A crowd at the entrance to Eikando, admiring the brilliant red maple leaves

Kyoto’s Northeast Momiji Walk: An Itinerary Through the Extraordinary

Late November marks the beginning of fall colors in western Japan, and there is no better place to enjoy them than Kyoto. This three-hour walking tour guides you through the city’s northeast Sakyo ward without paying any entrance fees.

About a ten-minute walk from Demachiyanagi Station, follow Higashi Ichijo Street past the main gate of Kyoto University until it ends at the iconic orange gate of Yoshida Shrine. Pass under the second gate; a trail off to the right leads you into a forested area before making a slight ascent.

Yoshida Shrine gate. Photo by Yu-Ching Chu on Flickr

After glimpsing the view of distant mountains that now look like a painter’s pallet, stroll past the small Munetada Shrine and take the wide, gently sloping stone stairway downhill. The gradation of the stairs and the classic Japanese lanterns that line them make this a great spot for a group photo or a romantic “two shot.”

Munetada Shrine. Photo by Chris Gladis on Flickr

At the bottom, continue straight, strolling down a quiet residential street toward Shinnyodo Shrine. Once inside the main gate, the garden of trees are in full color behind bamboo fencing along the trail transforms you to a poetic dreamscape.

Once inside the main gate, the garden of trees are in full color behind bamboo fencing.

Explore the extensive grounds, which have plenty of beauty on offer (including the famed three-storied pagoda), for free. (Entrance to the inner chamber and gardens costs ¥500). Walk through a cemetery at the southern side of the shrine complex to get a birds eye view of the city, and descend down the steep steps to Komyo-ji Temple (光明寺).

Steps leading down to the back side of Komyo-ji 光明寺

From Komyou-ji, head southeast for fifteen minutes. At the entrance to Eikando Temple, find yourself caught up in the near hysteria of joy that comes from being confronted with such vibrant color freely on display. Even those who normally shy away from snapping photos may discover their inner artist. Suddenly the desire to capture and preserve the awe of Kyoto’s color takes over, and there you are amid a crowd of young and old alike, stretching for the perfect shot. By all means, click away. But also remember, breathe it in, and smile.

A crowd at the entrance to Eikando, admiring the brilliant red maple leaves

At ¥1,000, the entrance fee to Eikando is steep, but on a peak day when the sun is shining, it is absolutely worth the investment. Go in the afternoon or come back early in the morning to beat the crowds. You’ll hear cheery songs from the kindergarten on the complex; get a strong cup of the bitter green tea matcha or a sweet fermented rice drink called amesake in the sitting garden.

Enjoy a matcha drink or amezake at Eikando.

Ten minutes down the road from Eikando is Nanzenji, one of Japan’s most important Zen temples. Go through the impressive Sanmon entrance gate and take in the central grounds at your own pace. Be sure to make your way to the brick aqueduct to wonder at the engineering feat of the Meiji period. Follow the narrow canal for a lovely forested walk (30 minutes) until you reach the Keage Incline. You’ll wind up near the Keage subway station.

Nanzenji. Photo by Takeshi Kuboki on Flickr

Throughout the day, enjoy the glowing autumn sunlight as it hits the leaves at such an angle as to set them afire, expanding our visual spectrum beyond its normal range and giving us, quite literally, an extra-ordinary experience.

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