Kyoto is the former Imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years. Like its old name “Heian-Kyo” (literally means “tranquility and peace”), the city peacefully remained the center of culture, history, religion, and tourism in Japan. Exploring the streets and alleys is a sweet and fulfilling experience, and it’s a good way to understand the Japanese culture for many first-timers. More, the seasons in Kyoto offer different sceneries, only you need to know to be at the right place at the right time.
Kyoto is one of the best places in Japan to view cherry blossoms. To learn more about the sceneries and trip planning, check out A Splendid Cherry Blossom Viewing Route in Kyoto, Japan in a Day. This time – we are going to Kyoto in the fall, renting a bike and exploring places with beautiful foliage.
Riding a bike to see foliage in Kyoto
Why bike? This former capital of Japan is much bigger than you think. It has over two thousand temples and shrines scattered in different parts of the city on the Yamashiro Basin, which is surrounded by low-rise hills and highlands. The tremendous amount of attractions made it almost impossible to visit them all in one go (or even list them in the same blog in one go) – Old to new, big to small, seasons to seasons, the city is constantly changing as an ultimate manifestation of Japanese culture in so many different ways. I have been to Kyoto a few times and every time I saw and felt something new and incredible.
Why Fall? Fall is a great time to explore Kyoto because of its pleasant weather. It may be a little too soon to appreciate foliage in Kyoto fully in October, but the temperature is cool and crispy enough for visitors to comfortably enjoy the sights outside; Besides, Kyoto is a popular destination and it can get really crowded during the peak season (and thus it would be harder to get around the city through the narrow streets on a bike).
The ancient capital was established and designed based on the grid system, referencing the Chinese capital Chang’an at that time. So, it’s pretty easy to navigate the city on a bike, visiting one place to another.
Foliage in Kyoto
Japan enjoys four seasons and it looks spectacular in the fall. The best time to see the gold and crimson leaves is between early November and early December. The leaves change colors sometime in late October. Usually, the foliage lasts for about a month and so visitors has a better chance and longer time to enjoy the brilliant sceneries than cherry blossom. Most of the city’s classic historic spots are both great places to see cherry blossom and the foliage. Many visitors like to come to Kyoto because the temples and palaces are wonderful backdrops with the colors of the trees.
A one-day biking route in Kyoto
This is not my first time renting a bike and exploring a city. Check out some of my “Bike Specials” in London, and in Paris; In Kyoto, visitors could get their hands on a bike at some hotels that they are staying, in or simply rent one at places like Rent-a-bike. These bike rental companies offer some amazing route maps designed for different parts of Kyoto as well.
So, here are two suggested routes to explore Kyoto:
Bike Route# 1: Heian Shrine — Nanzen-Ji (Eikan-do Temple) — Cycling alongside the Kamogawa River Bank Ground — Shimogamo Shrine — Kyoto Imperial Palace tour — Kitano Tenmangu — Kinkaku-Ji — (Hirano Shrine)
Bike Route# 2: Kiyomizu–Dera (Kodai-Ji, Kodaiji Temple, and Chion-in) — (or Nijō Castle) — Tofuku–Ji — Fushimi Inari-Taisha
Upon departure after picking up our bikes at the Nishiki Market, our mini-expedition began :). The Nishiki Market is a downtown market with an overwhelming choice of Wagashi (traditional Japanese confections), souvenirs, and arts and crafts. We ride our bikes along the Kamo River and headed north to the Kamigyō-Ku for the day!
Heian Shrine 平安神宮 & Nanzen-ji 南禅寺
The National Museum of Modern Art is also nearby. It’s a tranquil neighborhood with alleys and roads covered with trees. The Heian Shrine is an important cultural property of Japan as the main palace was painted in beautiful red and green and it has a spacious frontcourt that leads to a couple of museums. Behind the main buildings, the Japanese garden is a nicely groomed garden with weeping cherry trees, ponds, and traditional pagodas.
Next to the temple is Nanzen-Ji that located amidst the forested Higashiyama Mountains. The greenery added a certain kind of mystery and solemnity to the site.
Kyoto Imperial Palace 京都御所
The highlight of my day was visiting the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
It is constsructed in 1855 and is well-preserved with a rich tradition. The Palace has the look and ambiance that remind us of Japan’s ancient imperial dynasties, and valuable art and tradition that left us in awe.
Visiting the palace required registration but now they are open to walk-in visitors. Admission is free and you don’t have to pre-register anymore. The palace is closed on Mondays, and some national holidays – check out their website for more information about their opening hours.
However, I recommend signing up for one of their guided tours. They are available in Japanese (4 times a day), English and Chinese (2 times a day respectively). The guide provides more explanation about the history and tradition which helps to understand the design and aesthetics of the architecture.
The tour covers several structures on the site, including the Shisinden (den means “the hall”), the Seiryoden, the Kogosyo, the Ogakumojyo, and the Otsunegoten. All these reflect different architectural styles and beauty over time.
In the past, the palace was not fully opened to the public, and visitors are required to apply via the Imperial Household Agency website for a guided tour, the time slots fill up pretty fast and sometimes visitors will need to book a few weeks in advance.
The most impressive and beautifully decorated hall to me was the Shodaibunoma.
It was then used as waiting rooms for official visits to the Palace by dignitaries, the guests were ushered into three different anterooms according to their ranks, from the highest to the lowest, Tiger’s room, Crane’s room, and Cherry Blossom’s room. Each room has its theme according to their names and was decorated delicately with paintings on the walls.
I didn’t have the chance to visit Kinkaku-Ji the last couple of times just because it’s a bit farther than anything else in the city. Having said that, Kinkaku-Ji (the Golden Pavilion) is one of the most visited attractions in Kyoto just because of its unique and memorable exterior and I believe most would recognize it immediately from the picture. It is not exactly a big site, but the reflection of the Golden structure in the mirror pond is enough to make it a breathtaking must-see. The original temple was burnt down a couple of times during wars and the current pavilion is rebuilt in 1955.
We passed the Kitano Ten-man-gu, Hirano Shrine, and the Nijō Castle on the way back to return our bikes for the day; and then we had dinner nearby the Hanamo-koji in Gion took pictures of the Geisha, and got prepared for the next day of fun!
Kiyomizu Tera 清水寺
(& Around: Ninen-zaka, Sannen-zaka & Kiyomizu-zaka)
I have been to Kiyomizu Tera a couple of times because it’s simply too iconic. Besides, a stroll in the nearby zakas (zaka means “streets”) is such a cultural experience that is never boring. Apart from Rokkatei (Check out: Kyoto’s Sakura-viewing Route in Spring), One of my favorite lunch places is the Saryouseihantei, a teahouse and pottery shop near Kiyomizu Tera with an open view overlooking the city. Walk along the streets toward the Yasaka-jinja 八坂神社 and you might run into (or even participate in) visitors traveling around the streets with a Kyoto Maiko or Geisha makeover experience!
The rickshaw: To top up the whole experience (and if you still have some time to spare), try on the rickshaw and end the day with an unforgettable experience. There are few places in Kyoto where you can hop on a rickshaw, Matsubara Dori is a classic route that covers the main historic sites. For a natural scenery, head to Arashiyama. Where you can traveling through the bamboo grove. Another city in Japan that you can do so, is in Kurashiki – nicknamed “the Mini Kyoto”. Check out here for what to see and do in yet another historic place in Japan!
Tofukuji Temple 東福寺
The four seasons in Japan are truly enchanting. Tourists get to see different faces of an attraction at different times of the year. Remember to do some research and plan your trips so you could plot your route and visit the best spots – Philosopher’s path in spring, Arashiyama in summer, or Kinkakuji in winter… Tofukuji is definitely a highlight for fall.
Tofukuji is located on the south side of Kyoto and is best known for foliage viewing. Founded in the year 1236, the temple celebrated a long history and is one of the “five great Zen temples of Kyoto”. In fact, the purpose of building the temple was to rival the other two great temples in Nara: Todaiji and Kofukuji; hence the name of the temple was derived from “To” and “Fuku” in these two temples. The original buildings were unfortunately destroyed in the 14th century, the structures were then faithfully rebuilt and retained their tranquility and serenity.
The best photo-taking spot is a wooden bridge that connects the JR train station to the main gate of the temple. There, tourists can have an unobstructed view of the traditional wooden Tsutenkyo (Tsuten Bridge) that straddles the sea trees. The dark wood and black tiles of the architecture added much solemn quality to the entire view. However, beware that the temple can get very crowded during the peak season.
Fushimi Inari-Taisha 伏見稲荷大社
So, the final memorable and iconic picture of Kyoto – the almost 5-kilometer long Torii path in the Fushimi Inari-Taisha (Taisha means “shrine”) that basically goes on and on deep into the Fushimi Mountain. In Japanese culture, the fox is a common subject of Japanese folklore and it’s common for the Japanese to worship foxes. Inari fox is a Japanese deity that brings fertility, prosperity, and fortune. Fushimi Inari-Taisha is the head shrine of the kami Inari, which includes trails up the mountain to many smaller shrines and it may take about 2 hours to walk up. It would be a good workout if you go for a hike (what’s better to walk up a mountain through so many torii).
Why there are so many torii in the shrine? It was because of the popularity of the Fushimi Inari-Taisha, thousands of Japanese business donates money to build a torii, hence thousands of torii were erected. There are about 10,000 torii lining the trails and they covers the entire mountain. The toriis are larger at the entrance and they become smaller. While Fushimi Inari-Taisha has the most number of toriis in Japan, it is definitely not the only place to see the toriis lining like a tunnel. The Nezu Shrine, Koizumi Inari Shrine and Hie Shrine in Tokyo area, Motonosumi Shrine in in Yamaguchi, and Ukiha Inari Shine in Fukuoka, are some of the other examples that have an impressive number of toriis as well.