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 as 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 offers different sceneries, only you need to know to be at the right place at the right time.
This time – we are going to Kyoto in the fall, rent a bike and explore places with beautiful foliage.
My 1-day biking and foilage viewing plan 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. The ancient capital was established and designed based on the grid system, referencing the Chinese capital Chang’an at that time. Therefore, it’s pretty easy to navigate the city with a bike as I was tired of catching bus schedules from place to place.
Renting a Bike in Kyoto
This is not my first time renting a bike and explores the city. Check out some of my “Biking Specials” in London (London in a Nutshell) and in Paris (Paris, Voici Le Mois de Mai!); For Kyoto, you could get a bike in some hotels, or at Rent-a-bike; they have some amazing route maps designed for different parts of Kyoto as well! So, I have two suggested routes to explore Kyoto:
Bike Route# 1: Heian Shrine/ Nanzen-Ji >
Cycling along the Kamo River >
Shimogamo Shrine >
Kyoto Imperial Palace tour >
Kinkaku-Ji > (Hirano Shrine)
Bike Route# 2: Shiomizu–Ji, Kodai-Ji, and Yasaka Pagoda >
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 and Nanzen-ji 南禅寺
The National Museum of Modern Art is also nearby. It’s a tranquil neighborhood with alleys and roads that 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 built in 1855 and 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. 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. The palace is not exactly opened to the public and visitors are required to apply via the Imperial Household Agency website for a guided tour, and the time slot could be filled up pretty fast J. 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!
Tofukuji Temple 東福寺
The four seasons in Japan is 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… and Tofukuji is definitely a highlight for fall.
Tofukuji is located on the south side of Kyoto and best-known for foliage viewing. Founded in the year 1236, the temple celebrated a long history and 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 its 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 across 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 4-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 shrine, thousands of Japanese business donates money to build a torii, hence thousands of torii were erected.