Photo: K36

6 best things to do in Kyoto this autumn

Visit iconic shrines and temples after dark, catch art installations, sip drinks overlooking the city and more

Emma Steen
Written by
Emma Steen

There’s never a bad time to visit Kyoto. The former capital of Japan is undoubtedly one of the hottest destinations in the world and anyone who visits automatically becomes the envy of all their friends. There are, of course, the obvious stops when making a pilgrimage to the city, including postcard attractions like the Higashiyama district and trendy watering holes like the Bee’s Knees (listed among Asia’s 50 Best Bars). Then there are seasonal events and places that shine extra bright at certain times of the year.

Kyoto, like the rest of Japan, is open to visitors from around the world once again. And not a moment too soon: with crisp autumn air and leaves turning vibrant shades of red and yellow, Kyoto is at its most majestic this time of year. 

If you want to make the most of your autumn in Kyoto, make sure you add these items to your bucket list. 

Photo: K36

K36 Rooftop Bar 

Near the base of the traditional Sannenzaka shopping street is K36, a hotel rooftop bar which undisputedly boasts one of the best views of Kyoto. Unlike Tokyo, there are no skyscrapers here to obstruct your view. Instead, you can gaze at the perfect silhouette of the five-tier pagoda of Hokanji Temple against the backdrop of Kyoto’s quiet cityscape. 

Watching the sunset here is just about the dreamiest conclusion to a long day imaginable, but while Kyoto is full of secret gems and lesser known hideouts, K36 isn’t one of them. If you want to be one of the lucky handful of people sipping a mojito on the terrace, your best bet at getting a seat is to arrive early in the afternoon – for a late lunch, perhaps. The food menu includes a selection of pasta and pizza, while the bar menu consists of classic tipples like bloody marys and martinis, as well as seasonal fresh fruit cocktails.

Photo: Narongsak Nagadhana/DreamstimeKiyozumi-dera

After-dark temple and shrine visits

Suffice it to say Kyoto has more than a few shrines and temples. You might have already been to some of the more famous ones, including the golden Kinkakuji or the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, but chances are you’ve only seen them in broad daylight. 

Typically, shrines and temples open to visitors at the crack of dawn and close by sundown, but a handful of the city’s ancient sanctuaries are taking part in a special autumn festival called Souda Kyoto Ikou, where they will remain open after dark for a limited time. Byodoin, Kenninji and Toji temples are just some of the iconic landmarks that will be lit up for the season.

Separately, Kiyomizu-dera Temple and Kurodani Temple are also holding their own evening light displays, illuminating the architecture of these national treasures as well as the surrounding autumn foliage.

Photo: Naked, Inc.Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle light-up

Coming to the Unesco World Heritage Site of Nijo Castle this month is one of Japan’s largest interactive digital art installations. The event, which is set to run from October 28 to December 4, is designed to combine traditional Japanese art with the Metaverse on the grounds of the 17th-century fortress.  

Highlights include a digital ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) experience and an interactive projection mapping show along the castle's inner moat, where imagery taken from within the grounds serve as the inspiration for the plants and animals featured in the display. The digital projection, which uses an AI to analyse the surrounding environment, changes its shape and colour based on how people move around the space. After touring the illuminated grounds and traditional Japanese garden, you can move on to the food pop-ups, which will be serving snacks and drinks from Naked's own Tokyo-based café

Book your tickets online here

Excafe cat toast
Photo: Excafe

Cat toast for breakfast 

What better way to start the morning than with cat-shaped shokupan (milk bread)? Here at Excafe, you can toast your own cutesy bread slices over a traditional mini barbecue known as a shichirin and top it with toppings like soy butter, whipped cream and sweet bean paste. You can even go the extra mile and order a side of dango (rice dumpling skewers) to bake over the grill, too – perfect to warm you up on those chilly mornings when the sun has only just risen. 

Every room in the café is uniquely beautiful with quintessentially Japanese interiors. On a clear day, however, you’ll want to grab a seat outdoors, where you can enjoy your breakfast overlooking the Zen garden.

Alternative Kyoto
Photo: Tadashi Mitani 'Stone Cube' (2021)

Alternative Kyoto 

Kyotographie isn’t the only visual art festival worth making a special trip to the city for. Alternative Kyoto is a new multi-venue art festival that aims to connect people with the culture and heritage of Kyoto through contemporary art. 

Installations are set up in lesser known corners of the prefecture, stretching from Fukuchiyama to Miyazu and Amanohashidate to Muko. Set to run until November 20, this extensive yet intimate project highlights digital art, performance art and sculptures within some of the prefecture’s most picturesque landscapes. Participating artists include Tadashi Mitani, art collective Think and Sense and Montreal-based digital art studio Irregular, who are showing their 4m by 4m LED cube titled ‘Control No Control’ in Japan for the first time at Miyazu City's Motoise Kono Shrine. Admission for all installations is free, but be sure to check the opening hours of individual venues. 

Photo: Andy Warhol Kyoto

Andy Warhol Kyoto 

Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art is currently hosting the city’s largest-ever Andy Warhol exhibition with roughly 200 paintings, photographs, films and other materials borrowed from The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, USA. The featured collection covers some of the eccentric artist's most iconic pieces such as his Campbell’s soup cans and portraits of Marilyn Monroe. 

There’s even a section called 'Warhol, Japan and Kyoto', which looks back on Warhol's first visit to Japan in 1956 and the sketches he made during his time here. This exhibition will not be touring other cities after Kyoto, so aim to visit before it ends on February 12.

This article was originally published on October 22 2021 and updated on October 11 2022.

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