After spending the last couple of weeks roaming around Japan photographing fall colors, we’re now in Kyoto for the height of its autumn leaf viewing. In this post, we’ll share some autumn foliage forecasts for places throughout Japan, including Tokyo, Miyajima, Hiroshima, Himeji, Hikone, and Mount Fuji. After that, we’ll look at specific temples and shrines–including some autumn illuminations–in Kyoto. (Last updated November 25, 2017.)
As for Kyoto, we’ve spent the last couple of days visiting its popular autumn colors spots, and will be focused on visiting even more now that the weekend is over and the shrines aren’t quite so busy. We’ll also be racing to get individual posts with photos and thoughts about each spot in Kyoto during fall colors done over the course of the next week.
Suffice to say, we are currently at or near (within the week) the heigh of fall colors season for Kyoto. This is our first time visiting Japan during the peak season for fall colors, and have been surprised by a couple of things: crowds and colors. Neither should come as a surprise. We’ve visited Japan for cherry blossom season and it was quite busy–but nowhere near this crowded. Over the weekend, crowds and tour groups in Kyoto were so bad that there was extra crowd control staff throughout the city and at train stations.
The vibrance of the fall colors throughout Japan (but especially Kyoto) has also been surprising. We both grew up in the Midwest where autumn is a beautiful season, but it did not prepare us for the resplendence of the Japanese maple trees. The shades of crimson the leaves of these maple leaves take on is really something else. The abundant reds, yellows, and oranges juxtaposed against temples, shrines, and castles throughout Japan is stunning. It makes the otherwise unbearable crowds perfectly bearable.
Now let’s take some quick looks at the fall colors at specific locations throughout Japan…
Hikone – We visited this lakeside city as a day-trip from Kyoto the weekend we arrived into town because the crowds were too heavy at Kyoto’s popular fall leaf viewing spots.
Our goal was to see Hikone Castle and Genkyuen Garden’s autumn illumination. This limited-time evening offering was beautiful and offered some incredibly photogenic scenes of Hikone’s peak autumn colors. Hikone is currently at its peak in terms of color. Click here to see my autumn illumination photos from Hikone Castle & Genkyuen Garden.
Himeji – While nothing can top our experience at Himeji Castle during cherry blossom season, autumn in the area is beautiful. Around the castle, trees are brilliant shades of red and yellow. Same goes for Kokoen Garden, which has its waterfalls framed by crimson maple trees making for a scene that is almost too picture-perfect.
In Engyoji Temple, the sprawling complex atop Mount Shosha, fall colors are also at their peak. We’d highly recommend a visit within the next couple of weeks.
Hiroshima – Like Tokyo, Hiroshima did not strike us as a hotspot for fall colors. There were pockets of beautiful trees (the one pictured above near the A-Bomb Dome was mesmerizing), especially around the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park and along the water.
However, from what we could surmise, Hiroshima is not a leaf-peeping destination. Nonetheless, Hiroshima was slightly past-peak as of our visit last week.
Miyajima – The island of Miyajima is about an hour train and ferry ride from Hiroshima, and is one of our new favorite places in Japan. Its fall colors were near-peak as of last week with most locations, particularly those farther up Mount Misen, likely hitting their peak right about now.
The areas around Miyajima’s many temples and shrines were bursting with color, and in some spots looked other-worldly. For those planning a future fall colors tour of Japan, Miyajima is a must-visit in our estimation.
Mount Fuji – We spent a couple of days at Lake Yamanaka and Lake Kawaguchiko last week, paying a visit to the famed Maple Corridor while we were there. It did not disappoint, reminding us of the Path of Philosophers during cherry blossom season.
The Maple Corridor was at peak color while we visited, but likely had another couple weeks of brilliant fall colors left in it. We also did the shoreline autumn illumination at Lake Yamanaka, which was already past-peak for fall colors during our visit.
Tokyo – It’s been two weeks since we were in Tokyo, but at that point, colors were barely even beginning to change. In Shinjuku Gyoen and Rikugien Garden, there were barely any traces of colors, aside from a rogue tree here or there that had decided to start a bit earlier than its compatriots.
We’ll be back to Tokyo in mid-December, and are anticipating/hoping the autumn foliage will be at its peak around then. Expect an update then.
Unless there’s a secret location or hidden gem elsewhere, Kyoto is the epicenter of Japan’s fall colors season. Sure, there’s probably some remote mountainside that has quantifiably better autumn foliage, but Kyoto has what’s undeniably the best mix of natural and cultural beauty in Japan.
At least a dozen of its best and most important temples are set ablaze in glorious shades of crimson, yellow, and orange between late October and mid-December. We’re still in the process of visiting every key fall colors spot in Kyoto, but here are synopses of the places we’ve visited thus far…
Bishamondo Temple – Located in Yamashina, a suburb of Kyoto, I made two separate attempts to visit this Bishamondo Temple. The first time, I hiked from Nanzenji, arriving 5 minutes after the temple closed. I thought it closed 25 minutes after I arrived based on info I had found online. Nevertheless, I waited another ~30 minutes for when I thought the night illumination would begin given, again, online info. Much to my chagrin, there’s no nighttime illumination this year.
Not to be discouraged, we returned the following day, and it was completely worth it. Even though the famous path of red Japanese maples that leads to the temple was well past-peak, the inside of Bishamondo had plenty of color. It was also beautiful and relatively serene, despite us visiting on a national holiday. We recommend Bishamondo if you have the time and can make it work with your itinerary, or want something a bit quieter.
Chionin Temple – Currently undergoing massive, multi-year construction ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (a line that describes many points of interest in Japan), Chionin Temple is a place about which I’m currently torn. On the one hand, it’s free and parts of it are stunning. On the other hand, construction is loud and very intrusive.
In terms of fall foliage, it’s not a must-do, but it’s still nice. If you do elect to visit Chionin Temple and venture to the back of its sprawling complex, you’ll be rewarded with some beautiful pockets of fall colors. There’s also an autumn nighttime illumination, but we’ve thus far opted against doing it due to the construction. Chionin Temple peaks around mid-November.
Eikando Temple – It’s a bit surprising that Eikando is one of Kyoto’s most popular temples during fall colors season. To see its entire area, you need to drop 1,600 yen (1,000 for a daytime visit and 600 at night). Visiting twice might seem redundant, but the entire temple is not open at night, and it’s a must-do in the autumn for both.
That’s a hefty price to pay, but Eikando is arguably worth it. Whereas we felt it was overrated on a “regular” visit, Eikando deserves its lofty status during the fall. Most of Eikando Temple is currently at or near peak color.
Fushimi Inari – I did not visit Fushimi Inari with the intention of seeing fall colors (my goal was just a “normal” visit to our favorite shrine in Kyoto), as not a single resource I’ve consulted about autumn foliage location in Kyoto lists it. This is sad and disappointing, as I found Fushimi Inari to be one of the better spots once you get up to the higher mountain loop.
The fact that the vast majority of visitors don’t get past the main loop probably explains why it’s not a recommended fall colors spot. However, if you’re willing to hike to the summit of Mt. Inari (and you absolutely should–it’s really not that bad of a hike), you’ll be rewarded with beautiful view, tranquility, and some vibrant color. I’d say this area of Fushimi Inari peaks in mid-to-late November.
Kiyomizudera Temple – After my experience here during cherry blossom season–and after seeing photos of Kiyomizudera during the fall–I was incredibly eager to return to one of our favorite temples in Japan during its nighttime fall foliage illumination.
Unfortunately, its iconic main hall is completely enveloped in construction scrims, meaning the iconic scene of Kiyomizudera won’t be possible again until 2020. Despite this, it’s still one of the busier spots in Kyoto during the fall (or anytime, really). With both of those things in mind, we’d still strongly encourage you to visit: Kiyomizudera is worth it. Due to its number and variety of trees, I’d say Kiyomizudera Temple peaks slightly later and stays vibrant slightly longer than other temples in Kyoto. Anytime from the second week of November until the first week of December likely falls within the ‘peak’ time during a normal year.
Kodaiji Temple – It’s really difficult to rank all of the autumn nighttime illuminations experiences we’ve had in Kyoto, but right now, I’d be inclined to put Kodaiji Temple in the #1 slot. In large part, this is due to its diversity. There’s a placid reflecting pond lined with vibrant colors, beautiful rock and zen gardens, an illuminated bamboo grove…and a projection mapping show.
That last one might seem out of left field and is definitely not something you expect at a temple, but it’s surprisingly well-done. It makes good use of the environment and has some pretty visuals (AND DRAGONS!). The trees lining the hills at Kodaiji Temple are also stunning, making this a must-visit during the evening for any fall visitor to Kyoto. Kodaiji Temple has peak fall colors around mid-November.
Nanzenji Temple – The good news about Nanzenji Temple (one of our favorite temples in Kyoto) is that it has some of the best fall colors in Kyoto, much of the grounds where foliage is visible are free to explore, and it does a good job absorbing crowds.
The bad news is that Tenjuan Temple, the sub-temple where the autumn illumination occurs, is incredibly low capacity and draws lengthy lines even on weeknights. The foliage in Tenjuan Temple is beautiful and the lighting is careful, resulting in a wonderful experience–but the area is small. The unpaid areas of Nanzenji are currently slightly past peak color, with Tenjuan Temple being at its peak.
Path of Philosophers – Whereas the Path of Philosophers draws hordes of tourists during cherry blossom season (and rightfully so), it flies under the radar in the autumn. This is unfortunate.
Path of Philosophers is a great walk any time of the year–plus it’s a good way to get between the various temples in this area–and it has patches of really vibrant reds and oranges, too. Unfortunately, it’s a couple of weeks past peak at this point, but still worth your time if you’re already in the area (and you should be).
Shinnyodo Temple – I’m slightly embarrassed to say that this was our first visit to Shinnyodo. That’s too bad, as it has all the makings of the type of temple we enjoy: free, tall pagoda, pretty, and did we mention free?! Despite being a short walk from Nanzenji, Shinnyodo was far less crowded when we visited.
Its fire-red and orange momiji maple and kaede maple, plus yellow ginkgo trees (I had to look them up because they were so pretty) create such an oversaturated scene that almost looks surreal. Shinnyodo Temple is a definite sleeper pick for us, and we highly recommend it in the fall. This temple is currently at the front end of its peak.
Shorein Temple – The main draw during the autumn evening illuminations at Shorein Temple is the 1,000 blue lights that illuminate the ground outside of the main hall. There’s also lit-up foliage and a bamboo grove, among other things, but what draws most people here is the ground.
It’s a neat effect, to be sure, but I felt a tad underwhelmed seeing this in person. (Perhaps photos do it a bit too much justice?) It also seems to have less in the way of actual fall colors and more in terms of ‘warm lighting on normal trees.’ In any case, Shorein Temple is still a compelling evening option that draws fewer crowds than the high-profile temples. We recommend it mainly because other temples that do nighttime illuminations are a short walk from here, making it easy to visit.
Tofukuji Temple – One of the most popular spots in autumn, Tofukuji was absolutely mobbed with people–a seemingly endless stream pouring off tour buses–when we visited. There’s a lot to see here, both free and paid. It’s also easily accessible via the train and from Fushimi Inari.
As such, it’s no surprise that Tofukuji enjoys such popularity, especially given the iconic Tsutenkyo Bridge and the colorful valley of trees. We’d recommend arriving as close to 8:30 a.m. as possible (advice we’ll be following ourselves when we revisit) to beat the crowds. Tofukuji Temple is currently at peak color. Click here to see my fall colors photos of Tofukuji Temple, plus tips for visiting.
That covers everything…for now. We have a long list of temples in Kyoto to visit (and revisit) and our goal is to finish them all by the end of this week. If all goes according to plan, we’ll then hit a few spots in the outlying region, as well as Osaka and Nara. We will update this post every day with additional info about Kyoto’s colors, and we’ll also supplement this index of fall colors with additional photo-heavy posts showing each individual temple and shrine.
If you’re planning a visit to Kyoto, Japan, please check out my other posts about Kyoto for ideas of things to do (or not do) while there. Kyoto has a lot of things to see and do, so I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to help better develop an efficient plan while there.
Have you visited Japan in the autumn? Any nighttime illuminations you particularly enjoyed? Any temples, shrines, or other locations we should visit–especially hidden gems–during Japan’s fall colors season? Additional tips that we missed? Questions about any of these spots in Kyoto? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!