Seeing the spring cherry blossoms in Kyoto is on many a bucket list, but an equally awesome time to visit the city is during the autumn colours (the Japanese word is koyo, 紅葉, lit. red leaves). The cherry trees go first, starting in mid-October, and by November the hillsides are mottled with varying shades and colours; but the real star of the show is the momiji (Japanese maple) in late November/early December, which achieves such a brilliantly defiant shade of red that it almost looks fake.
The autumn colours have a much longer window than the cherry blossoms, making them easier to plan for; for the very best colours in the city itself, time your visit for late November/early December. If you’re there a bit earlier (early-mid November) you can still see them by heading to the hills north of the city (see Kurama and Takao below). October’s too early for the best colours, but they’ll be starting to go in the hills and it’s still a lovely time to visit the city (as long as you don’t happen to be there for a typhoon, anyway)
So, presented in no particular order, here are the best places to catch the autumn colours in & around Kyoto (plus one in Osaka):
Shinnyodo is an impressive and beautiful temple complex which would enjoy great fame in any other city: however in this city of shrines and temples it doesn’t quite achieve star billing. All the better for visiting it!
The temple’s grounds are packed with maple trees, and the combination of the bright red leaves with the old wooden buildings makes for some good photography opportunities. This is as close to a secret insider tip as I can give… while Shinnyodo is hardly a hidden treasure, it sees far fewer visitors than the likes of Tofukuji and Eikan-do, yet its colours are every bit as brilliant and it’s my favourite koyo spot within the city itself. Shinnyodo is walkable from Heian Shrine or the Philosopher’s Path, and stands on the same hill as the lovely Kurodani Temple (which is my favourite cherry blossom spot in the city).
This small village in the hills north of Kyoto is famous in Japanese folklore for its associations with the tengu (a race of mischievous forest spirits, see here) and the story of Yoshitsune-no-Minamoto, Japan’s favourite tragic hero.
It’s also a beautiful area of rivers running down through forested mountain valleys which come alive with colour in autumn. The train line you take to reach Kurama (the Eizan Line) passes through a so-called ‘koyo tunnel’ where the maple trees are so closely spaced alongside the tracks that they form a tunnel of red foliage; the train slows down as it passes through this section and the trees are lit up at night. More info on their site here, and there’s a video here
For a suggested hiking route in the Kurama area, see here
Another area of beautiful rivers running through forested valleys, Takao is located near Arashiyama and Mt Atago (Kyoto’s highest mountain), and is home to Jingo-ji – a hilltop temple renowned for its autumn colours and also for the practice of kawarakanage, which basically involves loading your bad karma into small clay discs then throwing them from a platform down into the valley below. It’s probably the most fun you’ll ever have at a temple!
While you can just visit Takao and Jingo-ji in their own right, the best way to enjoy the area is to hike from Takao to Kiyotaki, or perhaps all the way to Arashiyama. For access information and hiking route details, see here.
One of the two most famous koyo spots in Kyoto city itself, Tofukuji sees some intense crowds in autumn – to such a degree the police actually close the surrounding roads off for the peak days (the other super-famous super-crowded one is Eikan-do). For that reason I hesitate to recommend Tofukuji (or Eikan-do), but the colours really are spectacular and a visit to Tofukuji can be combined with nearby Fushimi Inari for a nice hike with some cracking autumn scenery. These pictures don’t really do it justice as they were taken on a miserable day – I went in the rain to catch it with slightly less mental crowds!
See here for the suggested hiking route
Fushimi Inari (伏見稲荷)
Although not really known for its autumn colours, there are plenty of maple trees dotted around Fushimi Inari.
The thousands of brightly coloured torii gates for which Fushimi Inari is famous combine with the red leaves to good effect, yet Fushimi Inari is spared the worst of the autumn crowds.
Another large, beautiful temple complex which would be centre stage in any other city, Nanzenji is home to a famous Meiji-era brick aqueduct in addition to the usual wooden temple buildings.
This aqueduct is one of the most photographed spots in Kyoto; it’s also an interesting little bit of history, being part of the Lake Biwa Canal system. If you have enough time (and like a long walk), autumn’s a good time to hike the whole canal from Lake Biwa to Kyoto as described here (another temple famed for its colours, Bishamon-do, can be visited along the route). If that sounds like too much, you could combine Nanzenji with the nearby Philosopher’s Path and Silver Temple.
Nanzenji’s always nice, but it really comes into its own when all the maple trees in the vicinity of the Sanmon Gate do their autumn thing:
One of Kyoto’s most famous temples, Kiyomizu-dera is great to visit at any time, but particularly so during the spring blossoms and autumn koyo. It gets pretty crowded, but it’s worth the hassle!
Minoh Koen (箕面公園)
If you’re in Osaka and don’t have time for Kyoto, this park on the city’s northern edge is a nice alternative for some koyo viewing. The main walking trail takes you from the station up through the forest past some nice temples and a random insect museum to Minoh Waterfall, a walk of around 45 minutes.
Minoh Station is on the Hankyu Railway, taking around half an hour from Umeda on the Takarazuka Line with a change to the Minoh Line at Ishibashi (see the Hankyu route map here)
Minoh Park is also the place to try momiji tempura – literally, battered & fried maple leaves! The flavour (sesame) actually comes from the oil, while the leaves just give it a nice shape and a slight crunch. They’re absolutely delicious, and you can grab a bag or three (get three) from the shops in the environs of the station and the start of the trail.
Not included in this roundup, but usually listed as one of the very best koyo spots, is Eikan-do. The colours there are spectacular, but it gets so absurdly crowded I don’t know how anyone could enjoy it; they also bump the entrance fee up to a very steep 1,000 yen in autumn. If you do want to go, it’s just north of Nanzenji (between Nanzenji and the Philosopher’s Path); here’s a video of Eikan-do in autumn without ten million people in the way!
Another famous one is Daigo-ji, though the only time I’ve been there in autumn my timing was just off (slightly too late for the cherry trees, slightly too early for the maples). There’s a steep hiking trail up to the upper temple area on the ridge behind, with great views out as far as Osaka on clear days.
Have you seen the koyo in Kyoto? Any questions or comments? Give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you.
For autumn colours in Tokyo, see here
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