Back in Kyoto at last

December 21st, 2021 11:31 by Ian Littlewood

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When I left Kyoto in early March last year, I was expecting to be back in May. It didn’t work out like that. I didn’t actually get back until twenty months later, after a bureaucratic assault course made bearable only by the unfailing politeness of the people involved. The hope that an absence of foreign tourists might ease the autumn crowds turned out to be wildly optimistic. Domestic sightseers were doing everything possible to make up the shortfall - to the point where the crowds heading towards Togetsu bridge in Arashiyama were more or less gridlocked. No matter, it was a relief to be back.

And there were enough changes in the temples I visited to prompt a new edition of the book, which I hope will be ready by next spring. New buildings had opened, others had closed. There were changes in prices, policy, display, sometimes just changes in the way I felt about a place. Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that Shisendo was not a spot I’d return to in November, whereas Keishun-in was as empty and delightful as ever. Choraku-ji too breathed its usual melancholy beauty (see above). Enko-ji had doubled its admission fee and required a reservation, as did Murin-an. Meanwhile, Komyo-in seemed to have undergone a complete change of personality. Instead of the truculent notice outside discouraging casual visitors, there’s now a dual language temple board with a QR code, and everything seems designed to entice the wandering tourist. For better or worse, it has very much the feel of a place under new management.

Let me pass on one recommendation given to me by a friend. South of Takagamine, along a pretty road that runs roughly parallel to Senbon dori, there’s a garden belonging to the Shouzan Resort. It's well off the normal tourist route and has a display of maple trees that rivals far more famous places.

Such autumn set-pieces are wonderful of course, but the grand spectacles are only part of the story. In the end, some of the keenest pleasures of the season are those in a minor key - the sort of heart-stopping effects of light and colour that one comes across quite by chance at the turning of a lane, the edge of a pond, the entrance of an unregarded temple. These, more than anything, are what make Kyoto in late November irresistible.