Tofukuji Temple, particularly the valley below Tsutenkyo Bridge, is one of the best spots for fall colors in Japan. In terms of its autumn foliage, it’s not just a top spot in Kyoto (and it is), but the entirety of Japan. Perhaps even the world. In this post, we’ll cover our experiences at Tofukuji Temple, share photos of the fall foliage, and offer tips for visiting to avoid crowds.
We’ve visited Tofukuji Temple several times already, which is largely due to its location near where we’re staying in Kyoto, which is near Fushimi Inari and only about a 10-15 minute walk to Tofukuji. As I mention in our Where to Stay in Kyoto, Japan post, this area is one of my favorites in Kyoto. It’s also a comparatively cheap area of Kyoto for rentals. But I digress.
Actually, before I un-digress (if that’s a thing), I should probably mention the autumn foliage crowds we’ve encountered in Kyoto. In actuality, I should do a separate post about holiday and weekend crowds in Kyoto as something of an “illustrated cautionary tale.” (I’m not sure if I’ll get around to that, so I at least want to mention it here.) Suffice to say, we’ve experienced some heavy crowds and long lines during the heart of fall colors season in Kyoto, but nothing quite like on Labor Thanksgiving Day…
My plan was to arrive to Tofukuji Temple right when it opened at 8:30 a.m. to beat the holiday weekend crowds. After getting held up by a train delay (not one that I was on…several that kept an intersection I needed to cross blocked for over 5 minutes), I arrived at 8:35 a.m.
The far side of Tofukuji Temple was totally empty as you’d expect at such an hour, so things were looking up at first. Then I walked to the other side, where the bus drop-off was located. From what I could see, there were already several buses in the lot, and a dozen or so groups congregated around flags. My hope was that they’d primarily be in the free areas, and I’d still have an uncrowded experience around Tsutenkyo Bridge and Kaisando Hall.
Unfortunately, there were several more groups inside the paid area. Groups aside, there were just a ton of people in general. Collectively, we formed an amorphous blob that slowly snaked through the narrow pathways to get to Kaisando Hall. It was incredibly slow-going, with almost no personal space. Imagine a train at rush hour, except progressing along a pathway.
While this degree of congestion has been atypical, heavy crowds have been the norm. The area around where we’re staying has been so crowded that it has scared us away from doing any of the popular temples on weekends, instead focusing on the hidden gems. The moral of the story is that developing an efficient itinerary for Kyoto–and perhaps avoiding the city entirely on weekends–is altogether necessary if you’re visiting during peak season.
Okay, now my digression is over. If I can work up the courage, I’ll make an effort to document some of these heavy crowds a bit more and do a full write-up just to scare you a bit more in a future post. 😉
Even with those heavy crowds in mind, it was totally worth it to see the valley below Tsutenkyo Bridge ablaze with its autumn foliage.
Beyond Tofukuji Temple being ‘worth it’ in terms of handling the crowds, I don’t really have much to say. I could string together a few more superlatives, but the salient point is that Tsutenkyo Bridge within Tofukuji Temple is an absolute must-do during fall colors season.
I know that peak autumn foliage varies every year due to summer rainfall, temperature, and other weather factors, but if you visit Kyoto sometime in mid-to-late November or early December, you’re going to see some amount of vibrant colors at Tsutenkyo Bridge.
Mid-November is typically around the peak of the autumn foliage season in Kyoto, but I noticed that Tofukuji Temple has a wide array of trees, and some had yet to change while others had already lost many of their leaves.
Between that and the sheer number of trees in the valley, I’m guessing the peak window of time to view Tsutenkyo Bridge’s fall colors is slightly longer than normal.
In terms of other things you should know…well, I’ve already fixated on the crowds point, but it bears reiterating that crowds here get hellaciously bad. Going on a weekday morning is going to be your best bet. It’s also worth pointing out that Tofukuji Temple is one of the few ‘big’ fall colors spots in Kyoto that doesn’t do a nighttime illumination.
This is unfortunate, as it’d instantly be the best one in all of Kyoto if the trees in the valley below Tsutenkyo Bridge were lit at night. It seems that some of the illuminated locations in Kyoto rotate annually, so perhaps Tofukuji will receive an illumination in the future? That alone might be enough to get us to book a trip to Japan!
One other thing that I thought was interesting was that there were several ‘no photography’ signs on Tsutenkyo Bridge and several staff members positioned on the bridge yelling something in Japanese (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it was also about photography). Despite this, roughly half of all visitors were stopping to take photos.
What struck me as interesting wasn’t the rule itself, but that it was being so blatantly disregarded and there were no actual efforts at individual enforcement. Normally, if you even raise your camera in an area where photography isn’t allowed, someone races over to stop you. (And that’s often in places where there aren’t even signs informing you that photography isn’t allowed!)
Yet at Tsutenkyo Bridge, nothing. Given the abundance of signs and staff, this was a surprise. It made me think maybe it wasn’t a really-for-real rule, but just a (temporary?) measure to ease congestion.
In which case, the existence of the rule is enough to prevent half of the visitors from taking photos, which in turn is enough to ease congestion…while the other half of the guests, the foreign tourists, break the rule and take photos.
Tsutenkyo Bridge was the only spot where I noticed any signs regarding photography at Tofukuji Temple. There are several other areas, including the covered walkway of the Gaunkyo Bridge, that are very narrow (more narrow than Tsutenkyo Bridge in spots) where photography was allowed, and traffic came to a standstill at times on those.
Given that this was around 9 a.m., I can only imagine how bad things got as the day progressed.
With it likely that a record number of visitors will book vacations to Japan as a result of the promotional effect of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, some other measure to fight congestion–such as limiting entry and having a line form outside of the ticketed area, a strategy employed by a couple of the night illumination sites we’ve visited in Kyoto–seems like a better approach.
Overall, a visit to Tofukuji Temple during fall colors season is a must, irrespective of when you go and what type of crowds you might encounter. Of the daytime autumn foliage viewing locations we’ve visited thus far, Tofukuji Temple ranks as my favorite. The main temple is less impressive but still worth the (free!) price; at only 400 yen for access to Tsutenkyo Bridge, it’s well-worth that additional charge.
If you’re planning a visit to Kyoto during autumn, check out our Guide to Fall Colors in Japan, which highlights what to expect from several locations. Also check out our other posts about Kyoto for ideas of things to do (or not do) while there.
Have you visited Tofukuji Temple in the autumn? Did you experience heavy congestion and crowds at Tsutenkyo Bridge? Was it still ‘worth it’ from your perspective? Any additional tips to add for Kyoto or Japan’s fall colors season? 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!