Japan is well known for its vibrant autumn colors, particularly for the deep crimson tones of the Japanese maple. Most impressed are probably visitors who have not seen it yet – who come from a place where this variant of the species does not exist anymore.
In Europe where I am based, this maple variant went actually extinct during the ice ages. In Japan, however, it survived dominating the color palette until today. It is so omnipresent that momiji, the Japanese term for it, has become synonymous with autumn foliage in general.
Kyoto, the former Imperial capital of Japan lies in a basin that is surrounded by mountains and natural woodlands. The entire area is interspersed with hundreds of temples and shrines. Many of them have gardens that are painstakingly kept to facilitate impressive foliage. During high season (autumn foliage and cherry blossom) almost all temples and shrines are open to the public. Opening hours are usually from 9am to 5pm, many places charge an entrance fee of around ¥500.
The colors’ intensity and progress varies, of course, from year to year, depending on the weather. If you go in the second half of November, you should see some brilliant autumn colors for sure. A great resource for finetuning your trip while you are there are the autumn color reports from japan-guide.com.
Kyoto is a bicycle city. Many places of interest are within a radius of 5km or even less. Since the city’s street layout is based on a grid pattern, negotiating your way is easy. You can resort to many low-traffic, one-way backstreets, avoiding busy main roads. There are bike rental shops throughout most of the city.
For longer distances, better use rail services. A great deal for accessing the city’s eastern districts is the one-day pass from Keihan Railways (¥500). Hankyu Railway, which lines go as far as Osaka, is offering another attractive one-day ticket (¥800).
There is also an extensive network of local buses. The traffic congestion on Kyoto’s main thoroughfares, however, makes this a less useful option. Hiring a car is no better. Also, it requires doing some paperwork in advance and is rather expensive (rates start at ¥5,000–10,000 per day).