One of Japan’s best places for foliage spotting is its imperial capital Kyoto. The city of 1.5 million is nestled in a basin surrounded by forested mountains and interspersed by hundreds of temples and shrines. Many of them feature gardens painstakingly kept to facilitate most impressive autumn colors. During foliage season 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 (map with favorite temple gardens).
Most striking are the crimson tones of the Japanese maple, even more so for visitors from regions that do not have this species anymore. In Europe for instance, it went extinct during the ice ages. In Japan, these maple trees are so omnipresent that momiji, as the Japanese call them, has become synonymous with autumn foliage in general.
Progress and intensity of the colors vary naturally from year to year, depending on the weather. If you go in the second half of November, you should see some brilliant colors for sure. A useful resource when laying down your itinerary 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, thus avoiding busy main roads. There are bike rental shops throughout most of the city.
For longer distances, you better use rail services. A great deal for accessing the city’s eastern districts is the one-day pass from Keihan Railways for ¥500. Hankyu Railway, which lines go as far as Osaka, is offering another attractive one-day ticket for ¥800.
There is an extensive network of local buses too. Kyoto’s congested thoroughfares, however, make using it less efficient. Hiring a car is no better. It is rather expensive, around ¥5,000–10,000 per day, and may require some unusual paperwork (e.g. a Japanese translation of your driver’s license).