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When is the best time to visit Kyoto?

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Kyoto, that’s a wonderful time to be there. This Guide has spent a month living in Kyoto and visited many other times for weekend trips, and it still feels like there’s so much to uncover and explore. It’s magical. But if you ask me: When is the best time to visit Kyoto? I’m going to bet on autumn, every time. Specifically, the last half of November when the leaves explode in colors like fireworks.

Isn’t cherry blossom season the best time to visit Kyoto?

Spring may be the season for which Kyoto is most famous. And it is well-earned. A cherry blossom viewing party in Kyoto is a special experience. But as you near the end of autumn, and the leaves turn color, and the air cools, Kyoto takes on an ethereal quality. It’s like you’re in a movie with the most meticulous production design. Everything fits. 

Kyoto is cozy. Its architectural style is dark wood, and old village shops painted black. It’s moss-covered stone and large wooden temples. Narrow alleyways. Layers of embroidered kimonos. Swirling, steaming matcha in wabi-sabi style bowls. The sounds of music and laughter and the clink of glasses and sliding doors echoing out into the streets from behind shuttered windows. The cinnamon scent of freshly baked yatsuhashi wafting out into the streets. 

If Kyoto loved spring more than autumn, its signature snack wouldn’t be cinnamon-flavored yatsuhashi. Cinnamon is cozy (like Kyoto).

Best places to catch the autumn leaves in Kyoto

Arashiyama and the Togetsu Bridge

The Arashiyama area is on the west side of the city. There are several temples with beautiful grounds for quiet walks under the red leaves. Crossing the ancient Togetsu Bridge over the Oi river, will give you an excellent view of the autumn foliage in the western hills. Just up river, you can also find Hoshinoya Kyoto, an elegant resort in a traditional Japanese style. Guests arrive at Hoshinoya by river boat, and that gives you a truly unique view of the autumn leaves.

On a calm river with rocky banks, a forest of colorful autumn foliage surrounds several buildings in traditional, Japanese architectural style, the Hoshinoya Kyoto Hotel
The Hoshinoya Kyoto resort. Captured by @francistogram


Also on the west side of the city, you can find Ryoanji, a Zen temple associated with the Rinzai tradition of Zen. If you don’t recognize the name of the temple, you’ll probably recognize the rock garden. Comprised of 15 stones, surrounded by meticulously raked gravel, it is the quintessential Zen rock garden. No matter where you stand on the veranda of the meditation hall, you can never see all of the rocks at once. You can, however, see the reds and yellows in the forest around the rock garden. 

Ryoanji is one of Kyoto’s most popular tourist attractions, but if you get there right when it opens at 8am, before tour groups start arriving, you can enjoy the serenity of its gardens. I’ve been there first thing in the morning and just shared the space around the garden with a few other people meditating.

A corner of the rock garden of Ryoanji, in Kyoto. Three rocks with moss around their bases, surrounded by a raked sea of gravel. Behind them is a wall, weathered by age, with a bright red tree, a green pine tree, and a yellow tree behind that.
The rock garden at Ryoanji in autumn. Captured by Gor Badoyan

Tofukuji's Tsuten Bridge

On the east side of the city, the temple of Tofukuji and its Tsuten Bridge, is worth a visit. It’s meticulously crafted miniature Japanese maples give the impression you’re floating above a miniature world. During peak foliage, the temple will be packed with tourists, but it’s for good reason. So get there early.

In the foreground are orange and red autumn leaves. Behind them, seemingly floating over the tops of the trees, is a long wood covered bridge of dark wood. The silhouettes of many people walking along the bridge, admiring the leaves.
Tsutenkyo at Tofukuji. Captured by Kimon Berlin


Since you had to get to every other place on this list early in the day, here’s one you can visit as the sun sets.  Sunsets at Kiyomizudera hold a special places in my heart. There are stunning. The fresh water springs beside the temple are believed to hold magical healing properties. Wandering along the paths to the waters will take you into a grove of trees resplendent with color in the autumn. And after you’ve enjoyed the red leaves lit up by the setting sun, you can enjoy the fresh yatsuhashi from the shops along the street leading up to the temple.

Kiyomizudera at sunset. Captured by Su San Lee

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