Discovering Kyoto’s Hidden Autumn Treasures – And Avoiding the Crowds

Photo: © Alma Reyes

Discovering Kyoto’s Hidden Autumn Treasures – And Avoiding the Crowds

Alma Reyes

While Japan blossoms with its seasonal beauty, nothing can surpass the romantic air of the glistening reds, oranges, and yellows of fall. Where else can one satisfy his full appetite of this season than in Kyoto. News polls from Asahi News reveal that 4.93 million tourists flooded Kyoto last November 2017. Both spring cherry blossoms and autumn maple leaves compete for popularity, and for Kyotoites these two foliage seasons are the worst times to withstand the congested buses, long lines and jam-packed restaurants.

However, you can stop worrying about the long waits outside temple entrances and bus stops by avoiding the guidebook-recommended spots, such as Kiyomizu-dera, Nanzenji, Heian Shrine or Arashiyama. Indeed, these gorgeous sites reveal Kyoto’s most treasured maple views; yet, there are another 1,600 and more temples and shrines in Kyoto that likewise exude charming beauty in their simplicity, solace, and natural landscapes.

Honen-in


No one should overlook the Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku no Michi) when visiting Kyoto, whether for the first, second or umpteenth time. This may as well be at the top of the list of Kyoto’s most enchanting districts. Just a street parallel to the Philosopher’s Path in the Shishigatani area is a long stretch of ancient temples lined up one after the other. Honen-in Temple, which dates back to 1680, boasts of a cloud of colorful maples upon entering its thatched roof gate covered in moss. Unlike quite many temples that have washbasins by the entrance for hand washing before entering, at Honen-in, they are replaced by sand mounds, which are decorated with seasonal motifs, such as water waves or flower shapes.

Honenin's thatched-roof gate with bright red autumn foliage above

Honen-in Temple. © Alma Reyes

Honen-in Temple. © Alma Reyes

Honen-in Temple. © Alma Reyes
In the peak of autumn, one can find a beautifully carved maple leaf on the sands that blends perfectly with the subtle scene of a stone pathway and groves of trees leading to a pond and a storehouse. Poetic fusions of peach, fuchsia, bright orange and lemon yellow leaves fall on the green moss and stone basins, and peep from the roof corners. The main hall, which is open during particular times of the year, houses important paintings, statues and books. Admission is free to the temple, thus, making it as well a worthy visit.

Access: Take the road south from Ginkakuji towards the direction of Nanzenji Temple; from downtown, bus #203, #204, #17, #5, #32, bus stop Jodoji or Kinrinshakomae, or any bus headed for Ginkakuji.

Website for Honen-in (Japanese)

Yojiya


Still along the Philosopher’s Path, don't miss the lovely tea garden of the famous cosmetic brand Yojiya. Only about a ten-minute walk from Ginkakuji temple, heading towards Nanzenji, the picturesque Yojiya Café garden seems to pop out from a photo calendar or a traditional Japanese-themed poster. The local cosmetic brand, established 1904, displays its high-selling facial and skin products, especially its “Aburatorigami” facial oil blotting paper, in a shop adjacent to the pond, but many visitors are just as happy to pass the time away over a nice set of matcha tea and matcha cake in a tatami interior facing the scenic garden view. In autumn, the stark crimson maples cast over the bright red parasols and red-covered benches, making this spot utterly romantic, and at the same time, calm and immensely relaxing.

Red parasol and red maple leaves at Yojiya Cafe in Kyoto

Yojiya Cafe. © Alma Reyes
Sun rays gleaming through orange and red maple leaves at Yojiya Cafe in Kyoto
Yojiya Cafe. © Alma Reyes
Bench seating in front of moss-covered rocks with red maple leaves above
Yojiya Cafe. © Alma Reyes
Visitors can walk over a small stone bridge to stroll around the small garden where the soft sound of water pouring out of a bamboo adds solemnity to the atmosphere — no shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, and also admission-free.

Access: From downtown, take bus #203, #204, #17, #5, #32, bus stop Kinrinshakomae, or any bus headed for Ginkakuji.

Website for Yojiya

Konpukuji


Finally, simple and hidden in the Ichijoji northern district of Kyoto just a few minutes walk from another treasure, the Shisendo Temple, lies a historical site quite unknown to tourists, the Konpukuji Temple (864). To fans of the much-loved poet, Matsuo Basho, this temple serves as a remarkable landmark. It is known that Basho visited this temple on many occasions and spoke of its elegance and a vision of a tea hut, which the priest Tesshu built in his honor. The tea hut, however, collapsed in ruins over the years. When Yosa-no-Buson, another haiku poet and painter of the 18th century, frequented Konpukuji, he later decided to rebuild the hut, and it was completed around 1781. It is now referred to as the Basho Hut, and sits atop a hill supported by long wooden beams. One can still feel the air of poetry among the tatami mats and thin shoji windows that have been carefully preserved over centuries. From this point, the view over the sculptured garden, sands and main temple hall is a striking picture of ephemeral beauty as shining red maple leaves tower over the entire scenery.

Ground covered in fallen maple leaves with a single stone sticking out at Konpukuji Temple in Kyoto

Konpukuji Temple. © Alma Reyes
Konpukuji temple grounds with gravel path, in Kyoto
Konpukuji Temple. © Alma Reyes
Red and orange maple leaves contrasting with green bushes at Konpukuji Temple in Kyoto
Konpukuji Temple. © Alma Reyes
Being a mountain temple, Konpukuji can also be enjoyed for its eye-catching red violet maple leaves scattered all over the entrance pathway, exuding the true passion of the autumn season.

Access: From downtown, take bus #5, stop Ichijoji.

Website for Konpukuji

If you feel you have spent a too overwhelming touristic day in one of the major temples and shrines in Kyoto for autumn viewing, these three quiet niches will surely tone down the rhythm. The neighborhoods around these districts are also residential, especially around the Philosopher’s Path that is a free non-vehicle pathway; thus, making your stay in Japan’s ancient capital a truly light-hearted and tranquil experience.