2016 Classic Japan Autumn Tour Report

13-28 November 2016

Tour Report – Part 2

This tour report covers the second half of our 2016 Classic Japan Autumn Tour. Read the first part here.

The second half of our Classic Japan Autumn Tour was spent visiting Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka.


The Thousand-Year Capital

Kyoto (京都) is the cultural capital of Japan owing to its countless number of temples, shrines and other historical structures, and being the home of kabuki theatre, and geisha. It used to be the capital city of Japan for over a thousand years until it was moved to Tokyo in 1868 by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

We spent several days exploring Kyoto and visited several of its amazing temples, including Kiyomizudera (清水寺), Eikando (永観堂), Ginkakuji (銀閣寺), Kinkakuji (金閣寺), Ryoanji (龍安寺), Tofukuji (東福), and Saihoji (西芳寺). Each temple was selected for this tour for their unique features.

We also visited other well-known sights in Kyoto including the Sagano Bamboo Grove, the thousands of torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine, Pontocho Alley, and the geisha districts of Gion and Miyagawacho.

Ginkakuji (銀閣寺)

The Silver Pavilion

Ginkakuji (銀閣寺), officially known as Jishoji,  is a Zen temple located in the Higashiyama area of eastern Kyoto. The main building was designed to look like Kinkakuji and there were initial plans to cover it in silver leaf, hence its common nickname.

The garden at Ginkakuji is one of the most famous in Japan, particularly its dry sand garden featuring a distinctive sand mound representing Mount Fuji.

Ryoanji (龍安寺)

Japan’s most famous rock garden

Ryoanji is a temple in northwestern Kyoto and home to Japan’s most famous rock garden. It is one of Kyoto’s most popular temples so we visited here very early and were able to enjoy the rock garden with a minimal amount of people and noise around us.

There are 15 rocks laid out in Ryoanji’s rock garden and one of its interesting features is that at least one of the rocks is hidden from view no matter where you stand.

Tofukuji (東福寺)

Amazing autumn colours

Tofukuji is a Zen temple in southeastern Kyoto that features spectacular autumn colours, quite easily some of the best in Japan. The view of the Tsutenkyo Bridge over a valley of maple trees draws visitors from all over Japan and around the world.

Sagano Bamboo Grove (嵯峨野竹林)

The tranquil forest

The Sagano Bamboo Grove is one of Kyoto’s top sights and its not hard to see why. The path through the soaring bamboo creates a beautiful environment for a contemplative stroll, especially in the early morning before the main tourist crowds arrive.

Kinkakuji (金閣寺)

The Golden Pavilion

Kinkakuji is one of Kyoto’s most spectacular temples thanks to its gold leaf covered exterior, architecture, and garden design. Each floor of the temple uses a different architectural style and its setting overlooking a large pond and use of “borrowed scenery” is amongst the best in Japan.

Eikando (永観堂)

Beautiful autumn illuminations

Eikando is a Buddhist temple of the Jodo sect located in northeastern Kyoto. It is very famous for its autumn colours and the evening illuminations that take place during autumn are amongst the best of any temple or garden in Japan.

The Hojo Pond and the surrounding garden here are incredibly beautiful during autumn with the maple trees and bridge reflecting in the water.

Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社)

Thousand Torii

Fushimi Inari Taisha is a Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto and is famous for its thousands of vermillion torii gates which climb up Mount Inari. This shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. There are many fox statues located throughout the shrine grounds as foxes are considered the messengers of Inari.

Fushimi Inari Taisha is Kyoto’s most popular tourist attraction and draws hundreds of visitors every day. This makes it a challenging place to photograph, particularly around the most photogenic area of the shrine, the densely packed parallel row of gates called the Senbon Torii (“Thousand Torii”).


Japan’s first permanent capital

Nara (奈良) is located just south of Kyoto and was Japan’s first permanent capital, acting in that role from 710-794, after which the capital changed to Kyoto. We visited two of Nara’s main sights, Todaiji Temple, and Kasuga Taisha Shrine, and at times were escorted by some of resident deer eager for a meal.

The imposing Todaiji (東大寺) is one of Japan’s most important temples and home to the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall), one of the largest wooden buildings in the world and housing an enormous bronze statue of Buddha. Kasuga Taisha (春日大社) is Nara’s most celebrated shrine and is famous for its lanterns, which include stone lanterns leading up to the shrine, and ornate bronze lanterns which hang in the inner shrine area.

Saihoji (西芳寺)

The Moss Temple

Saihoji is a temple in western Kyoto, more commonly known as Kokedera (Moss Temple) owing to its incredible moss garden, widely considered the best in Japan. In autumn, the maple trees dotted around the garden add beautiful highlights of colour to the moss greenery.

Kiyomizudera (清水寺)

The Pure Water Temple

Kiyomizudera is one of Japan’s most celebrated temples and is located in the hills of Higashiyama in eastern Kyoto. The temple was founded in 778 on the site of the Otowa waterfall which is where it takes its name (“Pure Water Temple”).

The main hall of Kiyomizudera with its veranda that overhangs the hillside is the most famous part of the temple. What’s remarkable about the temple is that no nails are used in the entire structure; it’s an outstanding example of Japanese woodworking and architecture.

In recent years, Kiyomizudera has undergone renovations which have had some impact on the views and the photography here, and this is the reason why this place is an optional part of our tour.

We decided visited Kiyomizudera during a free time period on tour and were lucky enough to find that the renovations to the temple’s Three-Storey Pagoda were complete and was now free of scaffolding, shining vividly red with its new coat of paint. As a result, we decided to spend the late afternoon here and also stay for the evening illuminations. It was very crowded but with plenty of patience we could find some good vantage points to take shots of the temple.

Kiyomizudera is due to undergo a renovation to its main hall from early this year, meaning our visit was the last autumn that we could see the famous veranda uncovered until 2020.


The flower and willow world

On Day 11 we enjoyed our main tour highlight – a private lunch and photo session with a Kyoto geisha (芸者). Geisha are traditional Japanese female entertainers skilled in various arts such as classical music, dance, games, and conversation. Apprentice geisha are called maiko (舞子), while fully trained geisha are called geiko (芸子).

This year Toshisumi from the Miyagawacho geisha district joined us for lunch. Toshisumi is a popular senior maiko with a wonderful personality and is one of only a few maiko currently working who is from Kyoto. She has also represented the geisha world and Japanese culture overseas, participating with geiko Toshikana in the Milan World Expo 2015.

We enjoyed our exquisite kaiseki (懐石) lunch and conversation with Toshisumi before she performed some traditional dance and then moving onto our photo session. After taking some photos inside the teahouse, we moved outside for more shots, finishing off at a nearby shrine. Toshisumi was fantastic to work with and helped us to get some great shots!


Heart of Kansai

Our final destination on tour was Osaka (大阪), the economic hub of the Kansai region and the second largest city in Japan. We visited the famous food and entertainment district of Dotonbori (道頓堀) with its huge multi-storey neon billboards lining the canal and countless restaurants full of great food.

On our final morning, we visited the Osaka Central Wholesale Market to watch the early morning tuna auction. The Osaka Market is one of the few markets left in Japan with unrestricted access to view tuna auctions.

We enjoyed walking around the tuna auction area watching the fish buyers go about their work. Once the auction got started, we were amazed at the speed of the sales process.

2017 Classic Japan Autumn Tour

13-28 November 2017 | Book Now

I hope this tour report provided you with a good idea of what goes on during one of our Japan photography tours. We visit a wealth of amazing sights with the itineraries designed to give you the best opportunities to capture beautiful images of Japan.

We are running our Classic Japan Autumn Tour again in 2017. So if you’d like to be part of an amazing experience, check out the tour details and book now!

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