One will never doubt the fact that Kiyomizu-dera is Kyoto’s best destination. The blend of its beautifully constructed wooden stilts and the nature surrounding the temple complex, is amazing. And to have it all during Japan’s best season, where the main hall stands majestically in the middle of the ocean of raging vermilion leaves—is unbelievable. Now, can you tell the ‘price’ you have to pay for all these?
The idea of visiting the city’s number one tourist spot during the country’s prime peak season will obviously lead to one big problem: the size of crowds. Yes, coming to Kiyomizu-dera when the leaves are turning red could be a bad decision if you don't like jam-packed grounds. But one thing I can assure you is, if you’re travelling to Kyoto during autumn, and skip a visit to Kiyomizu-dera just because you want to avoid the crowds, you’ll be sorry. Because you’ll be missing one of Japan’s best scenery throughout the year. So instead of crossing the temple off of the list, let’s just plunge into the crowd and enjoy the show!
The tourist euphoria will welcome you right when you step out of the bus from Kyoto Station. It is still a 1km walk from the temple entrance, but the excitement is in the air already! And from here on, your struggle to cope with the crowd starts. Tour buses and pedestrians will be crowding the street ascending the temple complex. The same thing also happens during your way back from the temple so once you feel like you’ve had enough, quickly leave the place to avoid congestion on the street (not only in the car streets where the buses are leaving, but also in the alleys where people are stepping out of the temple complex).
Despite the fuss, don’t spoil the mood. Instead, take a slow walk and enjoy every step towards the temple. Have a quick look to the shops that pass your left and right side, and of course, don’t forget to grab some matcha ice cream for a richer autumn experience!
The beginning of the temple grounds is where the tourists take most of their time at. It is free, with many delicate temple buildings and picturesque spots to take photos with, some of which offering breathtaking views of Kyoto City. You can choose to stay here now, or later after leaving the main hall. After this free area, comes the main attraction which means you will have to pay for the entrance. This will be another time-consuming part because the queue is usually long.
Entering the main hall, the show is on. I think I’ve never seen a single place so crowded before. Well no wonder because I visited the temple on a late afternoon, just before the sunset where the orange views turned even more orange, and the crowds become even more crowded. But it felt so alive, with locals doing their prayers, students purchasing lucky charms, tourists admiring the grand structure of the main hall, and adoring the view on its terrace—one of the best I saw in Japan. It was so full, yes, but it didn’t feel wrong. Other main feature of Kiyomizu-dera, the spring water below the platform is of course, especially crowded too. It is another effort for you to do, so if you don’t have much time, I recommend you to just observe from afar and watch how locals do one of their rituals.
Stepping away the main hall, you will find yourself walking upon the wooden deck reaching the exit. This will be a really slow walk because the deck is where you can see the whole temple building, the city as its background, and its surrounding hills and gardens, all in just one frame. So yes, people don’t want to hurry themselves and decide to walk really slow. As you step a bit further halfway... There you go. The scene of Kiyomizu-dera drowned in the stream of autumn leaves is there, in front of your very eyes.
This is obviously a sight everybody wants to take time to enjoy. The edge of the deck will be packed with people who are taking pictures of the view, so for the first minutes, just submit to the fact that you will be seeing heads instead of magnificent scenery. Keep watching for any opportunities because the hunt for an empty spot by the edge is real. I must say that solo travellers will benefit from this. Whenever you see an empty spot by the border, just swoop in and claim it.
Leaving the deck even after some time and after thousands of photos taken, will surely not be easy. But remember that more and more people are walking towards the deck too, so leave after around 15 or 20 minutes (and note that if you’re visiting around sunset time, you will have to leave right after the sundown because the temple will be reserved only for the autumn illumination ticket holders—unless you buy the ticket upon entrance, you can’t stay there after dark).