Our 1-day itinerary for fall colors season in Kyoto routes an efficient and mostly walkable path through some of the very best autumn foliage spots in all of Japan. You’ll see the koyo highlights of Kyoto, including free temples & shrines, gardens, and a handful of nighttime illuminations by following this touring plan.
If you’re planning to visit Kyoto between mid-November and early December for the peak of the city’s renowned fall colors season, you are not alone. It’s the busiest ~3 weeks of the year in Kyoto, with hellacious crowds, fully booked accommodations, and a payoff that is ultimately and completely worth it.
Because of the popularity of this season, we’ve designed this 1-day Kyoto Fall Colors Itinerary for people who get ‘shut out’ of Kyoto during the peak of autumn foliage season, and are forced to commute from Osaka or elsewhere (we’ve been in your shoes!). Obviously, there are other scenarios that might leave you with only a single day in Kyoto, but that seems like the most plausible to us.
With that in mind, we want to be crystal clear that you cannot see all of Kyoto’s fall color highlights in a single day. We spent most of last November and December in Kyoto, going to temples and other spots daily, and we still didn’t see it all. It’s just not possible, and criss-crossing the city trying to see everything will leave you exhausted–and wasting hours in transit.
Instead of even trying to hit the hotspots in Arashiyama or popular parks in Central Kyoto, we are opting for a 1-day approach here that runs in a north-south line (for the most part) along the Higashiyama mountains on Kyoto’s eastern side. In so doing, you will skip a lot, but you’ll also see and savor a lot more…
Fushimi Inari Shrine – If you’ve read any of our other Kyoto itineraries, you won’t be even remotely surprised to find Fushimi Inari as the first stop on this one. It’s our favorite place in Japan–an unquestionable essential Kyoto experience.
This is an aggressive itinerary, and you really need to finish with Fushimi Inari by 8 a.m. for the best results here. That means arriving by around 6:30 a.m. for sunrise. We promise it’s absolutely worth the early wake-up call. An a.m. hike through the torii gates with the crisp morning air and without the crowds is perfect, and you’ll get to the tree-covered stretch right as the rising sun is illuminating them with a radiant glow. Read and see more in our full post about Fall Colors at Fushimi Inari.
Tofukuji Temple – After finishing at Fushimi Inari Shrine, you’ll walk to Tofukuji, arriving right as the temple opens. Tsutenkyo Bridge is the most crowded spot in Kyoto during fall colors season, with tour buses dropping people off by the hundreds later in the morning, so you’ll absolutely want to be there by 8:30 a.m. to beat those crowds.
After you’re done at the temple, walk to Tofukuji Station where you’ll catch the Keihan Main Line to Demachiyanagi Station and transfer to the Eizan Line bound for Ichijōji Station. It’s a long commute to Northern Kyoto, but it’ll give you a chance to catch your breath.
Enkoji Temple – One of the most underrated temples in all of Kyoto, perched atop an overlook at the base of the mountains. Paths at Enkoji Temple will take you higher, giving you a view above the tree line, which is breathtaking. Beyond that, Enkoji has some great range: numerous buildings, serene gardens, a small bamboo forest, fusuma art, and more.
After Enkoji, you’ll need to decide whether you want to go by foot or by bus to your next stop. If you’re in moderately good shape, we’d recommend walking. There are a couple other temples to the south (Manshuin and Shisendo) that you might want to do, and the area is pretty and peaceful.
Silver Pavilion (optional) – Ginkakuji Temple is one of the top sights to see in Kyoto year-round, but there’s not much value added during fall colors season. Most of the lower-level trees are pines and shrubs, and although you’ll see some maples as you stroll higher through its gardens, “you’ll see some maples” is a statement that could be made about literally any temple in Kyoto.
Whether you should do the Silver Pavilion really comes down to your priorities. It’s a Kyoto must-do, and this is the easiest place to slot it into your itinerary, even if you do “non-foliage” stuff another day. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Silver Pavilion.
Path of Philosophers – One of the most popular spots during cherry blossom season, Path of Philosophers is a veritable hidden gem during the autumn. This is unfortunate, as the momiji lining the path are absolutely resplendent.
Not only that, but Philosopher’s Path is quite simply a good route from a utilitarian perspective, as it provides a direct route between Silver Pavilion and Nanzenji Temple, with some great stops in between. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Philosopher’s Path.
Honenin Temple – While it probably wouldn’t make a list of the top 20 Kyoto fall colors spots, Honenin has one distinct advantage: location. It’s a diversion from Path of Philosophers that’s literally a few minutes away.
In autumn, Honenin Temple twin sand mounds, thatched gate, and other features are covered by a canopy of colorful foliage that really makes the scenery pops. Even though it’s not the best, it’s still very good–and uncrowded! Click here to read and see more in our full post about Honenin Temple.
Shinnyodo Temple – This is one of the best fall colors spots in Kyoto that is also one of the least crowded, which is a rarity that makes it one of the must-do spots on this itinerary. The highlight here is the three-storied pagoda framed by deep red maple leaves, but the entire grounds are beautiful in the fall.
Once you’re done at Shinnyodo Temple, continue deviating from the Philosopher’s Path route by heading uphill to the pagoda in Kurodani Temple, which is directly to the south from the rear entrance of Shinnyodo Temple. (The route is tricky, and Google Maps takes the long way around.)
Nanzenji Temple – After Shinnyodo and Kurodani Temples, you’ll veer back towards Philosopher’s Path, skipping over Eikando Zenrinji Temple (for now), and stopping at Nanzenji Temple, which is one of our favorite free temples in Kyoto. While here, make sure to check out the aqueducts and trees around the back corners of the temple, where some of the best colors can be found.
You might also consider visiting some of the paid subtemples and gardens where beautiful foliage abounds. Tenjuan is the most popular of these, and its nighttime illumination draws long lines due to its low capacity, which is why we skip it in this itinerary. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Nanzenji Temple.
Eikando Temple – If you’ve also read our Top 10 Kyoto, Japan Fall Colors Spots post, you know this ranks #1 for us. Known as “Eikando of Fall Colors” among Kyotoites, there are some 3,000 maple trees on Eikando’s sprawling, mountainside grounds that are just stunning.
In fact, that ranking is so strong here that we’re going to recommend double-dipping on Eikando Zenrinji Temple, doing it both during its daytime hours, leaving for a quick food break, and returning for the start of the nighttime illumination. Note that the total cost for both visits will be 1,600 yen (1,000 for daytime and 600 for night), so if you’re content doing one or the other, go for the evening illumination. Read and see more in our Autumn Nighttime Illumination at Eikando Temple post.
Kodaiji Temple – This is the overall best fall nighttime illumination in Kyoto with a high-tech projection mapping show in the temple’s garden, illuminated buildings, and an ethereal bamboo pathway. You might note that all of these things are unrelated to fall colors, which is accurate.
As for the fall component of Kodaiji Temple’s nighttime illumination, the vibrant maple leaves reflected in the placid water of Garyuchi Pond is the highlight. Still, this earns a spot in your itinerary because of its well-rounded nature–other temples are better as pure fall destinations. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kodaiji Temple.
Kiyomizudera Temple – From Kodaiji Temple you’ll walk south through the peaceful nighttime setting of Higashiyama District, which gets progressively busier as you head towards the most famous fall illumination in all of Japan. Kiyomizudera is a top temple in Kyoto any day of the year, and its brilliance is emphasized during autumn by the one-thousand maple trees forming a sea of red koyo along the temple’s hillside.
Walking around the upper area of the temple and through the main hall (which is, unfortunately, under scrims until 2020) and then down below through that sea of color is an unforgettable experience. Everything that is great about Kiyomizudera during the day is taken up a notch with its buildings and trees lit up, and you’ll want to savor your time at Kiyomizudera, staying until the very end of the nighttime illumination, outlasting the last of the crowds for a truly serene experience. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Fall Nighttime Illuminations at Kiyomizudera Temple.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Kyoto during fall colors season? What did you think–was it worth bearing the crowds or would you recommend a different time of year? Any other spots you’d include in this 1-day autumn foliage Kyoto itinerary? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does traveling to Japan during fall colors season interest you? Hearing your 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!