You Can’t Spell Kyoto Without Koyo

After a truly hellish week at work, I almost decided to veg instead of heading out to look at autumn leaves today.  But it was a perfect day in what’s generally Kyoto’s best season (both for weather and generally), so I roused myself and headed out.  And as you’d expect I was glad I did.  Sakura may garner the headlines, and it’s undeniably beautiful.  But for my money, koyo is the ultimate in Japanese seasonal beauty.  All the more so in Kyoto, which in my mind is a consummately autumnal city in so many ways.

The tourists are back of course – if not in full force, pretty darn close.  As such, any venture to one of Kyoto’s most famous fall color spots (on a Saturday yet) was out of the question.  Fortunately even at peak times there are islands of respite in this city.  First off I headed to Sekizanzen-in, a very old (founded 888) temple in Northeast Kyoto close to the Shugakuin Imperial Villa that’s little-known even to locals.  It’s small but quite lovely and utterly serene, and offers a quiet and peaceful display of koyo to be enjoyed at leisure.

After that, a bus to Shinnyo-do.  I’ve done koyo here before, and it’s no secret – the locals certainly no idea about it.  But this sprawling old temple complex not far from Ginkakuji seems oddly undiscovered by foreigners, for reasons not entirely clear to me (but I don’t look that gift horse in the mouth).  Shinnyo-do is gorgeous in any season, mostly free, and offers some of the best autumn leaves you’ll find anywhere in Japan.  It’s truly spectacular, and the surrounding neighborhood is one of the most atmospheric and traditional anywhere in Kyoto.

I’m loathe to even mention it, but just a few hundred meters away on the street headed towards Konkai-Komyoji is a tiny subtemple of Konkai-Komyoji called Eishoin (shhh).  Only open for a few days in autumn whenever the caretaker monk decides to unlock the gate, it’s like stepping into paradise on Earth.  The momiji at the entrance goes a flaming red deeper and richer than any I’ve ever seen.  Inside is a lovely little garden and pond, overlooked by a serene Buddha on a hill, all framed by some of the finest momiji anywhere in Kyoto.  It also features a perfect little Jizo alongside the path.  You’re welcome (but please, keep it to yourself).