Kyoto in the Fall

IT caught my eye while our taxi was barreling down the freeway from Osaka.

The mountain range in the distance looked like it was ablaze. I squinted and took in the view. The foliage had begun changing to the colors of Fall: from yellow to red to a tinge of deep orange.

“Wala nito sa Pilipinas (We don’t have this in the Philippines),” I told myself as I tried to get a photo with my phone camera from our moving vehicle.

The long line of mountains was giving me a colorful preview of my destination: Kyoto.

Besides spring with its cherry blossoms, autumn is another popular time to visit Kyoto, which served as Japan’s ancient capital for a thousand years.

Dotted with historic palaces, temples, and storied districts, Kyoto and its environs come alive with the spectacular colors of autumn starting in October until early December.

My Filipino friends in Japan say that if there’s only one place you can visit in that country, choose Kyoto.

I got lucky to be invited to an International Labor Organization (ILO) conference in the city and so I got to see this former seat of shoguns (military dictators) and the emperors of ancient Japan.

Take the plunge

Topping the list of the sites we visited (of course, after attending the talks at the conference) for me was Kiyomizu-dera, a stunning Buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The street leading to the temple is lined with shops selling traditional Japanese wares that should not be missed.

Kiyomizu-dera (Pure Water Temple) was founded on the site of a waterfall in the city’s Higashiyama district in the year 780. The temple, one of the most celebrated in Japan, is made of wood and was constructed without the use of nails.

Kiyomizu-dera is best known for the wooden verandah that juts out of its main hall. The verandah, supported by 139 fifty-foot wooden pillars, provides stunning views of the temple’s surroundings.

I lingered there for several minutes to take some pictures, including that of a young girl looking at ema, or small wooden plaques on which believers write their prayers and wishes. The ema are left at temples, where spirits or gods can receive them.

But the best vantage point for me was when I walked a little further dwon the track from the main hall until I reached a point across the verandah. When I looked back, it looked like the main hall was floating on a sea of red.

It is said that the Japanese have a popular expression–“To jump off the stage at Kiyomizu”—that is equivalent to “taking the plunge” in English.

People used to jump off the verandah in earlier times, believing that, if one were to survive the 13m fall, one’s wish would be granted.

Not wanting to take the jump, which is now prohibited, I continued my walk down to the base of the temple, where other tourists were lining up.

There at the base stood the remnant of the old waterfall whose waters are now divided into three streams. Using cups, visitors can drink the water from each of the streams, believed to give long life, success in one’s studies, and a lucky love life.

A visitor can scoop water from one or two of the streams but not three because that is thought to be a sign of avarice.

From wood to gold

After Kiyomizu-dera, the next historic eye candy that impressed me was Kinkaku-ji, a Zen temple in northern Kyoto which is covered by gold leaf. It is considered to be Kyoto’s most iconic site.

Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion) was first built in the 1390s but a mentally disturbed student burned it down in 1950. The story is told in Yukio Mishima’s novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It was rebuilt afterwards.

While one cannot enter the temple and examine it up close, it’s still a sight to behold, especially when taken with its golden reflection on the pond in front of the building.

We also took a side trip to Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) in eastern Kyoto.

No, it’s not covered in silver but this Zen temple is said to have gotten its name because the moon light reflected on its dark exterior gave it a silvery appearance at night. It was built originally as a shogun’s retirement villa in 1482.


After this string of Buddhist temples, we decided to take a peek at a shrine dedicated to Shinto, Japan’s native religion.

Located in in the Sakyo-ku Ward of the city, the Heian Shrine is considered “young”—only around 120 years old— when compared to the other shrines and palaces of Kyoto. It was built in 1895.

The shrine is dedicated to the first and last emperors who resided in the Kyoto before the imperial capital was moved to Tokyo in 1869.

Walking to the temple, we passed by a neighborhood of machiya, or the traditional wooden townhouses famous in the city. We get a sense of how ordinary folks lived in ancient times in the city. We also passed by a stream that still had ducks swimming on its clean and clear waters.

You know you’re nearing the temple when you encounter its massive Torii Gate, which mark the boundary “between the sacred and the profane.” Reaching the shrine itself, one is impressed by its spacious grounds.

What got my attention were the vermillion-colored buildings of the temple complex. There were also white omikuji, or the fortune-telling paper strips.

Believers leave behind their omikuji in the temple grounds if does not predict a favorable fortune. They were tied in branches so that the “bad luck” would “stick with the tree instead of the person.”

Nightingale floors

Our last stop was Ninomaru Palace in Nijo Castle, the home of the Tokugawa shoguns when Kyoto was still the capital.

This castle has life-size figures wearing traditional Japanese garb to show how the shogun and his retinue lived.

The palace is famous for its uguisubari (or nightingale floors) that make chirping sounds when someone walks on them. This was to ensure no one (like a ninja) could sneak around the palace undetected.

These places are but a few of the many sites to see in Kyoto. There is still the Gion district (famous for its geishas), the bamboo grove in Arashiyama, and the thousands of vermillion toriis at the Fushimi Inari shrine.

I think I wrote down in an ema my wish that someday I could return.