Many visitors to Kyoto have two items high on their priority list: seeing geisha and cherry blossom, respectively autumn foliage.
Seeing geisha can be a bit tricky as their population has been dwindling significantly throughout the last decades. The largest number of geisha and maiko (geisha in training) remains in Kyoto’s premier geisha district Gion Kobu. Chances to spot them on the street are best in the early evening, when they are on their way to dinner appointments with clients. Failing that, you can see them first-hand at public shows like Gion’s Miyako Odori (dances of the capital). These performances present an arrangement of traditional music and dances that is painstakingly choreographed and carried out by more than two dozen geisha and maiko.
During the day, you will see a number of young women who look like maiko but are not. Dressing up like maiko has become a popular pastime for tourists. Telling them apart is easy, though: True geisha are usually on a tight schedule; they do not have time for posing and taking selfies. Do not expect them to stop for you to let you take a shot of them.
Seeing cherry blossom can be a little tricky too. The cherry’s petals are so fragile that full bloom usually lasts for just about week. The blossom’s delicacy even made it a symbol of life’s impermanence in Japanese philosophy – known as mono no aware.
Assuming you plan to visit the main tourist areas around Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Tokyo, I suggest that you start your journey in Tokyo. Arrange for an arrival at the end of March, then continue with your route westwards. This itinerary worked out perfectly well for me on two trips and is backed by meterological records. When laying down your itinerary, checking out japan-guide.com’s daily reports and other blooming forecasts can be useful too.
Seeing autumn foliage is less tricky than sakura. You can expect foliage to last for at least 4–6 weeks per given region. The timing, of course, depends on the weather. For the main regions around Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima the second half of November should be your saftest bet. A useful resource when laying down your itinerary are the autumn color reports from japan-guide.com.
Kyoto has some reputation for its autumn colors. 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.
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).