2019 Classic Japan Autumn Tour

TOUR REPORT: Part 3 – Kyoto (24-27 Nov. 2019)

Updated: 26 October, 2020  |  by Julius Pang

Part 3 of our Tour Report covers our time in Kyoto during the 2019 Classic Japan Autumn Tour. Read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.


Our time in Kyoto during the 2019 Classic Japan Autumn Tour deserves its own part as we introduced new attractions for this year and were blessed with the best autumn colours I’ve seen in several years. The weather was definitely to blame for this, with strange swings between warm and cold autumn weather during November.

We spent several days exploring Kyoto and visited several of its amazing temples, including Ginkakuji, Kinkakuji, Tofukuji. We also returned to visit Rurikoin, and visited Ryogenin and Byodoin for the first time.

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

Kinkakuji (金閣寺)

Kinkakuji was our first sight in Kyoto. This temple is always good fun to visit. The wide path leading up to the entrance is a great prelude for the main attraction, featuring moss gardens and maple trees.

I love the great “wow” factor this temple has when you first see it. It is also of those rare scenic attractions where you can cut out the crowd completely in your images. The placement of the temple next to the large pond and orientation of the walking path are largely responsible for this – pretty damn good temple garden design!

Ryogen-in (龍源院)

A new temple for our tour this year was Ryogenin, an off-the-beaten track temple and a real hidden gem.

Ryogenin is one of Daitokuji’s twenty-two subtemples and is famous for its collection of rock gardens. Amongst rock gardens in Japan, the one at Ryoanji Temple is the most famous, but I think Ryogenin’s Isshidan is every bit as good. The temple also features Japan’s smallest rock garden and the oldest gun in Japan – a Tanegashima musket dating back to 1583.

  • The largest karesansui garden at Ryogeinin is called Isshidan. The central moss feature here represent Kamejima (“Turtle Island”), the tall stones to the top left represents Horaisan (“Treasure Mountain”), and the stones at the central rear represent Tsurujima (“Crane Island”).  These stone islands are typical features in Japanese rock garden design and have certain symbolism attached to them. For example, Horaisan is a mythical place where immortal and everlasting happiness exists.

  • Ryugintei is another garden at Ryogenin and I like the contrast of this garden to Isshidan, being completely covered in moss rather than stones.
    I love the beautifully worn wood on the engawa (verandah) here as well – this would be a few hundred years old!
  • Shoji screens open up to reveal another small garden at Ryogenin. The play of light and shadow here in this room, together with the pop of colour from the outside was really wonderful to see. Credit to Louise for seeing the great shot idea with the shoji here!
  • Totekiko is said to be the smallest rock garden in Japan. This is a bit of a dramatic angle but the only way to fit the whole length of the garden without too severe perspective distortion.

Byodoin (平等院)

A new location for our tour is Byodoin. This stunning temple is perhaps the most well known example of Buddhist Jodo architecture.

The highlight of Byodoin is the Phoenix Hall which forms the main part of the temple. This is actually a nickname which happened to stick as the hall features phoenix statues on its roof and this elegant birdlike form. Inside the Phoenix Hall is a large gilded wooden statue of Amitabha, the principal buddha in Jodo Buddhism.

  • Since 2017, Byodoin has run a special illumination event during autumn which has proved to be incredibly popular. The Phoenix Hall already looks beautiful during the day but I think its beauty is elevated to another level at night with the lights.

Tofukuji (東福寺)

Tofukuji is a large Zen temple in southeastern Kyoto that is famous for its autumn colours. The main gardens here feature a huge amount of maple trees which create an amazing sea of yellow, orange, and red hues as you walk around the temple complex.

  • Near Tofukuji we encountered an unusual sight – a komuso priest at Meianji Temple. He did a good job drawing attention to this smaller temple.
  • Down in the “maple valley” at Tofukuji and the sunlight here popping through creates an interesting play of light with the maple trees and shadowed canopy.

Arashiyama (嵐山)

Arashiyama is located in the western outskirts of Kyoto and is popular area to visit for autumn colours and cherry blossoms. Set around the peaceful Hozu River, there are a number of interesting sights here including the famous Sagano Bamboo Grove, the historic Togetsukyo Bridge, and numerous temples.

We started off our second day in Kyoto with a dawn visit to Sagano Bamboo Grove. This site is probably the most famous bamboo location in the world and is seen on countless promotions for Kyoto and Japan. For photographers, a pre-dawn arrival here is essential in order to bag the best shooting positions and have a clear path to capture.

  • Nearby Sagano Bamboo Grove is Nonomiya Shrine. This is a really underrated shrine that has wonderful autumn colours and a moss garden.
  • Our group were the first to arrive at the Sagano Bamboo Grove but we were soon joined by a nice Taiwanese couple. The lady here had gone to the effort to rent out a yukata to wear just for photos and they were more than happy enough for us to snap away.

Louise and Shelly found this amazing mountain of huge turnips as we were walking around Arashiyama. The information I could find from the signs is that these are the Shogoin variety of turnips which are one of the largest turnips in Japan and can weigh 2-5kg. Kyoto is famous for its pickles, called tsukemono; these turnips will be used in senmaizuke, which is a style of pickles found in Kyoto.

Ginkakuji (銀閣寺)

Ginkakuji has always been part of our autumn tour and it never fails to impress. The garden at Ginkakuji is one of the most outstanding in Japan and is famous for its karesansui garden (dry sand garden) featuring a distinctive sand mound representing Mount Fuji.

  • A classic view of Ginkakuji with Ginsandan (“sea of silver sand”) and the sand mound Kogetsudai (“moon viewing platform”). I think this view of Ginkakuji highlights how amazing this garden’s design is. Besides nicely evoking the sea, waves and Mount Fuji, the placement of the maple tree behind Kogetsudai makes me think “volcano” straight away. Also, according to rumour, if you look at Kogetsudai from the second floor of Ginkakuji it resembles the full moon rising in Higashiyama.

  • Superb autumn colours at Ginkakuji! There was a great variety and stunning vividness to the autumn colours which I haven’t seen for many years. In the background we can see suburban Kyoto and some deep maroon coloured maples providing nice pops of colour.

Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社)

Fushimi Inari Taisha is a Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto and the torii gates here have graced countless tourism promotions for Japan. The really photogenic part of the shrine complex are the pair of densely packed torii gate tunnels called the Senbon Torii (“Thousand Torii”). Away from this part of the mountain there are several other torii tunnels extending all the way up Mount Inari, making for a leg-burning but pleasant hike to the top!

We normally visit Fushimi Inari Taisha at dawn to avoid the crowds and have the Senbon Torii to ourselves to shoot but this year, our group opted to skip the dawn shoot and shoot a little bit later. We were fortunate enough to still be able to get clear shots of the torii gates with some patience.

  • Ema are small wooden plaques on which worshippers can write their prayers and wishes. They are typically around 15cm x 9cm in size but their design can vary considerably, and often reflect the particular shrine or temple. Fushimi Inari Taisha features torii shaped ema – there are probably a thousand ema here to go with the thousand torii on the mountain!
  • The kanji on the left leg of this ema here translates to “household safety” and is commonly written on ema. People write this to promote good health.
  • There is lovely detailing in the buildings at Fushimi Inari Taisha, showing off the skill of shrine carpenters and metalworkers. Here the balcony floor and joinery are accented by gold capping, also featuring detailed engraving.


After our morning spent at Fushimi Inari Taisha and Tofukuji, we headed south to Nara. Located just 30min south of Kyoto by train, Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital from 790-794. Two of the main sights here include Todaiji Temple, and Kasuga Taisha Shrine. We also can’t forget the 1000+ resident deer who roam freely around Nara!

  • Todaiji is one of the most famous and historically significant temples in Japan. First established in 752, the main hall pictured here is called the Daibutsuden (“Great Buddha Hall”), and is a reconstruction completed in 1709. This was the largest wooden building in the world until 1998 and incredibly enough is only two-thirds the size of the original temple hall.
  • Kasuga Taisha is Nara’s celebrated Shinto shrine. It is well known for its lanterns, including hundreds of stone lanterns lining the paths leading up to the shrine, and bronze lanterns within the shrine.

Rurikoin (瑠璃光院)

For our final day in Kyoto, we Rurikoin again this year and it was an early morning start for our group so that we could get there at opening time and minimise queuing time.

Getting to Rurikoin involves taking the charming Eizan Train Line right to the end stop. We were fortunate enough to ride one of the new Hiei trains on this line, and this features a very futuristic look and a wonderful interior. I personally think this is the best looking local train design in Japan and I hope that more train companies can be bold and adventurous like Eizan when it comes to introducing new trains in future.

The Eizan Line gets very packed during autumn season due to Rurikoin being one of the best autumn colour locations in Kyoto. It’s so popular that there is a timed entry system in place to ensure everyone gets a fair chance to visit the temple.

Rurikoin has an interesting history, being originally land owned by Gentaro Tanaka, a prominent businessman from the Meiji to Taisho eras. After Tanaka’s death, the land became a private villa for the executive director of the Kyoto Electric Light Company. Kyoto Electric Light opened the Eizan Line and Eizan Cable Car, both of which were taken over by Keifuku Electric Railway.

Keifuku operated the villa as a luxury restaurant before selling it to Komyoji Temple, who converted the villa to Rurikoin Temple. This explains why Rurikoin doesn’t look like a temple at all from the inside. I think it must have been a wonderful experience to enjoy a lunch here in autumn back when it was a restaurant!

  • The stunning yellow maple tree at Rurikoin. I always thought red was the colour for a maple tree until I saw this tree. Amazing consistency in the leaf colour covering the whole tree.
  • Rurikoin’s main attraction is the second floor view. Featuring a strategically placed lacquer table and the polished floorboards on the engawa, the reflections of the autumn colours are stunning. The yellow maple tree in particular looked amazing this year, contrasting with the red maples around it.
    Rurikoin is a small temple, so space is at a premium and photography is challenging here. Patience is needed to get to the right spots to shoot and I think we all did very well considering the crowds present. A good table shot is always the most difficult as you can only fit so many people around a small table. The temple staff do their best to ensure everyone gets a chance to shoot right at the table.
  • Garyo-no-niwa, one of Rurikoin’s three gardens. Some wonderful moss here leading to a small pond. According to the temple, this pond garden represents a dragon ascending to heaven with water and stones. It is supposed to release the mind of people who are watching it, and also brings good luck.
    As with the second floor, the engawa here is highly polished and reflective like a mirror – they usually aren’t treated this way in most temples but then again Rurikoin originally wasn’t a temple.


The final part of our time in Kyoto was spent on a private photo shoot with a real working geisha. This has always been a highlight feature of our autumn tours and gives our tour members a rare opportunity to meet a geisha up close. With increasing numbers of tourists to Kyoto there has been increasing poor behaviour and manners by tourists just to get that elusive geisha shot. The appropriate way to see and photograph geisha is either through certain public events (e.g. erikae), or in a private booking.

The term geisha is often used in the West and refers to a traditional Japanese female entertainer skilled in various arts such as classical music, dance, games, and conversation. At the height of their popularity in the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha. The geisha profession experienced gradual decline after WWII; today, there are an estimated 1,000-2,000 geisha remaining.

In Japan, Kyoto is regarded as the centre of geisha culture and is the most traditional and prestigious of the geisha areas in Japan. Kyoto geisha prefer to be called geiko (芸子), reflecting their local dialect and to differentiate themselves from geisha from other parts of Japan. The term geiko also doesn’t have the negative and inaccurate historical connotations associated with “geisha”. Apprentice geiko are called maiko (舞子).

This year Toshinaho from the Miyagawacho geiko district joined us for our photoshoot. Toshinaho is still a junior maiko, having only made her debut in May 2019.

  • Toshinaho hasn’t done many photoshoots before since she is a relatively new maiko but she took direction very well and did a great job for us. She was more than up for the challenge in posing in the garden here for quite some time while holding a heavy wagasa umbrella, and also her kimono to avoid it getting dirty. Bravo!
  • Toshinaho performing a traditional dance for us. Maiko train intensively in traditional arts including dance, tea ceremony, and musical instruments. Their training lasts for 3-5 years before they graduate to become geiko.
  • We were all were curious as to how Toshinaho would manage to put on her okobo sandals and walk into the garden. Answer: With great care and elegance!
  • Okobo are the traditional wooden sandals worn by maiko during their apprenticeship. While they look heavy, they are surprisingly lightweight as they are made of lightweight but hard-wearing paulownia wood, and are hollowed out from the bottom. It still takes a lot of practice to put these on and walk around in them.

The distinctive white makeup of maiko and geiko is called shironuri (白塗り, lit. “painted white”). In the past when there was no electricity and only dim candlelight in Japan, this makeup style developed as a way for various entertainers such as geiko and kabuki actors to look more visible and beautiful, and to convey the impression of a mask.
Geiko and maiko apply the makeup partially on the nape, showing two or three strips of skin depending on the occasion. The purpose of this is to further convey the impression of a mask, and to convey sensuality as in the past the skin on the nape was considered an attractive part of the body.

Toshinaho has an interesting background in music, having played shamisen since she was young child. Shamisen is one of the traditional instruments learnt by geiko so she has a head start on her fellow maiko. Toshinaho isn’t allowed to perform shamisen yet as a maiko, so we had to get special permission from her okiya so she could bring a shamisen along for our photo shoot.

“Window light” is a term often used in photography to describe the indirect light that comes from a window when the sun is in the right position. This acts like an enormous softbox and provides beautiful soft light. We’ve used an open shoji door here as our window light to shoot Toshinaho with her shamisen.

Read more of our Trip Report:

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