Imperial capital for more than a thousand years from 794 to 1868, Kyoto epitomizes traditional Japan. In autumn, trees on the grounds of centuries-old temples and shrines of the ancient capital turn colors and attract hordes of Japanese for the annual koyo, or autumn leaf, viewing. As I would only be staying in Japan for a year, I only had one chance to visit Kyoto in autumn. Autumn hues in Kyoto usually peak around mid to late November. It was already the 2nd week of November when I decided to go with the trip the following weekend. I did not have enough time to book for a place to stay, so my plan was to take a night bus from Yokohama before midnight on Friday, arrive in Kyoto early Saturday, embark on a quickie tour of Kyoto until early evening, take a bus to Tokyo before midnight, and be back in Tokyo early Sunday.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
07:00. I arrived at Japan Railways (JR) Kyoto Station before 7 on a chilly Saturday morning. It didn’t feel like a seven-hour long bus ride probably due to the comfy seats and also because the trip was entirely through Japan’s extensive expressway system. After having light breakfast at the ubiquitous convenience store, I found my way through the huge station to the platform for Nara-bound trains. 07:30. My first stop was at Fushimi Inari Shrine, whose thousands of orange (technically, vermillion) torii gates were immortalized on-screen in the 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha. The shrine is just across JR Inari station on the JR Nara Line, a mere five minutes and JPY 140 away from JR Kyoto Station.
The torii gates are donations of individuals and companies to the shrine, dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, Inari. They also believe that foxes are messengers of Inari, hence one will find hundreds of fox-shaped wooden placards containing wishes and prayers at the shrine.
08:30. I arrived just in time for the opening of Tofuku-ji, one of Kyoto’s most popular autumn leaf viewing spots. The temple is less than 2 km north of Fushimi Inari, one can walk for half an hour or take a train and walk the remainder of the way.
This is my first brush with the koyo crowd of Kyoto. Visitors to Tofuku-ji literally jostle for prime positions on the Tsutenkyo bridge; the able-bodied tourist will be rewarded with a sea of red maples in the small valley below.
The grounds of Tofuku-ji are quite spacious and there are a few spots away from Tsutenkyo bridge that aren’t as crowded.
11:00. Before lunch I met with my college professor and his wife, who were Japan-based at that time, at Rengeo-in. Rengeo-in is more popularly known as Sanjusangendo (“33 intervals”), describing the structure of the main temple hall. At 120 meters long, the temple hall is the longest wooden structure in Japan and houses 1,001 statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Any form of photography is forbidden inside the hall though, so my only souvenir from Sanjusangendo is a set of postcards I bought at the temple shop.
Higashiyama and Kiyomizu-dera
13:00. We had lunch at a tempura and soba place in Higashiyama, the historic district in Eastern Kyoto criss-crossed by narrow lanes lined with traditional restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops. One can lose track of time when strolling along the sloping alleys of Higashiyama, it was already 14:30 when we arrived at Kiyomizu-dera.
14:30. Kiyomizu-dera (literally, “Pure Water Temple”) is one of the most popular temples in Kyoto, if not Japan. The temple is named for the pure waters of Otowa waterfall, around which the temple was built in the year 780. The main hall of the temple has a balcony propped up on what seems to be wooden scaffolding, somewhat resembling a parking building but becomes more impressive when you take the fact that it was built without the use of a single nail.
Note: Portions of Kiyomizu-dera are under renovation but will have minor impact on a visit. (For renovation updates please check: japan-guide.com)
16:30. Kinkaku-ji is out of the way from the rest of my itinerary, but I couldn’t let myself miss seeing the iconic gold-leaf wrapped pavilion. We took a taxi from Higashiyama district to catch the remaining hours of Kinkaku-ji. Kinkaku-ji was the retirement villa of a shogun in the 15th century, and was converted to a Zen Buddhist temple in accordance with his last will. The present structure is actually a 1955 reconstruction after burning down multiple times throughout the centuries.
Chion-in Night Illumination
19:30. After Kinkakuji, I was a solo backpacker once again as my companions proceeded to Nara to spend the night. My evening stop in Kyoto was at the night illumination at Chion-in Temple back in the Higashiyama District. Chion-in is the head temple of the Jodo Buddhism sect in Japan. On selected evenings in autumn, the huge temple grounds and its accompanying gardens are beautifully lit up by floodlights and lanterns.
Note: Chion-in’s main hall is currently closed for renovation works that started in 2012 and will last until 2019. (For renovation updates please check: japan-guide.com)
I spent the rest of the evening wandering around the gigantic Kyoto Station. After dinner, I proceeded to Osaka (a 30-minute train ride southwest of Kyoto) and waited for my return bus ride to Tokyo scheduled before midnight.
To answer the title question: Yes, it is possible to get around Kyoto’s sights in a day, but be aware that it will be a long day and you need to plan your itinerary carefully. Choose spots that are close to each other to minimize travel time, which can add up fast especially on peak seasons such as spring and autumn.
- 00:00 – Departure from Yokohama
- 07:00 – Arrival in Kyoto
- 07:30 – Fushimi Inari Taisha
- 08:30 – Tofuku-ji
- 11:00 – Sanjusangendo
- 13:00 – Higashi-yama
- 14:30 – Kiyomizu-dera
- 16:30 – Kinkaku-ji
- 19:30 – Chion-in Night Illumination
- 23:30 – Departure from Osaka