Kyoto’s Hidden Gem Special Night Illumination

One of Kyoto, Japan’s best autumn illuminations is held at Konkaikomyo-ji or Kurodani Temple. This is near Heian Shrine, Shinnyodo, Honenin, Eikando, and other popular fall colors spots. We attended its special evening opening and share our photos and thoughts on the experience here.

If you’re looking for a normal overview of the temple, daytime photos, how to include this in your Japan itinerary, why we recommend visiting, etc., please refer to our Konkaikomyoji Temple Info & Tips post. That’s a thorough and comprehensive look at one of our most-visited spots in all of Kyoto. (It’s free!)

By contrast, this is simply meant to be a quick look at a special event about which there is next to no info (at least in English) online. Our goal is to give you an idea of what Konkai Komyoji Temple’s autumn illumination is like, whether it’s worth your time, and so on…

The first thing you should know is that Kurodani Temple does not do a fall colors illumination every year. It has for at least the last two years, but we’ve been in Kyoto other years when it definitely was not happening.

The easiest way to find out whether the “Autumn Travels in Kyoto Promotion Special Opening” is occurring is trying to decipher as much on Konkai Komyoji Temple’s official site. (That site also has images of some things we weren’t allowed to photograph.)

Failing that, we highly recommend visiting the Kyoto Tourist Information Center for a free handout on all of the special illuminations when you arrive in the city.

There’s one of these in Kyoto Station, one by Yasaka Pagoda, and a handful of others scattered around in popular tourist spots. These are accurate and incredibly useful resources.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that what’s included in the autumn special opening at Kurodani Temple seems to change each year.

One year, you could enter the Sanmon Gate and ascend its stairs. Another year, that wasn’t an option. The one consistent is the opening of the temple’s back garden, known as Purple Cloud Garden.

Purple Cloud Garden depicts the life of Honen, the founder of Pure Land Buddhism. The garden features large and small rocks representing Honen and the people around him.

Kurodani Temple’s stroll garden features lovely maple trees that reflect off the mirror-like surface of a temple pond during night-time illuminations.

Had we visited later in the season, all of the green trees in the frame above would’ve been fiery red–we’ll definitely have to revisit next time we’re in Kyoto for peak fall colors.

Unfortunately, although we’ve visited Kurodani Temple many times, we’ve only had the chance to enter Purple Cloud Garden one time.

When we did, we were blown away by the landscape design. This temple is “nestled” in a fairly dense residential district, and one of the reasons we visit regularly is essentially because you have to walk through it to get to Northern Higashiyama. It’s neat how the temple is literally part of its surrounding neighborhood, but also not exactly conducive to a serene experience.

Accordingly, we didn’t have high expectations for Purple Cloud Garden. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Apparently, NHK shot a taiga drama (historical period-piece limited run television series) here called Taira no Kiyomori, and the network did a ton of work to redesign and enhance the garden.

The result is a raised berm around the outer edge of Purple Cloud Garden that is densely lined with trees.

This conceals the adjacent homes and apartments that are literally mere feet away from Kurodani Temple. It feels like you’re inside a secluded forest–it’s really remarkable how effective the landscape design of Konkaikomyoji’s temple garden is.

In addition to being able to walk around the stroll garden at Konkai Komyoji Temple, you are also able to enter areas of the main hall that are normally closed to visitors.

Photos are not allowed inside, but there are some beautiful fusuma paintings, including trick art of tigers. There’s also a painting of fowl by Ito Jakucho, a highly-regarded early modern Japanese artist. The temple describes this one as “chickens with comical looks upon their faces.” We don’t disagree with that description.

While the art is nice, the unequivocal highlight for us was the live koto (a Japanese stringed musical instrument) performance of traditional Japanese music inside the main hall.

The musician has several showtimes (posted on the wall) throughout the evening, and we watched one before strolling around the Purple Cloud Garden, and a second one after finishing in the garden.

We’ve never seen anything like these koto performances at another nighttime illumination. While the whole thing was a memorable experience, that’s really what pushed Kurodani Temple’s special opening over the top for us.

The koto musician added to the serenity of the experience, and it helped that the crowd on the evening we attended was incredibly small. Kurodani Temple is not among Kyoto’s tourist hot spots–in fact, we were the only non-Japanese guests in the audience that evening.

Ultimately, there’s something to be said about Kurodani Temple being an off-the-beaten-path hidden gem. There’s even more to be said for the live music, and that atmospheric and relaxing quality it gives to Konkai Komyoji Temple. You won’t find that anywhere else–even temples that are less popular with foreign visitors.

Suffice to say, Konkai Komyoji Temple is a highly worthwhile and peaceful hidden gem–both during the daytime (when it’s free to visit) and for the paid nighttime illumination. While it probably won’t be among your top 3, we could see this special opening ranking in your top 5 or 10. Given that it’s convenient to incorporate into an evening with other Higashiyama illuminations, we’d recommend finding a way to do it if you have a few nights in Kyoto. That ambiance is at the heart of the Kyoto experience, and elevates Kurodani to must-do status.

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! 

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Kurodani Temple for its nighttime illumination? What did you think of the experience? Do you think its authentic ambiance and views make it worth experiencing? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? 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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