Late November is a busy tourist season for Kyoto because of fall foliage. Not just red and orange leaves of Maple, but also golden leaves of ginkgo trees.
The best spots for photographing golden gingko leaves in Kyoto are: Hongan-ji, Kyoto Gyoen National Garden, and a golden gingko-lined street Horikawa Dori (堀川通, from Imadegawa Dori今出川通 to Shimei Dori紫明通). We visited two of the three sites during this trip.
Nishi Hongan-ji’ 西本願寺
Nishi Hongan-ji, or west Hongan Temple, is a Buddhist temple in the center of Kyoto. The temple is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the late 16th century, warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi donated this piece of land to the Buddhist sect Jōdo Shinshu and helped establish this temple.
The temple is known for two incredible gingko trees. This one below is over 400 years old! The other tree was unfortunately half destroyed by a typhoon in 2017.
We visited this place on November 22 of 2017. The gingko leaves were still beautiful. It was a shame that we made it to the temple way too late in the day and lost daylight. Mid-afternoon is probably the best time to shoot. Since the temple opens very early at 5:30 am, it’s also a great spot if you need to fill your early morning schedule.
Five blocks away is another temple of the same division, Higashi Honganji (東本願寺), or east Hongan Temple. Toyotomi supported the west temple. His rival Tokugawa Ieyasu built the east temple in order to undermine the power of this sect.
Kyoto Gyoen National Garden 京都御苑
Kyoto Gyoen National Garden is a public park. It is a great spot for cherry blossoms and fall colors free of admission.
That day we went to the super popular fall color destination Tōfuku-ji in the morning, ate iconic Shinto god of rice and fox spirit-themed dishes at a restaurant founded in 1540, and then saw the famous scene of thousands of brilliant orange gates at the Fushimi Inari Taisha. After that, we took the Keihan mainline train from Fushiminari Station to Demachiyanagi Station to get to the Kyoto Gyoen park.
From the train station to the northeast entrance of the park, it’s a 10-minute walk. Right outside of the Demachiyanagi Station, you would walk cross the Kamo River at where two rivers merged into one. That’s where you can cross the Kamo River on stepping stones.
We went there on November 21 of 2017. The leaves at most of the temples we visited were still in great shape, but the gingko trees at this park shed most of their leaves. The fallen leaves made a beautiful golden carpet.
If you enter the park through the northeast gate called the Ishiyakushi-gomon Gate (石薬師御門) and walk toward the imperial palace, it is impossible to miss the two beautiful gingko trees.
The environmental agency of Kyoto has a very helpful walking map where seasonal attractions are clearly marked. The gingko trees in the pictures above are marked with gingko leaves in the map near 11 and near the northwest gate close to the Site of Ichijo Residence.
京都環境署有個厲害的地圖，標了京都御苑內春夏秋冬的景點，上面照片這兩顆銀杏在地圖的11附近還有西邊那個入口附近的Site of Ichijo Residence旁邊。
An imperial palace is situated inside the park. Japan’s emperors lived in Kyoto from 794 when the capital was relocated from Nara to Kyoto to 1869 when the capital was moved to Tokyo. The imperial palace today was the royal residence from 1331 to 1869. The buildings we see today were built in 1855. This was not just a residence. Inauguration, meetings, and events were held here.
The Kyoto imperial palace is open to the public free of admission. It used to be that tourists need to apply in advance to visit the imperial palace. Now you just walk in. There is security check at the gate. You will need to follow a route.
Inside the park, there is another fall foliage spot, Sento Imperial Palace. It is known for fall colors and their reflection in a pond. You will need to apply early to visit this place.
To leisurely see only the imperial palace and the northeast area of the park, it takes about two hours. Nijō Castle (二条城) and the gingko lined street Horikawa Dori are not far from here.
Kyoto Imperial Palace 京都御苑
Free of admission
April to Aug: 9 am – 5 pm (Enter by 4:20 pm)
Sept to March: 9 pm – 4:30 pm (Enter by 3:50 pm)
Oct to Feb: 9 am – 4 pm (Enter by 3:20 pm)
Closed on Mondays and certain days throughout the year. Check here for announcements.