Photo: K36

5 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 goes 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 Arashiyama Bamboo forest 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.

Like most major cities in Japan, Kyoto is gradually reopening to visitors from around the country 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 illumination festival called Hikari no Kyoto where they will remain open after dark for a limited time. Byodoin, Kenninji and Toji temples are just a handful 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.

Nijo Castle
Photo: 1 to 10

Nijo Castle light-up

Coming to the Unesco World Heritage Site of Nijo Castle this November is one of Japan’s largest interactive digital art installations. The One to Ten Nijo Castle Light-up Party, which is set to run from November 5 to December 12, is designed to combine the joys of art and food on the grounds of the 17th-century fortress.  

Highlights include the 400sqm projection mapping artwork, where imagery taken from within the castle grounds serves as the inspiration for the plants and animals featured in the display. The digital projection, which uses an AI system 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 up delicacies from renowned Kyoto eateries like Shokudou Ogawa and Kyotenjin Noguchi. 

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.

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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 Nantan to Yosano and Miyazu to Yawata. Set to run until November 7, this extensive yet intimate project highlights digital art, performance art and sculptures within some of the prefecture’s most picturesque landscapes. Participating artists include the collective Side Core, Kenji Yanobe and artistic duo Another Farm, who will be showcasing their mesmerising giant Noh costume – as seen at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum last year. Admission for all installations is free, but be sure to check the opening hours of individual venues. 

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