Into the Leaves: Kyoto at its Finest

As someone who grew up in Central Pennsylvania, I was always accustomed to the presence of beautiful foliage when the calendar started to hit November. Even though I was often forced into raking or mowing up the leaves on my yard, I have always had an appreciation for the changing of the seasons. In my youth, I read about the beauty of Kyoto’s leaves, but never thought the changing of the seasons would be very different than that of the interior Northeastern United States. I was about to find out how wrong that assumption was.

Kyoto is always towards the top of all travel destinations in all of the Japan-centric tour books, websites, magazines, etc., and for good reason. The city is truly beautiful. From the temples in far off Arashiyama to the often photographed Kiyomizudera to the shops and bamboo groves in between, Kyoto is a remarkable place for both traveler and Japanese resident, alike. Being this is my second time living in Japan but only my first time here in the autumn, I made sure to venture to one of Kyoto’s most famous events this weekend and take in the spectacle that is leaf viewing (Japanese: 紅葉 Kouyou).

My friends and I hopped into the JR train bound for Kyoto from Sannomiya, Kobe, early in the morning to start this day. After an hour on the fast and comfortable ride, we had arrived at our first stop on the day’s tour: Arashiyama. Arashiyama is west of Kyoto proper and is famous for its shopping streets near the Oi River, the Iwatayama Monkey Park, a host of temples, and a large bamboo grove. We were off to a few of the temples and to take in the view along the water. No monkeys today.


We started the day off at Tenryuji to see what the famous temple and ponds would have to offer. Nearly as soon as we arrived, we were not disappointed. The grove of trees leading up to the ticket gate already had some trees sporting a full array of autumn colors. Ranging from light green to deep red, these trees were a sign of things to come for our day trip.


Once we entered the official temple grounds, another iconic Japanese autumn scene was upon us. A room covered with tatami mats set in front of our eyes. As we peered over the tatami and envisioned tea ceremonies past, the foliage at Sogen Pond became visible. This whole scene was classic Japan, as far as I was concerned.


We continued our way through the temple complex, gawking with hundreds of other tourists at the changing leaves, not knowing what to expect around the next turn. The photos outside showed Sogen Pond in its best state, but what could we possibly expect? There was no way the scene could look as good as presented on the ticket booth, was there? Here’s how the garden looked. Remarkable.


With gargantuan koi swimming throughout the pond and a perfectly manicured Japanese rock garden in the foreground, we all took a second to take in this beautiful scene. The vibrancy of the red and yellow cast against the permanence of the evergreens helped make this photograph. If we had come here one day earlier or later, the colors would not have been as contrasting as they were today. Lest I forget, kimonos were in full force, as well.


We continued onward, and upward, traversing more paths filled with vibrant leaves and tourists taking hundreds of pictures. With a mossy undergrowth to our left and right and changing leaves in front of a backdrop of pines and Kyoto, this location offered a unique view.


After snapping a few more pictures, we continued onward to the river to see the leaves cast against the water and famous rowboats in the region. Little did we know, thousands of other tourists had the same exact idea.


Amidst the rickshaws, children’s strollers, and masses of people, we ate some homemade karaage on the banks of the river before we continued onward to watch all of the boats on the water. Thee backdrop of boats on the river made the whole scene quite spectacular.


After a long walk back to Arashiyama Station (and a few sweets and special Japanese drinks along the way), we were back on the train and headed to our next destination on this trip, Tofukuji. Tofukuji is famous for its bridge over a small brook that traverses the temple grounds. surrounding the bridge and an expanse between the other side of the temple are Japanese maples and other trees. These iconic trees were nearing peak color on Sunday and we were in for a real treat even though so many tourists were there at the same time. While monks waked down the stone paths amid the tourists, I stopped to take several photos of the leaves. Here is what I saw:


Isn’t this a remarkable image? We were all taken back when we saw the leaves and could not believe the wide array of colors right in front of us.



No trip to Kyoto is complete without visiting the famous Kiyomizudera Temple, so we decided to make this our last stop of the day. To facilitate ore visitors and an unforgettable evening, Kyoto illuminates the temple at night during leaf viewing season and the results are beautiful, to say the least. As soon as you exit the train station in Kiyomizu, there is a strong beam of light that goes straight through the nighttime sky, guiding you towards the temple. Everyone on the train from Western tourists to kimono-wearing Japanese headed towards the beam. Once you get close enough, here is what you see.



The leaves were illuminated, as well.


While not in perfect bloom, the colors in Kyoto this weekend made for an interesting and photogenic day trip. The combination of green, red, yellow, and orange is something I never saw before in such vibrancy back on the East Coast of the United States. If people are trying to see these leaves at their peak, I would suggest going to Kyoto as soon as you can. The nights in Kansai have been getting colder and the leaves have been falling off of the trees here in Kobe. You should take advantage of your proximity to Kyoto if you live in Kansai and go see these leaves if you have the opportunity.

I had a great time and recommend a similar day trip in Kyoto to anyone visiting Japan this fall.

All photos and content in this post (c) Erik Jacobs, November 18, 2013, All rights reserved. 


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