Kyoto is the ultimate autumn experience in Japan.
We start the list with some of the most famous temples — expect them to be crowded. Try visiting either very early in the day, or late, to avoid the worst of the crush. As the list goes on, these are some of the lesser-known fall destinations that may not be as packed with tourists. Estimated viewing times are approximate and depend on the weather. Most temples have an entrance fee from ¥300 to ¥700.
For centuries, this temple has been synonymous with momiji (maple trees) in autumn. Its exquisite gardens turn bright with color. Among the many beautiful buildings, the two-story pagoda is renowned for its view of the temple grounds and the city of Kyoto.
It is hard to surpass the impact and expanse of Tofuku-ji Temple’s maple garden, which stretches across a valley traversed by bridges. The viewing route takes you not just through the trees but also up above them to peer down on a blanket of color. During the crowded peak season, photography from the main bridges over the valley is banned, and the temple opens early from 8:30 a.m.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple is one of the most famous temples in Kyoto, and it never fails to impress. In autumn, its main building is surrounded by a blaze of fiery-colored maple trees. Opening hours are longer compared to other temples, so take advantage to avoid the crowds. In the peak season in the latter half of November, Kiyomizu-dera holds a brilliant nighttime illumination.
The extensive gardens here are designated as both a national historic site and a place of scenic beauty. A popular seasonal light-up display illuminates the autumn leaves, and the beautiful bamboo grove creates sparkling reflections in the ponds. A short projection-mapping show appears on the open, sculpted Zen pebble garden.
Along with the fiery hues of autumn, Enko-ji adds green to the palette via the shrubs and moss in its central garden and bamboo grove. The red carpet-lined view from the shoin study is picturesque and gorgeous even when the leaves have fallen. The garden’s side path leads up to a hill with a bird’s-eye view of the temple and the city.
The hilltop location keeps the tour bus crowds at bay, helping maintain a sense of serenity here even during its busiest season. The grounds are modest in size but the various areas—the pagoda, the pond, and the quiet garden tucked away behind the main hall—provide a range of enchanting views. Leave by the back exit for a view of the nearby Higashiyama mountains.
The scenery at this shrine’s “Momiji-en” maple garden is unique: about 350 maple trees line the banks of a stonewalled gully and almost cover the sky. A curving red bridge midway along creates an excellent highlight for photos. During the evening light-up, the bright colors above are reflected in the stream below.
Key views at this world heritage site include a maple tree “tunnel,” and the red-trimmed Bentendo hall at the pond’s edge. Somewhat shrouded in secrecy is the Sanboin and its garden, which features bright maple trees, but photography is not allowed. For an extra fee, you can hike the forest path to the original temple grounds on the mountainside for a panorama that can stretch as far as Osaka.
In both its gorgeous buildings and grounds, this temple retains the grandeur and expanse of its original function as a villa for Emperor Saga. The kilometers-wide artificial lake provides beautiful reflections of autumn leaves and the two-tiered, vermillion pagoda that sits lakeside.
This beautiful complex of more than 20 sub-temples is connected by stone-paved pathways and rows of pine trees. Among them, Koto-in Temple is known for its autumn colors, particularly its entranceway strewn with red leaves. Oubai-in also has a fantastic autumn display, but photography there is only allowed in its (free-to-enter) front garden, which is filled to the brim with maple trees.
If you travel to one of these spots, use #GaijinPotTravel on your Instagram photos for a chance to be featured in our Top 10 Readers’ Photos of the Month!