high on anyone’s “must-see” list. The five-story pagoda and the buildings in the northern half of the complex had some full foliage when I was there but it was worth paying the ¥500 admission to the former palace grounds (the Goten) with their raked garden framed by maples and glimpses of the pagoda over the back wall.
4. Imakumano Kannon-ji
I wouldn’t have given this temple the time of day if I hadn’t seen the signboard outside that said “momiji matsuri (maple leaf festival)” and if a fellow Japan adventurer hadn’t suggested it to me. Located a fairly decent climb up the hill from mobbed Tofuku-ji, this is an excellent and empty alternative to the more famous temple below. There are no real gardens to speak of but the precincts are filled with maples trees, temple buildings and even a small pagoda on a hill. The grounds are free to wander around and you can even enjoy green tea and a sweet near the main hall.
If you can tear yourself away from Tenryu-ji (I know, I know, it IS really pretty) and walk north from the main Arashiyama area into Sagano, you’ll find a host of temples with great fall foliage. Some, like Jojakko-ji and Nison-in are fairly well known and attract larger crowds. I stumbled across Houkyou-in almost by chance when I exited the side gate of Seiryo-ji and went south around the “block” instead of north. The ¥500 admission fee was totally worth it to see the stone paths through the foliage and to have to share the experience with very few people. The garden itself looks like it either needs or is currently undergoing a bit of work but the grounds are fairly large and the maples were pretty.
I felt the foliage this year was rather hit-0r-miss thanks to the weird warm weather we’ve been having. The tourism office has marked most of its main locations as being at peak foliage, though Japan-Guide begs to differ (and I follow their reports quite heavily). As the weather JUST turned quite cold today, all of the remaining green trees (and there were quite a few) should be turning colors over the weekend and into next week. So there’s still a chance to enjoy the leaves!
Pro Tip: The ultimate private foliage experience is to garner a place on one of the tours of the Imperial villas (Katsura Rikyu, Shugakuin) or even the Moss Garden (Saihoji). As these places only let in a certain number of people per hour or day, it truly is a more intimate experience. Saihoji is pricey but you can get a pass to the other two for free from the Office of the Imperial Household on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Show up with your passport and, being a foreigner, you actually have an excellent chance of getting on a tour.