Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, is not only a culturally rich city but is also blessed with mesmerizing nature. Although it is great in all four seasons, Kyoto is a jewel during autumn because of its immaculately kept temple gardens, parks, and shrines. Peak autumn is best viewed around mid-end November.
Before elaborating on the “Must visit places in Kyoto”, I’d like to share with you some first-hand information, not available anywhere else, to prepare you mentally for your trip to Kyoto.
Recently, I visited Kyoto to enjoy Koyo (autumn leaves) and yes, I was spellbound by the red hues. But, I also faced problems due to over tourism spread wide across Japan. So here are some tips to deal with this problem.
Book your accommodation in advance
This is a simple demand-supply situation. Demand for accommodations shoots up during the peak seasons. The availability of accommodation near the downtown decreases and then the leftovers have insanely high prices, as high as $150/night. Be it hotels, Airbnbs, hostels, and homestays nothing was available for me as per my suitability. So if you plan to visit Kyoto, and need a convenient accommodation, book well in advance to get the best and budget-friendly deals.
Avoid traveling on public holidays
Public holidays in Japan provide the overworked population a quick getaway from the busy lives. Literally, everyone is traveling to make the most of holidays. In this case, you’ll face the crowd everywhere you go. Kyoto being the easiest escape, from major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, gets muddled pretty quickly. The seat availability in express trains, buses or shinkansen (bullet trains) all is a rare affair. To avoid this hassle, you can choose to travel two days before the public holidays commence.
Plan your itinerary smartly and avoid crowds
Because there are millions flocking to Kyoto during autumn, you can expect several hour queues only to get around the popular autumn viewing spots and several more hours to bag an entrance. Also, during autumn, the sun sets at around 4:30pm in Kyoto so you might need to recalculate your itinerary to start early in the morning. In addition, getting a decent background (which does not include a lot of people) for clicking pictures and filming videos, will get easier if you manage to avoid rush hours.
Avoid buses, use trains
Kyoto offers all-day bus and train passes for only $17, which you can buy at Kyoto main station. This includes metros inside Kyoto and all buses (covering popular tourist spots). Despite the personal preference of using buses, for seeing the city around, I realized that it can get pretty tedious and stressful because of the stuffed buses. I strongly recommend using trains and walking instead of buses. Although, I’d also like to mention that some prominent spots are only connected via buses but if you are traveling in a group, prefer taxis.
Okay, so the difficult part is taken care of now. Time for the fun and beautiful part! I could manage to see 4 major spots over the span of 2 days. I highly recommend these.
Literally translates to “pure water temple” is an elegant evening place. A mere 15-minute hike but the serenity it gifts you with is beyond words. Although under construction currently, Kiyomizudera is one of the most magnificent shrines one can ever go to. Also, it gives you a clear view of the Kyoto city. It is popular for its autumn illumination (costs about $4 and starts at 5:30pm).
One station away from Kyoto main station is Tofukuji. Tofukuji has historically been one of the principal Zen temples in Kyoto and is a head temple of one of the schools of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. The most popular view is of the ‘Tsutenkyo Bridge’, which spans a valley of lush maple trees. The maple red during peak autumn will make you never want to leave the place. You can consider spending 4-5 hours at this place. This shrine does have a minimum entrance of $4 and would go up if you visit other places inside the shrine.
Hidden from the main city, around an hour and 30 minutes from Kyoto station by bus, is the most beautiful courtyard garden of a shrine I have ever seen. Stunning maple trees, surrounding a pond with koi fish, paving way for the hike to catch a glimpse of the northern Kyoto is an experience in itself. The shrine, which served as a school during the Edo period, has an interesting museum inside. It is definitely worth the commute!
Not far from Kiyomizudera is another gem of Higashiyama district. The gardens around the shrine are some really beautiful pieces of rock amidst autumn trees. This shrine will also give you an opportunity to witness the autumn illumination.
All in all, it was an exceptional fall experience. Every penny and effort worth it. By effort, I mean the entire planning that goes into a trip. I realized that if I had planned the Kyoto trip with my local friends there, I could have escaped the crowded places enjoying koyo more than I did anyway.
Traveling with a local gives you more insight and a closer look to the lives of people living in Kyoto, rather than just the touristy things subsumed.
Kyoto is a captivating and a stunning place. Closer to culture, closer to nature and rejuvenating. It presents you with more than what you’d expect of a city!