Fall breeze, Autumn leaves in Kyoto

One thing we miss most after moving to Singapore is the absence of seasons. It is a paltry 32C with high relative humidity all year round, and it hurts the most come the fall season. The changing color of leaves, the nip in the air and the blanket of golden, warm hues that cover the countryside are things that are just not there in the lion city. Thankfully, it is such a great air travel hub, that we try to plan a trip around that time to visit places with great autumn colors!

The tea room at Ruriko-in is one the must-see locations if you visit Kyoto in autumn!

For 2019, we decided to head to Japan, specifically the Kansai region, for a long weekend. The main focus was going to be the beautiful city of Kyoto, with a day in the bustling city of Osaka (mostly to try their legendary street food!). 

We picked a weekend that was close to peak autumn colors in Kyoto (there is a ~2-3 week window). Just pick something in the window, don’t worry that much about the exact timing as there is a range of places in Kyoto and not all of them reach the peak at the same time. We did our trip over a 4 day weekend since we were saving most of our leave for our year end trip to the middle east (pre-corona times, when will we go back to that!?). 

The bright vermilion torii gates of Fushimi Inari

Day 1: Flying to Japan and exploring Osaka

Our flight out of Changi was late Thursday night, and we landed at Osaka airport (KIX) at 1130 on Friday. The first thing to do is buy an ICOCA card from the airport (https://www.westjr.co.jp/global/en/ticket/icoca-haruka/). This gets you on most trains in the Kansai area and also gets you discounts on the special trains that run from Osaka/Kyoto train stations to the airport (ICOCA-Haruka discount ticket). Hop on the express train to the city for the fastest way to get into Osaka.

We had an AirBnB booked for our one night in Osaka. Like all cities in Japan, the public transit is excellent and the best way to get around the city, so pick an accommodation that is walking distance from a train station. We checked in, freshened up and headed straight for Osaka castle. The colors were definitely pre-peak, but the tranquil gardens and the imposing castle make for an excellent place to spend an evening strolling around taking in views of the castle from the surrounding gardens.  

The imposing Osaka Castle at sunset

After getting our steps in for the day at the castle, it was time to hit the street food scene of Osaka, and the place to go is Dotonburi. Dreaming of okonomiyaki and takoyaki, we headed to the Osaka-Namba station which is the closest major station to the street food capital of Osaka. The Dotonbori area really comes alive in the evening and walking down the street gazing at the myriad neon signs (lookout for the running man!) and the sheer variety of food on offer is the best way to explore the area.

person in blue and red long sleeve shirt slicing food
Takoyaki being prepared on the streets of Osaka (Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com)

We were most excited to try the takoyaki – a ball shaped snack made of batter stuffed with octopus chunks and topped with spicy mayo and bonito flakes. There are dozens of stalls selling them, just pick one with a line and you’ll be good to go. Takoyaki checked off the list, we then got lost in the tiny alleys looking for an izakaya which specialized in okonomiyaki, the next most famous food of Osaka. We stumbled on this hole in the wall joint Ajinoya honten, a non-fussy joint where you can sit in front of the chef and watch him conjure up some okonomiyaki (japanese savory pancakes with toppings of your choice). It’s a great place to be, with the warmth from the grill providing respite from the nip in the November air. 

The crazy bright neon lit streets of Dotonbori, Osaka

After having polished off the okonomiyaki with shots of sake, we meandered back to our AirBnb, and that was our short but sweet Osaka leg of the trip. We were super excited to head on to Kyoto next morning, and if Osaka was any indication we were in for a treat! For more ideas on where to eat in Osaka, do check out Paolo from Tokyo’s vlog/blog, he has some great recommendations. 

Greenery abound at Tofukuji temple

Day 2: Exploring Kyoto

It is super convenient to get to Kyoto from Osaka station, your ICOCA card should get you onboard commuter trains that regularly ply between the cities. Since they are so close by, don’t waste money on getting on the Shinkansen, it is not worth the premium. Most commuter trains will get you to Kyoto in under 40 mins. Keep in mind that multiple train companies run trains in Japan, so make sure you go to the right station, we took the special rapid train from Osaka station, which took us to Kyoto main station in 25 mins for just 560 yen! 

Tranquil gardens of Eikan-do shrine

Kyoto was the ancient capital of Japan, and retains the title of the cultural capital of the country, with a huge variety of temples and shrines scattered around the city. The downtown area of Kyoto is a bit of an urban sprawl, but walk around a little bit and you will instantly find the old world charm the city is renowned for. 

Lovely walking paths in Tenryuji temple

As I had mentioned earlier, Kyoto’s peak fall colors are spread over a few weeks, so you have to read up on which temples are in full bloom when you go. For us, our first stop was the trio of Nanzen-ji, Tenju-an and Eikan-do temples, which are located close to each other. All three have beautifully landscaped gardens teeming with bright autumn colors. 

Zen garden at Hogon-in temple complex

Post temple hopping, we headed to the Gion-Nanba district, which is the most well preserved area of Kyoto and also home to the famed Geisha district. Please be respectful of traditions and don’t take pictures of geishas or peoples homes where it is forbidden. Walking in the Gion neighborhood transports you back in time and you can get lost in the myriad of alleys in the area. 

Gardens at Nanzen-ji shrine

From the Gion district walk up the Hōkan-ji Temple, and keep your eyes peeled for the street that leads up to the temple, it offers up one of the most iconic shots of Kyoto. You won’t miss it as it is perpetually filled with people, but it’s worth coming back here late at night or early in the morning if you want the classic shot without the hordes of people.

The streets leading up to Hokan-ji temple (come here super early for a picture sans crowds)
Posing in front of the steps leading up to the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex

If you’re feeling peckish, fret not, head over to Nishiki market and you’re back in street food heaven. This is a great place to experiment and eat whatever catches your fancy or play it safe and indulge in a bowl of excellent ramen or sushi. Whatever you pick you won’t be disappointed. 

A piping hot bowl of ramen is the perfect pick me up for chilly fall afternoons

Post lunch, we headed over to Kenninji, a sprawling temple complex with zen gardens. It is very peaceful to stroll around and take in the views. Our next stop was the famous Kiyomizu-dera, with its famous pavilion. Sadly, the pavilion is currently under renovation and the colors were also not at their peak so we didn’t spend much time here. But the views are stunning and its definitely a must visit if the colors are at its peak. 

The serene Kenin-ji shrine

For dinner, we really wanted to try yakitori at an authentic izakaya, and in Kyoto the place to go is the Pontocho Alley. A blink and you miss it, dingy alley leads off from the main road across the river from the Gion-Shijo station, into a narrow path dotted on both sides by a wide variety of dining establishments. Again as non-Japanese speaking tourists, we went with a place that looked full of locals and the food smelled good. Those two factors usually do the trick. We had some amazing Yakitori at this small izakaya, sitting on tatami mats on the floor, with cold beer to wash it down. Food in Japan is touted as one of the major attractions and it doesn’t disappoint!

We are ready to eat!
Juicy delicious yakitori!

Day 3: Around Kyoto (Arashiyama, Fushimi Inari)

We called it an early night because we had to wake up bright and early on Sunday to beat the crowds at two of the most popular destinations in Kyoto. Our first stop was the iconic Fushimi Inari shrine, which is famous the world over for its numerous vermillion colored torii (gates). Stretching up the hill, you walk through gate after gate, which are donated as a token of gratitude by people and businesses. It’s best to come early so you can get photos without people, although if you climb high enough, the crowd thins out too.

The calm path flanked by vermilion torii gates.. there are miles upon miles of walking paths up the hill.. keep walking and you will find a stretch without people!
Turn back for a different perspective. The writing is only visible in one direction.

From one iconic location, it was now time to hit the next one on the list, the Arashiyama bamboo garden. It is quite far from the city, and even further from Fushimi Inari (which is south of the city) so this is a good time to grab an Uber and save some time. Before heading to the bamboo forest, it is definitely worth checking out Tenryu-ji and Hogon-in temples right next door. Both complexes are very unique with Japanese style zen gardens, immaculately maintained and glowing with fall colors.

Arashiyama is a green wonderland!

One of the exits of the Tenryu-ji actually leads directly to Arashiyama, and if you’re coming here anytime other than 530am, expect it to be packed like sardines in a tin. It is a bit overrated I feel, especially with the massive crowds, and the path is much shorter than you would have expected. That said, it’s definitely worth a stop if you’re in Kyoto. We had to pick between Fushimi Inari and Arashiyama to decide which one we would see sans crowds, and I’m glad we picked the former.

Bamboo reaching for the skies!

By the time we had finished exploring Arashiyama and the two nearby temples it was late afternoon and we were tired, so we headed back to our hotel for a quick nap before heading out in the evening. We again headed over the Gion Nanba district which apart from being the most picturesque part of Kyoto has some excellent food options. We opted for a Kyo-Kaiseki meal, which is a speciality of Kyoto and showcases fresh ingredients that are in season. I really loved the flavors, but my wife didn’t. It is definitely an acquired taste and you really must enjoy unusual (sometimes raw) flavors or be generally adventurous with food to enjoy this!

Main course of a Kyo kaiseki meal at the michelin starred Gion Nanba

Post sunset, some of the temples at one end of the Gion district are lit up, and make for an excellent detour for a post dinner walk. Of particular note are the Chion-in and Shoren-in shrines. They also put up lights amidst the blazing autumn colors so that’s an added bonus. 

Left – the Chion-in shrine at night, Top – a brightly lit pagoda in the Kiyomizu-dera complex

Day 4: Last day, Ruriko-in and back to Osaka

For our last day in Kyoto, we had just one place on the agenda, because it is a bit of an adventure to reach the place, plus there is usually a 1.5-3 hour wait to get in. We had our flight out of KIX at 530pm, so we headed over to Ruriko-in temple bright and early on Monday morning. You have to take the scenic Eizan electric railway to get there, and the ride is just as beautiful as the destination. 

The entrance to Ruriko-in

Once you reach, don’t waste any time loitering around but cross the small river and immediately put your name down for the queue first and get your entry time slot! Then explore the area while you wait for your turn. 

Beautiful vistas from the top floor at Ruriko-in

The beauty of Ruriko-in is that it is only open to the public twice a year, during spring and autumn, so if you visit during those times you “must” visit it.  It was originally built as a recuperating house by a wealthy businessman and only recently has it been turned into a temple. To prevent damage to the property by the hordes of people who want to visit this place, they have limited entry to two times during the year.

Hard to take a bad picture at Ruriko-in

The grounds of the complex are incredibly beautiful with the fall colors only adding to its allure. Take you time walking around the moss covered paths and soaking in the beauty. The other highlight is the Kirakutei: tea room on the second floor with breathtaking views of the gardens from its expansive windows. 

Insane fall foliage views from the tea-room at Ruriko-in

Kyoto had definitely saved its best for the last. Ruriko-in was indeed a befitting last stop on our trip. The city however has many more temples that are worth visiting, we just didn’t have time in our short trip to cover all of them. Another thing we missed out was staying in a traditional inn – a ryokan. We will definitely be back for a second visit, most probably during sakura season!

Dressing up in a traditional Kimono is one of the fun activities to do in Kyoto. Bear in mind the dress is uncomfortable to walk around in. But the picture opportunities make up for the discomfort.

From Kyoto, it is super simple to get back to the Kansai airport, thanks to the punctual and fast Haruka express train that whizzes you from Kyoto central station to the airport in a little over an hour. It really allows you to get the most of our short trips knowing that you can be sure to get to the airport right on time for your flight without worrying about things like traffic.

The Kansai region is indeed a cultural and foodie paradise, and is great whether it’s your first trip to Japan or tenth. Whether you are here for a weekend or two weeks, you have enough places to see and explore and tons of food to try so you won’t get bored, that’s a promise!!

“I’m glad I live in a world where there are Octobers!”

1 thought on “Fall breeze, Autumn leaves in Kyoto”

  1. Lovely write-up. Enjoyed going around Kyoto and Osaka , savouring the different cuisine at different joints. This inspires us to add Japan in a to visit list. Pictures are just breathing.

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