It’s difficult to narrow down the best fall colors locations in Kyoto down to a top 10 list. From foliage dotting the hillsides of Arashiyama to tree-lined temples of Higashiyama and everywhere in between, autumn in Japan’s ancient capital is a veritable sea of koyo (colorful leaves). The Japanese maple trees seem especially deep and vibrant in Kyoto, and in this post we’re going to focus on the best places for seeing these explosions of fall colors.
If your time in Kyoto is limited, the good news is that all but one of these locations can be visited during a two day stay in the city. In fact, our 2-Day Kyoto Highlights Itinerary can be modified to include all of these spots. It will require cutting a couple of other temples and shrines (which we probably wouldn’t recommend), but it’s doable.
The other good news is that pretty much no matter where you go in Kyoto (aside from the city-center), you’ll see breathtaking fall colors. Kyoto in November is our favorite time of year in our favorite city, and everywhere you look, the natural scenery looks like a Kodachrome masterpiece.
With all of that said, at some point soon, we’ll be back with a couple of autumn itineraries for Kyoto that focus on fall colors spots. There are some areas of the city and specific temples within those that are definitely better for koyo, and if you’re going to brave the mid-November to early December crowds that descend upon Kyoto each year, you might as well tailor your plans to seeing the best foliage spots…
10. Kitano Tenmangu Shrine – This list is mostly in no particular order after the top 3 (which are the most popular spots) and the last two, which are the most difficult to incorporate into our existing 2-day Kyoto itinerary. Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is not particularly far out of the way (it’s somewhat near the Golden Pavilion, which is not at all a fall colors location), but it is surprisingly tricky to get to.
If you can find a way to slot it into your itinerary, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful ‘loop’ of maple trees in the shrine’s paid garden. This location is especially popular with locals, and decidedly less so with tour buses, which is also nice. The one downside, from our perspective, is that the paid area is somewhat isolated from the main shrine, meaning there aren’t really any iconic photo ops of shrine buildings or features juxtaposed with the vibrant colors.
9. Bishamondo Temple – The hillside pathway leading to this small temple near JR Yamashina Station is one of the most recognizable scenes of fall in Kyoto as it’s covered with red in the trees, red on the ground, and red in the temple. There’s plenty of vibrant reds and oranges inside, as both the maples and buildings pop with color.
Despite the fame of the approach, Bishamondo Temple itself is fairly under the radar. It’s in a somewhat suburban area and is a hassle to reach from some places in central Kyoto, which likely keeps the tour groups and foreign visitors away. We love Bishamondo Temple, and would recommend paying it a fall visit if you’ve got the time.
8. Jojakkoji Temple – When I was scouting locations to visit in Kyoto, it seemed like every single resource just lumped every spot on the western side of Kyoto into “Arashiyama.” While these mountains are rich with color in the fall, that’s about as helpful of a suggestion as lumping half this list together as “Higashiyama.”
Within Arashiyama, there are several great fall colors spots: Iwatayama Monkey Park, Tenryuji Temple, Okochi Sanso Villa, and Nisonin Temple–just to name a few. However, the standout of these is Jojakkoji Temple, which features a thick canopy of fall colors at the center of the temple, with a beautiful pagoda and sea of maple below as you climb higher along the hillside. I’d add that Jojakkoji is a real chamelon, taking on a totally different atmosphere and appearance with each season.
7. Mount Inari – Read any list of the best things to do in Kyoto, and you’ll find Fushimi Inari Shrine in the top 3. Read any list of the top fall colors spots in Kyoto, and you won’t find Fushimi Inari, period. This is understandable, as the pathways of torii gates conceals the natural world almost entirely from visitors.
It’s also at least somewhat inaccurate, as Mount Inari, the namesake location of the shrine, is bursting with color outside of the torii gates. There are plenty of opportunities to see this if you deviate from the main path to explore subtemples, or follow our hiking “recommendation” to the summit detailed in our Secret Bamboo Forest of Fushimi Inari Shrine post. It’s a bit of work, but it’s worth it. (If it’s your first visit, consider taking the normal torii path up, and the hike down, or vice-a-versa.)
6. Kodaiji Temple – This one makes the list because it has the overall best fall nighttime illumination in Kyoto. The emphasis there should be on overall rather than fall, as the foliage alone wouldn’t push Kodaiji into the top 10 here.
However, an evening event that includes a projection mapping show, illuminated buildings, and an ethereal bamboo pathway elevates Kodaiji’s autumn nighttime illumination into something spectacular. As for the fall component of that is the sight of the koyo reflected in the placid water of Garyuchi Pond. It’s resplendent, and along the shoreline is where the largest crowds of the night gather to capture photos of that iconic scene.
5. Path of Philosophers – Given its fame and popularity during spring cherry blossom season, I was bracing myself for epic crowds along the Path of Philosophers during fall foliage season. I walked this path a lot given that some of my favorite spots are along it, and to my surprise, there were a number of occasions when I didn’t see anyone for several minutes at a time.
Despite the lack of crowds, there is no lack of beauty along Path of Philosophers in autumn. The contemplative path is beautiful year-round, but comes alive with color in the fall, and provides plenty of worthwhile stops along the way, with hidden gems such as Honenin Temple and the seldom-open Anrakuji Temple providing beautiful, low-profile stops along the route.
4. Shinnyodo Temple – After a top 3 that draw wall-to-wall people during fall colors season, this is your first reprieve from the crowds. You won’t see any tour buses at Shinnyodo Temple, and you might only see a handful of other people during your visit. (That has been my experience during both fall colors and cherry blossom seasons.)
I can’t really call it a hidden gem or some secret discovery–I learned about it via several resources that ranked it highly for fall colors in Kyoto. And yet, it remains uncrowded. That’s great news for anyone who wants photos of Shinnyodo Temple’s three-storied pagoda framed by fall colors.
3. Kiyomizudera Temple – Is Kiyomizudera an overrated fall colors spot? Eh, maybe. The challenge with ranking these locations is weighing their fall beauty with their everyday beauty. Kiyomizudera is a top spot in Kyoto year-round, and its brilliant features are only further exaggerated during autumn by the plethora of maples around the main hall and around the temple grounds.
With that said, I don’t think the sight of the trees alone is as impressive at Kiyomizudera Temple as it is at other locations on this list. The thing is, you can’t really separate the two types of beauty, and fall is the best time of year to visit the always-exceptional Kiyomizudera. We’re huge fans of this temple, and it’s one of two that we’d recommend doing both early in the day and at the end of the end of the night to catch the autumn evening illuminations at Kiyomizudera Temple.
2. Tofukuji Temple – The Tsutenkyo Bridge at Tofukuji is the most popular fall colors spot in all of Kyoto, if not all of Japan. It’s so popular that stopping for photos is not allowed on the bridge due to the congestion it causes, and last year, the circular path of guests at Tofukuji was re-routed to further alleviate crowd issues. I had the bright idea to head here on the Labor Thanksgiving Day holiday, and wrote about my experience with crowds during fall colors season at Tofukuji Temple.
Despite the crowds and congestion, Tofukuji Temple is entirely worth it. The valley below Tsutenkyo Bridge must have thousands of orange and red maple trees, and the view from atop that bridge is unforgettable. Walking through the valley is likewise a memorable experience, and the Gaunkyo Bridge also provides great views looking back at Tsutenkyo Bridge.
1. Eikando Temple – A serene and uncrowded spot any other time of year, this temple’s popularity spikes in November when it’s affectionately known as “Eikando of Fall Colors” among Kyotoites. For many locals, Eikando Zenrinji Temple is the place to go for autumn foliage viewing, and its nighttime illumination is the busiest one we’ve experienced in Kyoto.
Given that there are some 3,000 maple trees on Eikando’s sprawling, mountainside grounds, this reputation is well-deserved. Even more so than with Kiyomizudera, our recommendation here is to make two visits: once during the day and once at night. During the evening illumination, the entire temple is not open, so to get up to the pagoda, you’ll need to return for a daytime visit.
BONUS: One of our biggest regrets during our month spent in Kyoto during fall colors season and winter was that we didn’t make more of an effort to explore the outlying areas. When we returned for another month during spring, we did exactly this, and found a number of gems we previously missed, many of which are highly-regarded during the fall.
From our overall impressions during subsequent visits, we’ve extrapolated that Yoshiminedera, Jissoin, Enkoji, and Daigoji Temples, plus the villages of Kurama, Kibune, Takao, and Ohara would all likely be great fall colors spots. Obviously, this is going to be a challenge on a shorter trip, but if you have around a week in Kyoto, it’s worth dedicating a day or two to out-of-the-way locations. (A couple of our Kyoto itineraries offer step-by-step touring plans for exactly that!)
If you’re planning a trip to the 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 of the experience? Did it live up to the hype? Any favorite spots or tips of your own to add? If you haven’t been to Kyoto during autumn, does it interest you? Any questions? Hearing your feedback is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!