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Autumn in Kyoto

Kyoto garden in the fall

Glorious Eikandou in the fall

Autumn is a magnificent time of year to be in Kyoto. The air is cool, but the skies can be bright blue, and the colour at the temples is dazzling. Come with us as we wander through beautiful Kyoto in the fall!

Eikandou Temple in Higashiyama

Eikandou, in eastern Kyoto is breath-takingly beautiful. The vividly painted temple - its vermilion reds, bright blues, and jade greens mingle with the explosive colours of the temple garden trees as the leaves turn to red, yellow, and crimson. People celebrate this beauty by dressing up in bright kimono in shades of autumn.

There are many beautiful temples in Higashiyama, and it is wonderful to take a long walk from Ginkakuji all the way back to the top of Gion, stopping off at temple gardens and tearooms along the way!

The colour at the temple of Eikandou is dazzling in the fall!

This is another temple that is beloved for its autumn colour - Tofukuji.

The beautiful covered walkway that you can see in the bottom right looks out upon the tops of the autumn trees in the valley.

Teruhide Kato Kinkakuji woodblock print

Dazzling Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion in the north of Kyoto, looks stunning in the fall too. The golden reds of the momiji highlight the golden glow of the building.

Teruhide Kato created a magnificent woodblock print of the scene - the quality of the art is breathtaking - and we have this print, printed skillfully from the original cherry woodblocks in Kyoto on specialist paper, in our new Zusetsu ART store!

With over 600 temples and villas across a city that was the capital for nearly a thousand years, the number of beautiful locations in Kyoto is mesmerising!

The first two pictures are of gold-leaf covered Kinkakuji. This location used to be a part of the Heian estate that belonged to Saionji Kintsune. The Golden Pavilion is set in a beautiful garden with a small lake in front and pines behind, but the scenery extends to incorporate the landscape beyond - this idea of 'borrowing' the background landscape as a part of the composition of a garden is known as shakkei.

The gold leaf reflects in the water of the pool. The spectacle is dazzling! There is a tearoom here, where you can sit on the red carpet drinking fresh green matcha, looking out on the red-leafed trees :)

The next row of pictures are of vermilion-painted pagodas and the area around Kyomizudera. Near Sannenzaka there is a small temple where you can drink matcha overlooking the beautiful autumn garden.

Next is the temple of Nanzen-ji, which also has a teahouse overlooking a serene waterfall.

Lastly is a photo of the vermilion bridge of Kitano-tenmangu, lit up at night for lamplit momiji viewing. There was a sense of awe and hush from the other visitors as we all walked beneath the colourful trees.

There are so many lovely places to visit in Kyoto!

Momiji at Arashiyama

The Heian era is defined as an era where the art of beauty was perfected.

The Imperial courtiers would journey west of the city of Kyoto (old Heian-kyo)in November, until they reached the beautiful green river at Arashiyama. Here they would float about the river in peacock and dragon-headed boats, dressed in their flowing robes, admiring the brightly coloured leaves (momiji), as the sound of flutes echoed across the water.

This dazzling scene is recreated even now, as part of the annual Momiji Festival on the river Oi near the Togetsukyo Bridge - I discovered it by chance !

The Arashiyama Momiji Matsuri is usually held on the second weekend of November when the autumn leaves are at their brightest. The festival features performers dressed in traditional Heian era robes, and there are also traditional dance, music and art performances set up along the riverside, including noh and kyogen.

The highlight of the festival is the re-enactment of the cruise of the Heian courtiers on the Oi River. Five Heian peacock and dragon boats filled with nobles dressed in beautiful traditional costumes float down the river, as musicians on the boats play traditional music. It truly is spectacular!

momiji festival near Kyoto

The Momiji Matsuri at Arashiyama recreates the pleasure boat parties of the Heian era that were enjoyed by the members of the Imperial Court. The painting below is of a spring boat party from the Butterflies chapter of The Tale of Genji, painted by Tosa Mitsunobu in the early 16th century.

Tale of Genji boat festival


Autumn Heian poetry: falling leaves and Nishijin-ori

ukiyoe illustration from The Tale of Genji

Masao Ebina illustrates Prince Niou and Naka no Kimi in Chapter 47 of The Tale of Genji

Near the end of The Tale of Genji, Genji 's grandson, the fragrant Prince Niou has travelled to Uji to secretly marry the princess Nakanokimi. He is unable to return to her from the Kyoto court owing to his responsibilities and the secrecy he must maintain. At last he is able to make the journey, under the pretence of an autumn excursion. He travels down the river at Uji in a boat that has a beautiful awning made from the brightly coloured leaves of autumn.

'..the boats, roofed with coloured leaves,

looked as though they were spread with brocade,

and on the wind all the instruments playing together sounded almost loud.' [1]

illustration from The Tale of Genji

Prince Niou on the boat at Uji by Tosa Mitsunobu.

The ladies in waiting to Nakanokimi stand on the veranda of their lady's Uji villa to catch a glimpse of her new husband. They can't see Prince Niou as he is too far away to recognise, but they remark on the beauty and impressiveness of the spectacle, and the dazzling momiji leaves which are as beautiful as woven brocade as the boat floats towards them.

'Even on so discreet an excursion this great Prince, honoured and cherished by all the world,

appeared especially glorious to the sisters, and it seemed to the gentlewomen that his light

would be well worth awaiting if he were the Herd Boy Star himself.' [1]

Prince Niou appears to the gentlewomen as the celestial lover Hikoboshi of the Tanabata legend: the herd boy who is denied a meeting with his love Orihime, except for on just one night of the year when they are allowed to cross the River of Heaven on a bridge of autumn leaves.

The wide river at Uji mirrors this starry River of Heaven, and the autumn leaves draped across the roof of Niou's boat appear to them as the bridge that he will cross to be reunited with their lady.


This imaginative idea of the bright autumn leaves being like the brocades woven in Nishijin for the elaborate robes of the aristocracy emerges again, in a waka poem by Sekio, collected in the Heian era Imperial anthology called the Kokinshû:

Warp of frost, weft of dew,

these must be weak indeed:

no sooner are they woven than

the mountain's brocades

scatter in shreds.

It's a beautiful poem, where the frost and dew conspire to make the autumn leaves fall.

The visual metaphor - the mitate -of the autumn leaves seen as a robe of brocade recurs again and again in poetry of this era, and originates much earlier.

kimono fabric wallet surrounded by wildflowers

The reds and golds of the woven brocade

are like the bright colours of the falling leaves

Our beautiful pouches, and card cases are reminiscent of the Nishijin-ori that was woven in Kyoto for the sumptuous robes of the courtiers. These are the reds and golds that the Heian poets are imagining in their waka poetry.

Kyoto temple

Continuing the autumn metaphors of fabric weaving and dyeing - something that's close to our hearts here at Zusetsu - I love the following poem, it makes me think of how watercolour spreads in water on paper.

White dew

all of a single colour:

how then does it dye

the leaves of autumn

a thousand different shades?

[Fujiwara no Toshiyuki]

Kyoto autumn foliage

And then there's the wonderful Heian poet Izumi Shikibu engaging in the Heian practice of a secret night-time romance:

In October, a man came and then left -

How easily,

leaving my house,

he cuts through

the embroidered fabric

of the fall leaves!

How do you interpret this? Is she being ironic, thinking that the man went away too quickly? :)

Arashiyama river


If you would like an original print of stunning Japanese art on your walls at home, why not check out our beautiful woodblock prints. Here you can find landscapes of Kyoto by well-known Japanese artists, as well as our original prints by Masao Ebina from the ultimate story about Kyoto, The Tale of Genji!

tale of genji woodblock print

Teruhide Kato kinkakuji snow woodblock print

Snowy Kinkakuji Temple by Kyoto artist Teruhide Kato

You might like our range of Japanese Tenugui and our Tenugui Wall-hanging Kit! These art pieces are amongst our most popular items!

We hope you've enjoyed reading this article. Perhaps you'd enjoy reading this one about Tanabata, too!

Thank you for reading, and see you soon!

Cathy and Yukki


view across Kyoto

View looking out across Kyoto from Okochi Sanso Villa in Arashiyama


Haruo Shirane (Ed.), Traditional Japanese Literature, (Columbia University Press, 2007), p.156-159.

Melissa McCormick, The Tale of Genji: A Visual Companion, (Princeton University press, 2018), p.210-211).

Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani (trans.), The Ink Dark Moon, (Vintage, 1990), p.57.

Fuji Arts: Masao Ebina, Prince Niou and Naka no Kimi in Chapter 47 of The Tale of Genji. Maeda Masao Kaoru and Ouigimi from Chapter 46 of the Tale of Genji.


[1]: Murasaki Shikibu, Royall Tyler (trans.), The Tale of Genji, (Penguin Books, 2001), p.896.


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