Braving the Hordes at Tofuku-ji and Kiyomizu-dera

We headed out in the morning from the Hyatt Place Kyoto for quick walk through a tiny part of Kyoto Gyoen on the way to breakfast. After eating, we visited Tofuku-ji, one of Kyoto’s most well known fall foliage viewing sites. It was crazy! And because we didn’t quite get enough madness, we headed back to Kiyomizu-dera for the nighttime illumination which was absolutely ridiculous! But quite beautiful and absolutely worth the trouble!

Kyoto Gyoen

We decided to walk through the Kyoto Gyoen, just to the north of where we are staying at the Hyatt Place Kyoto, on our way to breakfast. The garden is huge, we just walked along the southern edge to go from west to east!

There isn’t an entrance at the southwest corner of the garden. Instead, we had to walk east a bit past the bus stop where where left from yesterday morning. There is a nice ginko tree right by it with beautiful yellow leaves.

The actual entrance wasn’t far, a bit more than two tiny blocks away. We saw a variety of colors once we entered, including alot of green, particularly from the evergreens!

This building, the Suisei-tei, is a 200 year old teahouse. We walked by it on the right.

There was a small pond near the teahouse with a bridge running through the middle. We took the bridge, heading north. There was a nice view to the west with some nice reflections on the pond’s still surface.

The view to the east was nice as well, though into the sun a bit. While there was some blue sky, the sun was being blocked by the clouds and what seemed like a layer of fog.

Just beyond the bridge, we arrived at one of the park’s very wide paths.

We started walking to the east again.

A few trees had fruit!

There were a few red Japanese maples like this one.

The same tree but with better illumination. The sun kept going in and out of the clouds.

We saw two of these little birds on the path. They hung around for awhile, more than long enough to swap to the telephoto lens and watch them for awhile. They were pretty hard to identify as we have no knowledge of Japanese birds. This is the Black-Backed subspecies of the White Wagtail. It is apparently different enough that it could be considered a separate species1,2.

A very big tree! This one had a crow and a smaller bird perched atop. It was a little foggy in this direction, resulting in a bit of an odd looking sky and image.

This Japanese maple looked quite pretty with its leaves changing to red. The view was marred somewhat by some maintenance vehicles though.


From here, we walked the rest of the way to Bikkuri Donkey, about five or so blocks away. The name translates to Surprised Donkey!

We actually thought it was closed when we arrived as the door couldn’t be open and a sign indicating hours showed that it indeed was not open. But then we realized, there is another entrance upstairs at the top of an exterior stairway! The door downstairs was apparently for a different restaurant!

We didn’t know much about Bikkuri Donkey other than that it was open and the ratings were at least relatively OK. It turns out this restaurant is a rather large chain in Japan with over 300 locations! They specialize in hambagu, basically Japanese hamburger steak.

Those who have been to Hawaii may recognize the conceptual similarity to loco moco, though without gravy in this case. It all tasted very good! Definitely not fancy food, probably what we would consider something like diner food in the US.

Each also came with soup. Overall, a nice cheap meal. The restaurant interior was American themed with a few decorations. The one way sign and Delaware license plate stood out. Not nearly as decorated as some chain restaurants in the US!


After eating, we headed to the nearby Kawaramachi Marutamachi bus stop to catch the 202 bus to Tofuku-ji. While waiting, we noticed a sign:

Quite unexpected! We didn’t see anything obviously Hawaiian themed but then we saw a very plain looking sign above for Duke’s Island, Sir Duke the Barber. Maybe a reference to Duke Kahanamoku, the famous Hawaiian surfer?

Soon, our bus arrived and we were on our way.

After arriving, we walked a few minutes to reach the northwestern corner of Tofuku-ji. From here, there is a bridge over a small ravine to get to the entrance.

The bridge was very busy as it had a great first glimpse of the fall foliage! Tofuku-ji presented a nice backdrop. It was already pretty busy as by now it was almost 10am. One of the Japanese experiences is being in a busy place where someone, often staff, security personnel, or police, are trying to control the crowd. This often works by the person using a megaphone to give instructions, typically in Japanese. When the crowd has a large percentage of international tourists, that’s pretty pointless! Like everyone else, we continued on our way after we enjoyed the view and took some photos.

Tofuku-ji has a large temple area that is free to enter. But we were headed to the ticketed garden area as that is where the foliage was.

Once we entered, we immediately saw many Japanese maples everywhere! Most were showing red leaves.

We also saw some yellow!

It was very busy!

The fall colors are nicer when there is something else in the view, like temple buildings.

It wasn’t always easy to get something interesting into the scene though. Here we have some pretty leaves with some people and an electrical wire running to a light. Like many other popular temples in Kyoto, there is a night illumination event here right now.

One of the staff trying to control the crowds made it into this photo! She was the only one who spoke English! It wasn’t great but it was understandable. She was trying to make sure people only went in one direction so that there would not be two way traffic on the narrow paths.

We soon got a view of Tsutenkyo Bridge. This bridge runs parallel to the one we entered on and is within the garden area of the temple. It provides the most famous fall foliage viewing here at Tofuku-ji. “The maple trees beside the Tsutenkyo Bridge in the temple are its centerpiece.”3 It looked pretty busy up there but it was busy down where we were as well!

A better perspective, though the light was not as good. It was mostly cloudy and the sun spent quite a bit of time obscured by clouds.

We continued on through the maple trees…

Soon, we were down in the ravine. A small stream an below us and we could see the bridge that we crossed on earlier when arriving in front of us.

We continued, ascending out of the ravine on the far side. It was pretty crowded here!

After walking up some stairs, we were in sort of an open space. There were some benches to sit on along with beautiful views of the maples. We spent a bit of time here sitting and waiting to see if the light would improve.

When the sun did come out, it was directly in front of us!

The fall colors looked nice from here!

Although this looks like a temple building, it is the middle of the Tsutenkyo Bridge.

We decided to continue visiting the rest of the area before going to the bridge.

This area to the north was mostly evergreen trees.

We entered a covered walkway to continue on to this gate.

The covered walkway was ascended up the side of a hill. From the top, we could see some of the fall colors below.

We passed through the gate, entering a small garden area.

A temple building was directly in front of us.

There was a dry garden next to the hilly area filled with bushes.

The entire spaces was enclosed by temple structures on 3 sides and the hill on the 4th.

We headed back down to finally cross the Tsutenkyo Bridge. On the way, we got a nice view to the south of some other temple buildings.

We soon reached the bridge. As we started to cross, we could see only red maples to our right!

On the left, a temple building with lots of red maples in the foreground.

We walked a bit further along the bridge. From here, looking to the west, we could see the bridge that we crossed when entering. And lots of people below, visible through gaps in the leaves.

The same view looking down a bit!

A similar view from the middle of the bridge! Somewhere around here, someone dropped their metal water bottle into the ravine! It was in their backpack pocket and they turned around for a photo when it fell out! It crashed down loudly. They walked away as there was no chance of recovery. Moments later, a staff member arrive to try and identify what fell. Luckily, the area below wasn’t accessible so there was no chance of someone getting hit!

The far side of the bridge led to the exit, though it was possible to go for another round before exiting.

We did not and continued to the garden exit.

We walked around the temple area a bit after. There were some vendors selling things but otherwise it was mostly business as usual. We decided to get lunch and to return to Kiyomizu-dera after.


We decided to get lunch near the Tofuku-ji train station as there were some restaurants in that area. Unlike Kiyomizu-dera, there isn’t much around the entrance to Tofuku-ji.

We decided to try Japanese hamburgers. Dragon Burger was right by the station and it smelled very good from the outside. The burgers were very saucy which really masked any flavor that the beef patty may have had. The fries were decent but as usual not nearly as good as our favorite fries from Hot ‘n Juicy Crawfish back home.

We were hoping there would be some Japanese element here that improved the burger experience but there was not really. It reminded us a bit of the supposed Japanese style burger we had earlier this year in Vincennes, France. It turns out that the owner is actually English and grew up in France!

Kiyomizu-dera, Round 4

After lunch, we returned to the same bus stop that we arrived at, only on the opposite side of the street, to catch a bus to Kiyomizu-dera. This short 10 minute or so route is serviced by routes 202 and 207. After arriving, we headed up on the same route that we took yesterday.

We stopped at a street food style outdoor grill stand where we got some grilled beef, karaage, and grilled scallops. The karaage was a bit lackluster but the grilled items were better and freshly cooked.

We saw this store selling ice cream bars with fruit stuck to them! It looked pretty good so we decided to get one. It was pretty good, though the fruit wasn’t fantastic because it was frozen.

Like yesterday afternoon, it was super busy.

The weather was questionable as the sky was overcast, though we did seem to get a bit of occasional sun.

We headed to the Middle Gate, the entrance to the ticketed area. There were quite a few people photographing the beautiful view from here.

The same scene without the people!

After entering, we noticed this rock sitting on a platform. It had two carved footprints! It is a bussoku, the stone footprints of Buddha4,5. These were originally created long ago when images of Buddha were forbidden6, though we haven’t been able to determine how old this particular one here is.

We continued on to head to the nearby Main Hall.

We created a panorama from the southwest corner of the building, providing a 200° or so field of view. If only we had a clear sky!

While it was pretty crowded at both the Main Hall and the Okuno-in. We decided to sit around at the Main Hall to see if the weather would improve. We found a nice ledge to sit on at the side of the terrace where there was a railing behind us.

It seemed to get busier, particularly when school groups came around! We could identify them because they either had uniforms or some sort of common element like the yellow hats worn by this group. It isn’t clear exactly what these school groups do on temple tours, though having group photos taken by a photographer was one thing that seemed to happen.

Soon, the weather changed. It started to rain! This is not the change we were looking for!

There were brief moments where the light improved.

More rain! The terrace in front of the Main Hall was mostly exposed to the elements. The rain did help clear it out a bit.

Slightly better light again while looking at the Koyasu Pagoda. We decided to finally head over to the Okuno-in to take a look.

A beautiful view! While we would have preferred more sunlight, it was at least better than how it looked in the morning yesterday when most of the maple trees below us were in the shadow of the mountains!

Slightly different views of the same scene! There was some blue sky above!

We decided to continue walking on the route through the temple. This was the view from the south side of the Okuno-in.

We continued on, heading to the south and then following the path as it descended steeply below the Okuno-in and Main Hall, pictured here. It was pretty busy down here too, though not as crowded as up above!

There are many Japanese maples down here as they are the ones we saw from above!

The weather really seemed to be getting better! The Main Hall and surrounding trees seemed to have good light.

A slightly different perspective, showing the stairs that lead up to the east side of the Main Hall and north end of the Okuno-in.

Looking up and to the left, we could see the structure below the Main Hall’s vast terrace area.

A variety of colors as we continued on, following the path as it turned to the west to climb out of the ticketed area.

Looking up, we passed by the Middle Gate.

A nice blue sky as we passed by the 11 story stone pagoda!


We decided to walk around the shops a bit and get an early dinner as we planned to stay for the evening illumination event.

Quite a bit in Japan comes from Chinese influence. One such item is the nikuman, from the Chinese baozi. These buns were advertised as being filled with meat. Instead, they were quite a disappointment with only a very tiny bit of meat inside! Kind of like McDonald’s advertising vs. what you actually get!

It was getting cloudy again when we found this nice view at the back of a shop. There seemed to be stairs that lead down to the street below.

This cat was nearby!

We found where all the tour busses come from! Definitely the most we’ve seen in one place!

After walking around a bit, we decided to try and find a place to eat for dinner. It was still rather early at 4pm. Some places had already closed while others were yet to open. We settled on Cafe Otowa which is open until 6pm.

We ordered two plates, one sukiyaki beef flavored and the other chicken based. Both were very good and it was nice to be able to sit somewhere warm while eating!

Kiyomizu-dera, Round 5

After dinner, we headed back to Kiyomizu-dera.

The sky was starting to darken as it was approaching sunset. The sky was overcast once again, though there seemed to be a bit of light at the horizon.

We headed right for the Okuno-in to see the view. The light was very uniform though a bit dull. Better than the morning shadows but not quite what we were hoping for today.

We headed back to the Main Hall to wait for the sun to go down and the evening illumination to begin. The Okuno-in, seen here, was even more crowded than it was earlier in the day.

Soon, the sky darkened and the lights turned on. We waited for awhile, until about 5:45pm, for it to be sufficiently dark. The illumination was a bit spotty when looking out at the Koyasu Pagoda.

From the west side of the Main Hall, we could see both the Main Hall’s terrace and the Okuno-in. Both were ridiculously crowded!

The illumination event includes this blue beam of light that “embodies the Kannon’s compassion.”7

We moved to the Main Hall’s terrace and took a look at the Okuno-in. The illumination was quite nice in that direction.

It was pretty busy down below as well.

We took a look at the source of the blue beam of light. It came from somewhere up above and behind the temple buildings.

The temple buildings were also nicely lit up.

We decided to head over to the Okuno-in. There was no crowd control so the mass of people was incredible! There was one guy with a megaphone hilariously trying to give instructions in Japanese.

We soon made it to the back of the Okuno-in’s terrace. There was quite a mass of people in front of us! The illuminated maple trees are below so the only good view is at the very front by the railing.

We eventually made it to the front. The experience definitely reminded me of New Years’ Eve in London in 2013! Tons of people, no crowd control. A bit of pushing and shoving and lots of people being squished together. The view though was beautiful. The mass of red Japanese maples below us was quite a sight to see!

We didn’t stay long though. Exiting aggressively was much easier than slowly trying to wade forward!

We continued on the route to end up back below the Main Hall and Okuno-in.

A similar photo to one we took earlier in the afternoon! It is quite nice here at night with the illuminated trees and buildings.

A wider angle view of the scene. People were still enjoying the Otowa Waterfall cleansing station, just like during the day.

We continued past the Main Hall, turning around and looking up to see the view. The Okuno-in was still obscured by trees here.

The illuminated leaves look very different at night compared to during the day.

Looking up at the Middle Gate, it seems that while much of the illumination comes from lights below the trees, there are lights shining down from above as well.

The Japanese maples here were just starting to change color, or at least, the bottom leaves were just starting to change.

We kept going and looked up to see the Three Storied Pagoda above us with the blue beam of light shining above.

We returned to the front steps of Kiyomizu-dera where we had a nice view of the Kyoto Tower in the distance. The tower is very brightly illuminated!

It was busy here at the entrance, though nothing like the hordes at Okuno-in!

The Niomon and Three Story Pagoda in the distance, without people in view!

It was still super busy as we headed down to the bus stop to return to the Hyatt Place Kyoto.

We stopped briefly at one of the snack shops to get a strawberry bing tanghulu, a treat of Chinese origin. The modern version is basically fruit on a stick coated with a cold hardened sugar syrup shell. We saw a few shops selling these, though the one we visited was just OK. We also got a matcha flavored drink which was also rather mediocre, more reminiscent of an American Starbucks than quality Japanese matcha drinks.

Continuing on, we considered going to Kyoto Station but saw how ridiculously crowded the busses were in that direction with huge queues at the bus stop. Instead, we turned around and crossed the street to catch a 202 in the opposite direction to just go back to the hotel. The 202 was significantly less busy! This turned out to be one unexpected benefit to staying at the Hyatt Place – although the location was very convenient, the busses were really less busy compared to anything going to Kyoto Station! We could have easily went into the subway station after getting back to the hotel but decided to call it a night instead.


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