2-Day Kyoto, Japan Fall Colors Itinerary

If you have two days to spend in Kyoto during autumn foliage season, our step-by-step itinerary guides you through the best fall colors temples & shrines in Arashiyama, Higashiyama, and more in an efficient manner to avoid the crowds as much as possible, and maximize your time in Japan’s most beautiful city for fall colors.

As with our 1-Day Kyoto Fall Colors Highlights Itinerary, this is mostly a walking tour. You’ll want to use buses and trains a few times, but most of this is by foot. Kyoto’s stunning fall colors are not isolated to temples and shrines, and strolling through traditional Japanese neighborhoods punctuated by momiji and ginkgo is a memorable experience.

Also as with that shorter itinerary, this doesn’t take you to every beautiful koyo spot in Kyoto. There are a number of excellent spots in more remote, mountainous areas that require longer commutes. Doing it all in two days simply is not possible.  The good news is that this Kyoto fall colors touring plan hits the majority of the highlights; in other words, everywhere a guided tour would take you–and then some.

If you have more than two days in Kyoto, we’d recommend pairing this itinerary with one of our normal 1-day Kyoto itineraries. Which one depends upon your priorities. If you want more fall colors away from the crowds, our 1-Day Northern Kyoto Itinerary or 1-Day Southern Kyoto Itinerary. If you’ve got ‘temple fatigue’ or are good on colors at this point, try our 1-Day Central Kyoto Itinerary. We’d also recommend making time for other nighttime illuminations each evening.

With that said, here’s our recommended 2-day fall colors itinerary for Kyoto…

Day 1

Fushimi Inari Shrine – The staple of our Kyoto itineraries, Fushimi Inari is our favorite place in Japan. For reasons beyond me, it’s usually omitted from ‘best of’ fall colors lists.

Note that it is imperative that you are finished with Fushimi Inari Taisha by 8 a.m. for the best results here. That means arriving to the shrine right before sunrise (~6:30 a.m. during peak fall colors season). This might seem overzealous if you’re hoping for a relaxing vacation in Japan, but we promise that it’s absolutely worth it. An early 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.

Tofukuji Temple – After finishing at Fushimi Inari Shrine, you’ll walk to Tofukuji (you can also hike from the summit of Mt. Inari, but that’s a bit more intense), arriving just before the temple opens. We noted that this is imperative above because the 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.

After you’re done at Tofukuji, walk back to the station where you’ll catch the JR Nara Line to Kyoto Station and transfer to the JR San-In Line bound for Saga-Arashiyama Station. It’s a long commute to the other side of Kyoto, but it’s worth the effort.

Tenryuji Temple – Ranked first among the city’s Five Great Zen Temples and registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tenryuji Temple is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Kyoto. And yet, we are not fans.

Nevertheless, you’ll want to see what it’s about for yourself, and on the plus side, fall is the perfect time to visit. With large maple trees surrounding Tenryuji’s main pond, this area is stunning in the autumn when the colors reflect in its placid waters.

Togetsukyo Bridge (optional– Before committing to this day of the itinerary, you should really sit down with Google Maps and plot out all of the stops on it to determine whether it’s realistic for the stamina level of your party. If it were me, I’d absolutely do the next two stops. However, I recognize that they add a lot of walking–and hiking–to the itinerary.

If you opt to do Togetsukyo Bridge and Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama (you might as well do both or neither), you’ll backtrack this way by foot, hike up to the monkey park, and then retrace your steps back past Tenryuji Temple. If you skip these stops, you’ll go directly out the back entrance of Tenryuji Temple and through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove to Okochi Sanso Villa.

Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama (optional) – Monkeys are good, fall colors are good, and mountains are good. Put the three together and you have a hike up a mountain dotted with fall colors and monkeys. I don’t know on what planet this is not an absolute must-do.

In fairness, the ~20 minute hike up can be strenuous and the fall colors you’ll see elsewhere are better than those at the summit of Kyoto’s Monkey Mountain. Nevertheless, this is one of our favorite things in Kyoto, and the cool breeze of autumn makes it a relatively pleasant hike. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kyoto Monkey Park

Okochi Sanso Villa – After passing through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (which has zero fall colors but is always enjoyable), you’ll find a narrow pathway that serves as the entrance to Okochi Sanso Villa, the former residence of Denjirō Ōkōchi, a famous Japanese samurai actor.

This traditional villa has gardens dedicated to each of the four seasons; between the brilliant fall colors on the grounds and the views of the Hozu River and valley below, it’s stunning during autumn. Okochi Sanso Villa is worth the 1,000 yen admission, which includes a cup of matcha and sweet treat. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Okochi Sanso Villa.

Jojakkoji Temple – A short walk north of Okochi Sanso Villa through a lovely part of Arashiyama is Jojakkoji Temple. This temple flies under the radar in every season except fall, which is unfortunate because it’s a real chameleon, transforming each season into something different–but always beautiful.

Jojakkoji Temple features a thick canopy of fall colors at the center of the temple, with a beautiful thatched gate that is an iconic image of Kyoto. Be sure not to miss the pagoda and sea of maple below as you climb higher along the hillside. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Jojakkoji Temple.

Chionin Temple (optional) – If you opt to make the optional stops in Arashiyama (as we’d recommend), Chionin Temple won’t be “optional” at all, as it’ll be closed. If the main temple here is still open, it’s worth climbing the steps up to the top here to view the foliage and get a bird’s eye view of the eastern side of Kyoto.

One thing to note here is that Chionin Temple also offers night illuminations in its Hojo and Yuzen Gardens. We view these as skippable, and think you’re better off splitting your time between the next two stops, and not rushing either of them. Irrespective of whether you do Chionin, you’re going to be taking the train/subway from Arashiyama to Higashiyama Station, which is an hour commute with a transfer.

Kodaiji Temple (Night Illumination) – The best overall nighttime illumination in Kyoto thanks to its range: a high-tech projection mapping show, illuminated buildings, spooky bamboo pathway, and usually a bizarre art exhibit inside the temple (our last visit, it “featured” a shirtless man with a gun…and a kitten).

As for the fall component of Kodaiji Temple’s nighttime illumination, the momiji reflected in Garyuchi Pond is the showstopper. Ultimately, Kodaiji earns a spot in the itinerary because it’s incredibly well-rounded. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kodaiji Temple

Kiyomizudera Temple (Night Illumination) – After a peaceful stroll through Higashiyama District at night, you’ll arrive at Kiyomizudera, Kyoto’s busiest temple and most popular night lighting event. During autumn, this temple’s 1,000+ maple trees form a sea of red koyo along the temple’s hillside.

This looks absolutely stunning at night, with many of these trees (and all of the temple buildings) illuminated. The atmosphere is perfect (even with the main hall under scrims until 2020), and strolling through that sea of color is an unforgettable experience. We highly recommend staying until the very end of Kiyomizudera’s nighttime illumination, outlasting 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.

Day 2

Kyoto Gyoen or Kuramadera Temple – With two locations that aren’t even remotely close to one another, this is a ‘choose your own adventure’ kinda deal. If you’d rather take the safe (and smart!) approach, opt for Kyoto Gyoen, which is the park that’s home to Kyoto Imperial Palace. This large public park is far from our favorite spot in the city, but it’s pretty in the fall, and free.

If you laughed off the notion that the previous day was a lot of walking, and are up early with a spring in your step, choose Kuramadera. This mountain temple far north of Kyoto will take about an hour to reach, but is our favorite spot in the city.

We really want to caution you here: doing Kuramadera will make this day even more ambitious than the previous one, and with more walking. In addition to the hour commute, it’ll easily take 2 hours to fully explore this mountainside temple. You really should read our full post about Kuramadera Temple before committing to it.

Enkoji Temple – The next stop is the underrated Enkoji Temple, which you’ll access via the Eizan Main Line regardless of which option you chose first.

Enkoji Temple is perched atop an overlook at the base of the mountains with paths that will take you even higher for a view above the tree line. Beyond that, Enkoji has some great range: numerous buildings, serene gardens, a small bamboo forest, fusuma art, and more.

Silver Pavilion (optional) – Ginkakuji Temple is one of the best temples in Kyoto, but it’s not much of a “fall” temple, so it’s optional here. Whether you should visit Silver Pavilion comes down to your priorities, but we’d recommend doing it.

As a Kyoto must-do, it’s worth seeing even if it’s not an overtly fall colors experience, and this is the easiest place to slot it into your itinerary. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Silver Pavilion

Path of Philosophers – A well-known walk in Kyoto, but something of a hidden gem outside of cherry blossom season when it draws huge crowds. This is unfortunate, as the maple trees give the path an autumn aura, and that coupled with the serenity makes it a fall must-do.

Not only that, but Philosopher’s Path is quite simply a good route from a utilitarian perspective, providing a direct route between Silver Pavilion and Nanzenji Temple, with great stops in between. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Philosopher’s Path

Honenin Temple – This temple is a diversion from Path of Philosophers that’s literally a few minutes away, so even though it doesn’t have an overpowering sense of fall to it, we feel it’s a worthy detour from your stroll.

During fall colors season, Honenin Temple’s twin sand mounds, thatched gate, and other features are covered by a canopy of colorful foliage that really makes the scenery pops. It’s a very good and uncrowded experience. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Honenin Temple.

Shinnyodo Temple – One of the best fall colors spots in Kyoto that’s also one of the least crowded, which is a rarity that makes Shinnyodo one of the must-do temples on this itinerary. The highlight here is the three-storied pagoda, which is surrounded by deep red maple leaves.

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 Shinnyodo Temple. (Don’t rely on Google Maps for this–just walk the alleyway and up the steps due south.)

Nanzenji Temple – Head back towards Philosopher’s Path, skipping over Eikando Zenrinji Temple (for now), and stopping here. Nanzenji Temple is one of our favorite free temples in Kyoto, especially in autumn.

Check out the aqueducts and trees around the back corners of the temple, where some of the best colors can be found. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Nanzenji Temple

Eikando Temple (Night Illumination) – 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. For us, this is the #1 fall colors spot in all of Kyoto.

To save on costs and time, we’re “only” recommending the nighttime illumination at Eikando Temple, but if you can find the time, doing the daytime opening is also recommended (and offers access to more areas of the temple). Read and see more in our Autumn Nighttime Illumination at Eikando Temple post.

Tenjuan Temple (Night Illumination) – This is a subtemple of Nanzenji that offers a nighttime illumination of its gardens, which can be viewed only from inside the temple building. Because of this, it’s incredibly limited in terms of capacity, which can mean lengthy lines even on weeknights.

Nevertheless, we recommend Tenjuan Temple if you’ve got two nights because the scenery is beautiful and the lighting is careful, resulting in a wonderful experience. It’s not even remotely contemplative or “zen” but it’s stunning.

Shorenin Temple (Night Illumination) (optional) – The primary draw of the autumn night lighting at Shorein Temple is the 1,000 blue lights illuminating the ground outside 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.

The blue lighting is surreal and pretty…but honestly, a tad underwhelming. In any case, Shorein Temple is still a compelling evening option that draws fewer crowds than the high-profile temples. We recommend it mainly it’s a short walk from Eikando and Nanzenji, so it should be easy to knock out all three in a single night. It’ll be another long and jam-packed day, but hopefully these two days in Kyoto during fall colors season we’re worth it!

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! 

Your Thoughts

Any other temples or shrines you’re considering for a two-day autumn foliage Kyoto itinerary? Have you visited Japan during fall colors season? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting 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!

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