Field Report: The Autumn Splendours of Arashiyama, Kyōto, Japan (26 November 2016)

The hills of the Arashiyama district are ablaze with colour every fall, transforming the northwestern reaches of Kyōto into a teeming hive of tourists. This particular season – out of the several autumns I’ve spent in Japan’s ancient capital – seemed the worst by far in terms of visitor overload, but it’s hard to complain when the trees are so beautiful, the air is so fresh, the skies are so clear … and the roasted sweet potatoes are so incredibly delicious.

I’ve been to (and blogged about) this corner of Kyōto a few times – see here and here, for example – so I won’t dwell too much on the various landmarks I visited today. My previous posts on the subject can help flesh things out a bit more, and Japan Guide offers some useful advice on what to see and how to get there. For now, let’s take it nice and easy as we chase after the colours – all the while trying to avoid the horrible, horrible crowds standing in the way.

Now then, a confession. Truth be told, I’ve never really been impressed by Arashiyama’s iconic Togetsukyō (渡月橋). Not by its latest, depressingly bland 1930s iteration anyway, the most recent in a long line of bridges built at this crossing point since the Heian Era. (I’d have probably found its wooden predecessors more aesthetically pleasing.) That said, it’s not a bad place from which to view the hills in the background, which look their best at this time of year with some of the trees sporting varied hues of yellow, red, and orange.

These same bright shades greeted me as I entered the hallowed precincts of Tenryū-ji (天龍寺). Interestingly, some of the best colours were on the trees outside the paid area…

…but the views from within its extensive gardens were also a sight to behold.

The temple’s back door led me straight into Arashiyama’s famed Bamboo Grove, which offered an interesting – and in a way quite refreshing – contrast to all the fiery colours I’d just seen.

I followed the main path that cuts through the bamboo grove until I was just a short distance away from Ōkōchi-sansō (大河内山荘). This elegant hillside villa with sublime gardens is one of my favourite spots in Kyōto – check out this previous post to see what’s inside – but I gave it a pass on this occasion, mindful of the clock as it edged ever closer to my scheduled homebound flight.

One thing I didn’t pass up on was this food cart…

…which was selling yakiimo at 300-600 yen apiece, depending on the size. The specific variant on offer was Annōimo (安納芋), an especially sacchariferous type of sweet potato from faraway Tanegashima that lends itself so beautifully well to a simple roasting.

Here she is, nestled in the wrapper…

…and opened in half, with all that rich, sweet, fantastically delicious goodness laid bare. I kid you not when I write that my mouth is salivating even as I type this, with the memories of that snack surging back to life in my mind.

Energy levels restored – perhaps even to excess, considering all the sugar and carbohydrate I’d just ingested – I resumed my leisurely stroll across the Arashiyama area. There was plenty of seasonal beauty along the way, offering something even for those who were too cheap to pony up the entrance fees for the best kōyō spots.

My next target was Jōjakkō-ji (常寂光寺), one of my favourite places for kōyō in the old capital, thanks to the scenic canopy of leaves arching over the staircase that rises up from its main entrance. I was hoping that the fantastic scene I remembered from previous trips – see here and here, for example – was currently on display…

…but alas, it was not to be. The best colours had already come and gone, leaving only sad piles of dry leaves upon the mossy ground as a reminder of the beauty I’d missed.

No matter, at least I was able to see its main hall, now fully restored and free from the scaffolding that had concealed it from view the last time I was here.

And next to the main hall, as if in apology for the underwhelming state of the famous leaf canopy I’d passed through earlier, a solitary tree almost overwhelmed me with some of the most fantastic shades of red I’d seen on this entire trip.

Beyond that, there were also a few other trees on the temple grounds that were still hanging on to their seasonal splendour.

I wandered a fair distance north after this and visited a couple of other kōyō spots, but didn’t come across anything particularly noteworthy (with some of the best colours having already faded away). But I’d seen more than enough to last me a long while, and was quite content to finally draw the curtain across this Japan adventure.


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