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Why You Should Go to Kyoto This Fall

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Kyoto may be famous for its spring cherry blossoms, but fall brings an equally spectacular show—and fewer crowds.

Photo by Konkai Komyo/Shutterstock

Kyoto may be famous for its spring cherry blossoms, but fall brings an equally spectacular show—and fewer crowds.

Kyoto’s autumn season means luxurious new hotels, seasonal kaiseki meals, traditional tea ceremonies, and one of the world’s finest displays of fall foliage.

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Sports fans from around the world will descend upon Japan this fall to attend the Rugby World Cup, taking place from September 20 to November 2. The tournament conveniently dovetails with prime leaf-peeping season in Kyoto, and while cherry blossoms tend to get all the attention, we have seven compelling reasons to skip spring in the Eternal City and make an autumn visit instead. (If it’s your first time in Japan, we also have 10 tips to make sure your trip goes as smoothly as possible.)

The Aman Kyoto will open in November centered around an eight-acre garden sanctuary dotted with yama momiji maples, Japanese cedar, and wild cherry trees.
Harvest your new favorite hotel

Kyoto has become fertile ground for luxury hotel development. This year alone has seen the opening of the 144-room Kyoto Yura Hotel MGallery and the Sowaka hotel, a tatami-matted gem featuring La Bombance Gion, a sister restaurant to the Michelin-starred La Bombance in Tokyo. Two more hotels join the ranks this fall. 

On October 30, Park Hyatt Kyoto will open its doors in the Higashiyama-ku district, less than a 15-minute walk from the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The low-slung hotel will share the grounds with several historic treasures, including a 360-year-old tearoom built during the Edo era and the famous kaiseki restaurant Kyoyamato, run by one family for five generations. Each of the 70 guest rooms and suites will spotlight local craftsmanship through the use of native tamo wood, original artwork, and Zen gardens. Overlooking the famous Yasaka Pagoda, the hotel’s restaurant and bar will provide guests and visitors respite from the bustle of surrounding streets. hyatt.com

Aman Kyoto will debut this November on 80 forested acres in the foothills of Mount Hidari Daimonji, just 20 minutes north of Kyoto’s city center and within walking distance of the UNESCO-listed Kinkaku-ji Temple. Echoing the design of a traditional ryokan Japanese inn, the 24 guest rooms and two villas feature tatami mat–covered floors, abundant natural wood, handcrafted ofuro (soaking tubs), and floor-to-ceiling windows that frame woodland views. Travelers will also be able to enjoy an obanzai-style meal made with local ingredients or a tranquil tea ceremony in the Living Pavilion or a soak in a steamy onsen (hot spring) at the spa. aman.com

Stroll leaf-strewn paths

“Leafing” is a popular pastime across Japan, but Kyoto is particularly revered for its abundance of atmospheric temples and shrines where travelers can soak in the kaleidoscopic leaves of ginkgo, sumac, and Japanese maple from the end of October until mid-December. Here are three of the best places to catch a glimpse.

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Eikan-do: At this 1,000-year-old temple complex located at the base of Kyoto’s Higashiyama mountains, visitors can wander up to the 52-foot Tahoto Pagoda, which overlooks a colorful sea of fiery maple leaves and cityscape beyond. During the last half of November, the temple stays open after sunset so that travelers can meander along streams and ponds that reflect trees lit up by lanterns and LED lights. Autumnal Evening Illuminations: adults 1,000 yen (US$9.36), November 11–December 5. kyoto.travel

Konkai-Komyoji Temple: Located a quick jaunt from the Philosopher’s Walk in northeast Kyoto, this temple dates back to 1175 but was rebuilt several times due to war and fires. In autumn, the temple’s back garden is open to visitors who can enjoy the grounds during nighttime illuminations when an on-site guide offers cultural insights into the history and significance of the temple. Walk through the Edo-era cemetery of Aizu clan warriors and up to the pagoda for sweeping city views. Adults: 800 yen (US$7.50) to enter the temple and garden, November 4–December 8. kurodani.jp

The Old Mitsui Family Shimogamo Villa: Now a museum in southeast Kyoto, the villa, built in 1925, was once the residence of the prominent Mitsui family whose commercial empire made them the richest family in Japan during the Edo era. While the villa’s grand entrance, main room, and garden are open to visitors year-round, travelers get a rare glimpse of the residences’ upper floors during fall. From there, visitors have unmatched views of the home’s picturesque moss garden, the Kamo River, Mount Hiei, and the Higashiyama Hills in their full autumn splendor. All floors open to public daily, November 14–December 3; Adults 900 yen (US$8.42). japanvisitor.com

At the Jidai Matsuri festival, travelers can celebrate Kyoto's founding.
Celebrate Kyoto’s founding

One of Kyoto’s biggest festivals is Jidai Matsuri, which commemorates the city’s founding as the former imperial capital. The annual event normally takes place on October 22, but has been moved to October 26 this year to avoid being upstaged by the formal enthronement of Japan’s new emperor. The procession encompasses some 2,000 performers who march from the Old Imperial Palace to Heian-jingu Shrine dressed in elaborate period costumes, many riding horses or playing flutes. For the best festival experience, splurge for reserved seating with English audio guide commentary on Oike-dori Street near Kyoto City Hall (4,900 yen [US$46]). Tickets can be purchased online at Voyagin or from the Kyoto Tourist Information Center (Kyo Navi). October 26, 12:00 p.m.–2:30 p.m.; japan-guide.com

Experience an illuminating fall festival

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The Kurama no Himatsuri fire festival takes place on October 22 in the northern outskirts of the city. During wartime in the early Heian period (794–1185), the Yuki-jinja Shrine was moved to the mountainous village of Kurama. The parade reenacts the ceremony local villagers held to greet the shrine. Locals light bonfires in front of their homes and a procession of chanting boys and men carrying large torches march to a steady drumbeat until they arrive at a portable shrine, which they then carry through the smoky moonlit streets. The festival starts at 6 p.m. and lasts until midnight. Take the Eizan Railway to the Kurama Station at least three hours early to get a good spot; the festival passes through the village streets just outside the station. Book accommodation for the night to avoid a long day of travel. October 22, 6 p.m.–12 a.m., japan.travel

Miyamasou is one of the best places in Kyoto for a seasonal kaiseki lunch.
Savor a
 seasonal kaiseki meal

Dining out recently got easier for travelers in Kyoto with the launch of a new multi-language reservation and prepayment system, which allows you to book a table in advance at more than 40 restaurants. Andres Zuleta, owner of the tour outfitter Boutique Japan, suggests using it to make a reservation at one of Kyoto’s famed kaiseki eateries, which each serve 14 courses revolving around seasonal ingredients. Common fall specialties include kabocha (pumpkin), matsutake (pine mushroom), and kaki (persimmon).

“To the casual diner, kaiseki can be overwhelming, and at times exhausting,” he says, “but at the best restaurants it’s a remarkable experience.”

Here are his recommendations for a fall kaiseki meal:

  • Miyamasou, a Kyoto restaurant in the countryside, is known for its warm hospitality and forest views. Go for a kaiseki lunch.
  • Tempura Matsu specializes in market-driven meals that are modern and playful.
  • Ogata in the heart of Kyoto, serves intimate meals at its dining counter.

Explore the world of Japanese theater

Theater buffs visiting Kyoto can revel in various forms of traditional dance, including Noh, a musical performance where masked dancers reenact an ancient legend. The best place to catch a show is at Kyoto Kanze Noh Theater, where English guidance is provided for foreign audience members. Performances are held monthly all year; the next shows are on September 22 and October 27. Tickets: 6,000 yen (US$55.67) kyoto-kanze.jp 

Partake in a traditional tea ceremony

The fall season is also a good time to experience one of Kyoto’s most celebrated art forms: a traditional tea ceremony. Their own form of performance art, tea ceremonies are highly ritualized: Everything from the washing of utensils to the whisking of matcha has a protocol. And of course, there’s a precise etiquette around serving and sipping the tea. The ceremony also combines a range of other characteristic arts, including flower arranging, ceramics, calligraphy, and architecture. ShunkoIn Temple offers an intimate tea ceremony focused on the meditative aspects of tea culture, taught by a master who has been training in the art of tea since she was a child. 3,500 yen per person (US$32.48); shunkoin.com 

Or join a tour: Context, an AFAR partner, offers 2.5-hour private ceremonies led by a tea master at a local tea studio.

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