Known as The City of 10,000 Shrines, Kyoto is the perfect destination to experience a kaleidoscope of autumn colors

To celebrate my wife’s birthday, I booked a surprise trip to Japan to experience the majestic sights and sounds of Kyoto. Pleasant, cool days prove wonderful for walks through temples, gardens and bamboo forests. It makes for a romantic experience, where a couple can find secluded hideaways along the garden path to hold hands and create beautiful moments.

After a long day, the perfect way to rejuvenate the muscles is to soak in an onsen, or Japanese hot spring. Many hotels and bathhouses tap the volcanic spring waters as they bubble up through the ground. An important, if not unusual note, is that many establishments refuse entry to bathers adorned with tattoos. This rather arcane custom originated with preventing Yakuza, Japanese organized crime members, from entering and causing trouble.  nfortunately, many foreigners also run afoul of this rule. To spare any inconvenience or embarrassment, it’s best to check with the bathhouse by phone or email first, especially if you’re traveling to some of the larger onsen located on the farther outskirts of the city.

Translated as ‘pure water,’ Kiyomizudera temple founded in 780 AD, takes its name from the mountain stream that runs through the temple grounds. The Otowa Waterfall at the base of Kiyomizudera’s temple splits into three separate streams. Drinking the waters from each stream may bestow upon the pilgrim the benefits of success at school, longevity or a happy love life. Alas, the search for good fortune comes with a warning. Drinking from all three streams is to tempt the gods. They view those drinking from all three as being selfish and greedy. Those who do invite ill-fortune. Suffice it to say I’m too old for success at school, therefore I drank to my heart’s content from only two streams.

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Shops, restaurants and teahouses dot the area leading to the temple. It’s a welcoming area to meander through at your leisure on your way up or down from the temple. The path leads to Maruyama park where women donning kimonos vie for the perfect spot to take a photo with a backdrop of autumn leaves. Shops around Kyoto specialize in renting kimonos for the day to those who came unprepared.

Tourists the world over pose in formal dress for the perfect shot throughout the temples and gardens and make for an amusing sight when caught behind more modern cityscapes.

Kinkakuji temple, also called the ‘Golden Pavilion,’ is one of the most famous structures in Kyoto. Its history is pocked by fires that destroyed it on several occasions. The current reincarnation of this structure was completed in 1955 after a crazed novice monk set the old temple ablaze. The golden pavilion’s façade and interior is decorated in gold leaf, allowing it to glimmer in the sunshine, its reflection in the adjacent pond a spectacular sight to behold.

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Eikan-do Zenrin-ji Temple draws a huge crowd at night when the temple’s gardens are lit up with an intricate array of lights. The lights of the garden mix with the shimmering stars to cast an eerie glow above the gardens’ central pool. Tofukuji temple is an opportune spot to experience the breathtaking explosion of autumn leaves. A covered bridge allows people to feel like they are floating above the canopy, staring out across a sea of red and gold adorned maple trees to the valley below.

Due to the large volume of tourists crossing the bridge, taking photos while on the bridge is banned. Security guards in immaculate attire are posted on either end desperately trying to enforce the rule. I wasn’t going to miss the perfect shot and snapped a prohibited and beautiful photo of my wife staring out across the endless autumn expanse.

Arashiyama, meaning ‘Storm Mountain,’ is an area on the outskirts of Kyoto that can be reached by a vintage train. It winds through the mountain passes to reach a plateau. The mountain slopes are a blaze of color in autumn contrasted by the greenery of Arashiyama bamboo grove with its turquoise green bamboo shoots towering up into the sky. The grove had an eerie calm despite the canopy of leaves which rustled overhead in the wind. It prodded my imagination to conjure up the legendary samurai who once inhabited the area during Japan’s now bygone feudal era and almost see them prowling the groves.

Gio Temple is located on a hill near the Arashiyama area; the temple is abundant with thick mosses entangling the ancient forest’s lush greenery. At the hill’s peak is an intricate, red pagoda surrounded by pine trees that compete for aerial dominance with the pagoda’s needle-like spire.

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Strolling about gardens and temples all day is sure to stoke the appetite as well as thirst. The gods make sure that doesn’t go unsatisfied either. Down the path from the temple is Kaede café, a quaint Japanese coffee and tea house. Here I stopped to try a traditional matcha green tea before crossing the small field in front of the café to view Rakushisha house. It’s rumored that the famous poet of the Edo period, Matsuo Basho, stayed to write the poem Saga Nikki. Built in 1644, it is the perfect example of a feudal Japanese farm house.

By now we were famished and craved sustenance. Demanding the freshest and highest quality ingredients in their food is a Japanese hallmark. This means the restaurant cuisine is tantalizing and delicious. Located next to a crystal-clear brook is the all-you-can-eat BBQ buffet restaurant, Chifaja. We splurged and chose the “Excellent Menu” for JPY ¥3,300 (USD30), allowing us to gorge on prime cuts of Kobe beef for 90 minutes. For an extra JPY ¥1,200 (USD11) we also enjoyed free flow sochu and sake. With all our senses finally sated, and plenty of images captured on camera to take home and look upon with fondness in the coming days and decades, we found ourselves ready to bid farewell to Kyoto and the Land of the Rising Sun.

Thanks to Japan, my wife’s birthday in November was one she will always remember in vivid detail. Kyoto is a magical place to visit in all seasons, but autumn is its most exuberant, displaying a fleeting and brilliant explosion of seasonal colors to the city’s landscape before the winter snow wraps up the city like a white blanket.

Images Provided by David Muller