In autumn, vibrant fall colors are illuminated at Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto, Japan for a special night lighting. We’ve done the event multiple times, and share info, our experiences, and tips we’ve learned during visits to see the 1,000+ maple trees that form a veritable sea of red koyo along the temple’s hillside. (Updated November 28, 2022.)
Kiyomizudera is one of my favorite temples in Kyoto, Japan. We have it in the top 5 in the ‘Things to Do’ rankings in our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan and I cover why it is not to be missed in our full Kiyomizu-dera Temple Tips & Info post. We’ve also written about the Cherry Blossom Night Illumination at Kiyomizudera separately, and have generally praised ‘Pure Water Temple’ as one of the must-see places in Kyoto throughout the blog.
Even if you’re new to this blog, you’ve undoubtedly seen praise for Kiyomizudera elsewhere. It’s widely considered one of the most iconic temples in all of Japan. If you walk past the bus stop at Kyoto Station, you can find the Kiyomizudera bus by looking for the one with the longest line. Suffice to say, it’s incredibly popular and perpetually busy. All of this is very well established on this blog and elsewhere, so we’re going to cut to the chase and cover how to approach a visit during the fall night illumination.
Let’s start with the basics. Kiyomizudera Temple is open for its fall colors night lighting from 5:30 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. (last entry), November 18 through November 30, 2022. Admission is 400 yen, and requires a separate ticket from a daytime visit to see the colorful leaves (koyo). If you’re visiting in 2023, keep an eye on Kiyomizudera’s official site for dates and times, but they should be roughly the same.
You might wonder why we’re updating this post with only one day left in the Kiyomizudera nighttime illumination ‘season,’ and it’s more about what it represents for crowds and Kyoto and what you can expect going forward. In particular, during cherry blossom season–again, at Kiyomizudera and in Kyoto as a whole.
Cutting to the chase, this was far and away the busiest we had ever seen Kiyomizudera. We made separate visits during the daytime hours and for nighttime illumination, and the temple was packed beyond belief both times. To be sure, Kyoto is always busy this time of year, but we had never seen it like this.
The increased crowds are probably attributable to a couple of things. First, Kiyomizudera’s main hall is out from behind scrims; while this happened a couple of years ago now, 2022 is likely the first year many people are traveling again. (For those wondering, it looks spectacular–great to see again after years behind scrims.)
Second, there are currently domestic travel subsidies and there’s the matter of pent-up demand, particularly among domestic travelers. The fiscal stimulus is clearly driving a lot of travel, especially to Kyoto.
Pent-up demand is also going to be an issue going forward, especially when domestic tourism collides with spiking international visitors. Japan has already indicated that it will extend the National Travel Discount program into 2023. This was originally planned to last until Dec. 27, and currently provides a financial subsidy of up to 11,000 yen ($79) a night per person for up to a total of seven days. The subsidy will be reduced to a maximum 7,000 yen per night in 2023. Although that’s less money, it’ll still be enough to spike domestic travel numbers.
Doubling back to that first point, the absolute worst crowds we encountered in all of Japan were at Kiyomizudera on the platform overlooking the stage protruding from the main hall. This was downright dangerously crowded, with wall-to-wall people.
It took me about 15 minutes to get to the front for a photo, and even getting out wasn’t easy. I can’t believe there wasn’t any crowd control to facilitate the flow of people. Instead, it was complete gridlock. The main hall was also incredibly crowded, but not that bad.
Just as it’s busy during the day, Kiyomizudera Temple is busy at night. If you go around 5:30 p.m., or arrive earlier to get there right at the start, you will be fighting crowds arriving and wandering in the Highashiyama District who left the daytime opening of Kiyomizudera. Crowd-wise, arriving early is the worst possible idea.
Depending upon the duration of your trip to Kyoto, you may not have a better option strategy-wise, though. In Higashiyama, Kiyomizudera is one of 4 temples that have exceptional night lightings. Ideally, you’d spread these 4 temples out over two nights, doing Shorenin and Eikando one night and Kodaiji and Kiyomizudera another night. (There are a few other nighttime illuminations you could also include if you want to visit 3 per night.)
However, there are a number of other nighttime illuminations in other parts of Kyoto, so if you only have 2-3 nights in the city, doing all of Higashiyama in a single night might be necessary. In that case, you either need to start or finish at Kiyomizudera.
Since it is not the busiest temple of the 4 (a crown that goes to Eikando Temple, and by a wide margin), we recommend beginning at Kiyomizudera. You’ll then continue north to Kodaiji Temple, followed by Shorenin Temple, and finish at Eikando Temple. In total, that’s 45 minutes of walking, meaning you’ll have a little over 30 minutes at each temple…which is not much time.
With all of that said, in an ideal scenario, we recommend arriving as close to 9 p.m. as possible. That’s the last entry, not when the temple closes. Actual closing time varies based on how quickly they can sweep guests out, but it tends to be around 10 p.m.
If you’re a regular visitor who will walk through the temple at a normal pace, arriving at 8:55 p.m. will give you plenty of time to see everything. If you’re a photographer focused on photos, we’d recommend an earlier arrival (I tend to show up around 8 p.m., but I’m slow and take way too many photos.)
Photographers should also be aware that, at least last year, tripods were allowed at Kiyomizudera’s night illuminations. The one exception to this is the narrow walkway that overlooks the wooden stage supporting the main hall. However, there is a thick handrail here, so if you take a beanbag (I recommend the Green POD Camera Platform–it’ll really come in handy in Japan), you’ll have no issues.
Overall, Kiyomizudera Temple’s fall nighttime illumination is unquestionably a must-do. If the idea of paying twice to visit is not appealing, we still recommend going in the morning as you normally would per our 1-Day Eastern Kyoto/Higashiyama Itinerary, but sticking with the free area. Nighttime here is a truly unique experience with special lighting and great evening views of the city. Don’t miss it!
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited one of Kiyomizudera Temple’s nighttime illuminations? Fall, summer, or spring? What did you think of the experience? How did it compare to other nighttime illuminations in Kyoto (if you did any) for you? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Do more dedicated posts about nighttime illuminations in Kyoto interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!
Leave a Reply