Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Temples & Gardens of Kyoto at Peak Foliage

Gate to Shinto shrine at Ryoan-ji Temple, Kyoto

If you're visiting Japan, plan on several days in Kyoto if you enjoy gardens and historic architecture. This post includes only five of the 1,600+ Buddhist temples in the prefecture. Japanese temples frequently combine elements from their two national religions, like the traditional gate to a Shinto shrine (above) and the Buddhist garden (below) at Ryoan-ji Temple.

Ryoan-ji's rock garden with fall foliage.

Ryoan-ji in April
Photography fails to capture the minimalist beauty of Ryoan-ji's famous rock garden, which must be seen in person. The mossy rocks are islands in a gravel sea. In spring that bare tree drips cherry blossoms over the wall .

I have now seen Ryoan-ji in three seasons and would return a fourth time to see it in snow. That won't happen this sabbatical since my husband and I are going home to Maine for our kids' winter break from college.

Our kids were only three and six when we took them to Kyoto for cherry blossom season during my husband's last academic sabbatical to Japan. Henry teaches Japanese Politics at Bowdoin College and speaks the language but not fluently. Before he became a professor, he worked for the Bank of Tokyo in London.

Japanese maples and persimmons at Ryoan-ji

The first time I visited Japan, I was nineteen and it was brutally hot and muggy in August. The grounds of Ryoan-ji were refreshingly cool in summer but are at their most glorious when the maples turn color. The orange fruit hanging from bare trees are persimmons, which taste like papaya when ripe.

Japanese maples at Ryoan-ji in peak foliage 11/18/16
Cherry blossom season (early April) and peak fall foliage (late November) draw big crowds to Kyoto for good reasons, especially at Ryoan-ji. Pack warm socks since you remove your shoes inside temples.

Manshu-in Temple in Kyoto

Although Japanese people usually wear western clothes, women and girls occasionally dress in kimonos to visit temples and to pray in shrines. Newlywed couples in traditional dress pose for photos too. The open porch of a Buddhist temple is designed for garden viewing and meditation. Manshu-in Temple (above and below) can't be reached by bus since the mountain village roads are too narrow.

Manshu-in rock garden 11/19/16

To avoid the weekend crowds, we chose two remote temples Manshu-in (above) and Enkou-ji (below). Their websites are only in Japanese. Enkou-ji is in walking distance of Manshuin.

Enkou-ji Temple in peak foliage 11/19/16

The summit trail offers a spectacular view of Enkou-ji Temple and Kyoto.


In the early evening, lanterns illuminate the gardens. This rock garden is not as subtle as Ryoan-ji, but the more pronounced rake patterns makes it easier to photograph.


If you're a fan of samurai movies, Daikaku-ji Temple (above and below) may look familiar.


The buildings are connected by covered walkways overlooking the inner gardens.


The screen art in the tatami rooms is exquisite too.


Daikaku-ji's outer garden has a pagoda and a lovely path around a pond. 

Kinkaku-ji is also called the Golden Pavilion (photo from my April 2003 visit to Kyoto).

People travel from all over the world to see Kyoto temples, but there are far more visitors from East Asia, especially China, than from the West. If you're visiting at a less crowded time, I'd also recommend The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), The Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) and The Moss Garden (Saiho-ji Kokedera).

Mt. Fuji from the shinkansen. Photo by my husband (his turn for the window seat).

Kyoto is only 2 1/2 hours by shinkansen from Tokyo. On a clear day, you can see Fuji-san from the north side of the high speed train. I can't recommend hotels since we stayed with an old friend in the neighboring prefecture of Nara. I'm considering all these locations for my novel, but I'll save Nara for another post. I don't know how I'll choose a setting among all these gorgeous options.

9 comments:

tina said...

Japan is one of those countries I SO desire to visit but I don't think I will in this lifetime. Your photos help to make it real, if only virtually. I love Japanese gardens and wow, what beauty you captured! Those maples and persimmons are very pretty. All is fine here! I wish you happy holidays!@

Jenn Jilks said...

I live vicariously through those who DO travel! Amazing post.

(ツ) from Cottage Country Ontario , ON, Canada!

A Cuban In London said...

Your post is a visual fest! :-) I love autumn and those colours are so vivid. I have had a fab time lately going out on my bike and photographing autumn here in London. Your pictures of Japan make me so happy. It's such a fantastic place to visit. Here's a secret: I've always wanted to go but I feel wary of being in a country where I cannot speak the language. It makes me feel exposed. The only country I have been to where I haven't been able to speak the local lingo was Malaysia but they speak English as one of the official languages. Maybe one day I will overcome my reservations and visit Japan.

Greetings from London.

kacky said...

Oh my gosh - beautiful post!!! I have never been to Japan but always wanted to go- especially for the sushi!! :0) The photos are amazing. You are there at the right time of year it would seem as everything is showing off. I have been so bad about blogging/reading blogs lately- need to take time to sit and read for a while.

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina, I'll keep posting about Japan as I work on this book. We still have another week, but I'm already suffering from advance nostalgia. I'm glad to hear you are well. Happy holidays to you too!

Jenn, thanks! I have spent too much time in Japan: I was wondering why you signed your comment with the Japanese letter tsu before realizing it was a smilie face!

ACiL, your honest comment made me feel so much better. It is intimidating, frustrating and embarrassing to be unable to speak semi-fluently or to make educated guesses based on my second language. This hit home at a Spanish Culture Fair in the park. I thought my Japanese had improved until I realized the expats were blending Spanish with Japanese. My French only helps with Romance languages. Still, Japanese people are patient and pleased when you try to speak their language. My big triumph today was selecting a local wheat bread, requesting the number of slices and paying in cash a the local bakery today entirely in Japanese! There is more English on signs these days so you could manage with a phrase book. It's worth the struggle!

kacky, thanks! It feels like everyone is behind on blogging lately.

troutbirder said...

Minimalist yes. Exquisite even more so. I am always so wishing when I see Japanese maples in red. They are hit and miss to grow here on Minnesota's "tundra."

thecuecard said...

Wow love the photos -- particularly of the architecture, the lovely trees, and Mt. Fugi. Spectacular! Enjoy your last week.

Donna said...

These pictures are so gorgeous. I can't get over them. What an amazing adventure you've had there!

Petra Pavlátková said...

Sarah, I read both of your posts from your visit to Japan and found them very interesting. I especially love the stone gardens, the rich colours of Japanese maples at Ryoan-ji and the roofs of Enkou-ji Temple. It must have been an impressive experience, facing all the language difficulties, working on your novel, living in the different culture. I admire your effort to learn Japanese...