Look up the album to reminisce on good times during the pandemic
I am a Japanatic (Japan fanatic). I have never missed Japan’s autumn for successive years. ‘Momiji’ or sighting of the red maple leaves is another highlight in Japan after Sakura or Cherry Blossom viewing. Then the pandemic hit and one can only reminisce about autumn in Japan, specifically Kyoto.
It seems to have become more breathtaking each year, looking at some of the latest Instagram pictures. Perhaps there is much less crowd this year, making the ambiance tranquil.
Fortunately, I have been there at the peak and could draw on many fond memories.
Autumn arrives in Kyoto around late November/early December in the most spectacular fashion always. I was lucky to be there some years ago, soaking up the splendor and glory of this ancient city in Autumn. The peace and quiet and the unbridled bloom of the maple leaves that pervades Kyoto currently must be astounding.
To appreciate Kyoto, one needs to go back into history to understand why it is such a rare gem of a historical city. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years and its culture had remained intact and had infiltrated into the lives of the residents to the present day.
One immediately senses that this city is very sacred and spiritual. Religion plays a key role here as evidenced by the innumerable temples and shrines marked on the tourist map.
Followers of Shintoism, a religion that revere nature from trees to rocks to mountains often pay their respects and make prayers and offerings at these shrines. They are characterized by the red gates called Torii.
Buddhists pray at home and also at the temples where visitors also pray and make offerings to the divine. Special mention is given to these sacred sites as they are where the savvy travelers could seek autumn in its full glory.
Following is the list of some of my coveted spots to view red leaves in autumn. The list is far from exhaustive and was what I uncovered in 7 days.
1 Tofukuji — The best view of the fiery canopy of maple leaves may be viewed from the Tsutenkyo bridge of this massive temple. Exploring the grounds would lead one to many impressive gardens of traditional zen architecture — rock gardens employing pebbles, large rocks, moss, displayed in unique patterns. It is a meditative place.
2 Eikando — I was most impressed by Eikando’s brilliant red and orange display of autumn leaves. It is sprawled across several levels in the foothills of the Higashiyama mountains. The Tahoto pagoda offers a spectacular view of the surroundings and the Amita Buddha statue with the face turned over the shoulder are the most distinct features of Eikando but be prepared to be blown away by the colors of autumn here.
3 Kiyomizu —A Unesco World Heritage site, this celebrated temple which means ‘Pure Water Temple’ is known for its large wooden stage that juts out from the main hall and they were built without nails. It offers a spectacular view of Kyoto city and its precincts. The sea of vibrant colors is spectacular in the day as well as in the evening where the trees are illuminated.
4 Nanzenji — Be impressed at the entrance into this massive zen temple and many of its sub-temples by the foliage, stone and rock gardens, and beautiful ponds. One can spend much time here soaking up the flavors of autumn, set on an ancient historical ground belonging to the 90th emperor of Japan who once had his villa here.
A most interesting feature that provides a picture-perfect backdrop is the Roman-style aqueduct, a canal system that carried water and goods between Kyoto and Lake Biwa.
5 Tetsugaku no Michi — Translated, this rustic, tranquil path is known as The Philosopher’s Path. It was favored by the philosopher Nishida Kitaro (1870 ~1945) who liked to stroll along here, deep in thought.
The path connects Ginkaku-Ji Temple to Nyakuo-Ji Shrine and is spectacular during Spring too for its incredible Cherry Blossoms. Cat lovers will be thrilled by the sight of the resident furry friends relaxing on stone benches.
6 Takao Kyoto — -To escape from the maddening crowd in Kyoto city, I took a one-hour bus ride out of Kyoto to Takao, a sparsely populated mountainous area. It did not disappoint. There, I had ample elbow space and many photographic moments with my selfie stick. It was such a pristine walk with a visit to three historic temples, one of which is Kozanji temple, a World Heritage site.
7 Bishamondo — -I had a meditative time here. Apparently, it was a little out of the way from Kyoto in the Yamashina suburbs but I would recommend this place because it is generally quiet and a picture-perfect moment awaits you. People are stunned by the entrance into Bishamondo. If the timing is right, the gentle steps are awash with vibrant crimson, red maple leaves. Once inside, enjoy more peaceful surroundings.
8 Sanzen-in temple — -This temple in the rural town of Ohara, an hour north of Central Kyoto gave me a different experience. Along the journey of negotiating the connected halls, one could feast on a beautiful traditional Japanese garden with a small pond and a hill, enjoy Japanese calligraphy and paintings on the sliding doors. From the main hall, the famous Sanzen-in temple emerges among the maple and cedar trees, and here I had the most peaceful walk in the moss garden.
9 Arashiyama — -On the outskirts of Kyoto, I had the most serene experience at Arashiyama where one can enjoy the lush tall bamboo grove path by bicycle or on foot. Ride the Sagano Scenic Railway which runs seven kilometers from Arashiyama to nearby Kameoka, mostly alongside the pretty Hozu River. As the train is quite slow, one could take in the splendor of Autumn. I had another beautiful time at Tenryu Ji temple, one of Arashiyama’s important temples.
During autumn, the sky may turn dark early but Kyoto never ceases to amaze. Many of these sights have light-ups at night and continue to enthrall visitors with the beautiful night images of Kyoto’s treasured sites.
Some pictures taken at these sites;
To truly savor autumn in Kyoto requires weeks. Getting to the maple viewing sites is a challenge as long lines of visitors throng the bus stops early in the morning. It might be feasible and faster to walk. Of course, there are subways and train lines.
Kyoto is an extremely alluring destination for die-hard photographers and walkers. Momiji is an activity that comes only once a year and timing is paramount. In Kyoto, they are centered around temples and shrines where the beauty lies.
As soon as this Covid-19 blows over, I would book a flight and lodging to visit Kyoto again and enjoy another autumn for posterity.