It’s not just about seeing the sights. It’s about immersing yourself in a world that can leave you with a better understanding of what it means to be Japanese.
Perhaps the only structure that can literally outshine anything in Kyoto, this iconic temple is even more spectacular to behold when it reflects the surrounding season. (title picture above, @Shutterstock.com)
A lighting from the shinkansen at Kyoto Station, you are unwittingly and immediately immersed in the first of many contradictions that, for me, give Kyoto its particular charm. The sophisticated and ultra-modern architectural surprise that is Kyoto Station stands in stark contrast to a seemingly endless number of temples, shrines and historic places, each with thousands of years of history, that all quietly compete to serve as tangible definitions of Kyoto, and perhaps even Japan.
The soul of Kyoto represents yet another paradox: that this modern metropolis of 1.5 million people is firmly anchored in nature and, more importantly, in the quintessential Japanese sense of season. So while many claim to visit to see Kyoto’s historic temples, gardens and shrines, it is the season that they really come to see, and it is the season that essentially defines Kyoto.
Autumn is of particular significance. Not just because of the spectacular show of nature that turns Kyoto’s gardens, parks and the surrounding hillsides into fiery red and yellow tapestries that symbolize the season, but also because of the many autumn-only experiences that await travellers seeking new insights into Japan.
Viewing autumn colours is a popular pastime around the world, but the show typically ends at sunset. Not in Japan, and certainly not in Kyoto. Two places that should not be missed include Arashiyama Park and the area surrounding Kiyomizu Temple. Here the view is stunning enough in the daylight, but after sunset, special light-up “illuminations” take viewing the autumn colours to a whole new level. This is when the natural scenery becomes surreal, the colours are intensified, and the whole thing can only be seen to be believed.
Maybe less dramatic, but perhaps just as memorable, the Sagano Torokko is a small-scale romantic sightseeing train that is a unique and fun way to experience the autumn colours in daylight—from a slightly different perspective. With charming semi-enclosed carriages, the Sagano Torokko travels at a slow pace alongside the Hozu River between Arashiyama and Kameoka. Everyone gets great autumn views and lots of photo opportunities along the 7.3- kilometre route that takes approximately 25 minutes to travel.
Kyoto Imperial Palace Autumn Open Days are reason enough for many to visit Kyoto. These are five very special days when you can visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace free of charge, enjoying extraordinary freedom to immerse yourself in a sense of place that was, until 1869, an important symbol of Imperial Japan. Non-Japanese citizens can book guided one-hour tours anytime, but there are just two very special annual chances to explore this stunning palace essentially unsupervised. Held once in spring and once again in autumn, on Open Days the gates are thrown open to the public—and you can experience the pal- ace and surrounding gardens at your own pace, guided only by your curiosity.
Geisha, perhaps the only living symbols of both Kyoto and the country of Japan, personify a modern-day enigma that today has gained a sense of seasonality and rarity. Gion Odori in early November is a once-a-year chance to see both geisha and maiko in all their spectacular glory when they perform in the Gion Kaikan theatre. It’s also when you might experience a higher than usual number of geisha and maiko sightings in the narrow streets of Gion and Ponto-cho as they make their way to and from their performances.
Nothing beats the thrill of seeing these stunning living symbols of Japan in person as they make their way through the geisha districts of Kyoto.
For anyone who seeks a deeper connection to the seasons, and to Japan itself, Kyoto is an ideal destination. It is a place where culture and nature come together and provide endless opportunity for discovery. Discovering Kyoto, its history and its many contradictions, is an experiential souvenir of a life well travelled.
Follow your curiosity
This restored “old Kyoto”-style pedestrian-only route will lead you up to historic Kiyomizu-dera. Here you can take in the autumn colours of Kyoto perched high above the city.
A star in its own right, crossing Togetsukyo Bridge in upscale Arashiyama with the autumn colours as your backdrop can make you feel like a glamorous movie star!
Looking more like it landed than was built, Kyoto Station is a vital transportation hub that boasts excellent shopping and, more importantly, a first rate tourist information centre.
Eating well in Kyoto
Kyoto cuisine follows two key principles: the season and simplicity. Kyo-kaiseki—a series of small, elegantly presented dishes whose flavours, colours and presentation embody the season in edible form—strives at its highest level to be as simple as possible. Yu dofu (or simmered tofu) epitomizes simplicity in both presentation and flavour. Not surprisingly, both stake claims to Kyoto’s culinary heritage.
Kyoto is home to the Japanese tea ceremony, so it follows that matcha is a part of everyday life. Forget lattes—Kyotoites prefer bowls of thick, foamy and flavourful matcha elegantly balanced with something sweet. Wagashi are traditional, highly seasonal and almost too beautiful to eat sweets designed to elevate the matcha drinking experience, not simply accompany it. In contrast, matcha-flavoured sweets are modern and creative inventions that can be found in many different forms, including rare, limited edition matcha-flavoured chocolate bars.
Picking the perfect memento to commemorate your trip to Kyoto is a challenge with a dual nature. Shopping for the definitive omiyage (souvenir) can help you better explore and unravel the contradictions and seasonality of this amazing city, and will leave you with something to cherish long after the autumn leaves have fallen. Even if your criteria is that the souvenir must be unique to Kyoto, the choices are endless, limited only by the space available in your luggage, your budget and your imagination.
Kyoto yuzen craft
Yuzen craft is the art of applying colourful dyes to fabric and using stencils to create intricate designs and patterns. Try your hand at it in one of several hands-on yuzen workshops found around Kyoto.
The ultimate omiyage from Kyoto, Japanese pickles are delicious served in a bowl of rice with tea as ochazuke. But beware of the double meaning: in Kyoto, a host offering ochazuke is code for “you’ve overstayed your welcome!”
All photos courtesy of JNTO unless otherwise noted