The timeless gardens of Kyoto -- fall foliage with a Japanese accent

Autumn in Kyoto is like springtime in Paris: not a time of year but an event. By October, cool autumn breezes have released Kyoto from summer's steamy heat. And the canals that meander through the city are lined with yellow, gold, and pink chrysanthemums in countless blue enamel bowls, wooden boxes, and tin-cans-turned-flowerpots. Even the busiest city streets become like a carnival as the tiny sails of ginkgo leaves are hurled into the breeze, like golden sheets of rain.

During the first weeks of November, temperatures are frequently in the 70s, days often sunny. By then, the hills surrounding Kyoto have turned crimson and gold and some of this ancient city's famous gardens, renowned for their foliage, are at their best. Though nature's schedule for the turning of leaves varies slightly from year to year, the display usually peaks by the end of the first week in November.

Peak foliage only adds to the grandeur of the 70-acre Shugakuin Imperial Villa estate in the foothills northeast of Kyoto. Shugakuin has three separate gardens, but the Upper Villa, a large 17th-century "stroll garden," reached through rice fields and long vistas of 100-year-old clipped pines, offers Kyoto's most spectacular autumn views.

Roughly a 20-minute walk south of Shugakuin is Manshu-in, a Buddhist temple garden equally impressive, but in a different way. A Kaesansui,m or "garden with waterless pond," this small enclosure of white sand with two "islands" was designed in the 17th century to be viewed from inside a building.

In late afternoon, the crowds have gone, and the shoinm (the building from which the garden is viewed) is practically deserted, except for a woman in a kimono and a young girl seated, talking. The white sand pond is luminescent, like the sea at dusk.

The Buddhist temple of Shisendo is a 15-minute walk south of Manshu-in, past country houses and small hillside farms. Shisendo, which is a Yari-mizu,m or "stroll garden with running water," also was laid out in the 17th century.

Shisendo is small and very popular and is likely to be crowded on balmy autumn days. On Sundays the sea of sand that surrounds the "islands" of the lower garden is often so packed that only by mutual consent is movement and photography possible.

Crowds are practically a given in most gardens, except those like Shugakuin and the 19-acre stroll garden of Sento Palace, renowned for the maple and ginkgo woods surrounding its ponds. Both are properties of the Imperial Household Agency, and guided tours arranged through the agency control the number of visitors.

If crowds are a given, there is one temple compound that is actually enhanced by its popularity. On Sundays the extensive Tofukuji Temple complex in south-east Kyoto takes on a festive air. Small armies of laughing, uniformed schoolchildren with yellow caps on their heads are led by monitors bearing red flags. With them are hundreds of families whose toddlers are attired in colorful outfits.

The natural valley that runs through Tofukuji is renowned for its colorful maples. As one walks from temples to subtemple, across the three bridges that span the valley, the scenic gorge can be viewed from different vantage points, the uppermost providing a vivid panorama of the festivities below.

There are several gardens well worth a visit here, though many Japanese seem to spend much of the afternoon treading well-worn hillside paths deep in maple leaves and photographing each other.

Tofukuji-Fundain Temple has a dry-landscape garden said to have been laid out in the 15th century by Sesshu, a renowned painter. Tofukuji-Kaisando Temple has an 18th-century pond and dry garden.

The last major garden is Tofukuji Hojo, or the Chief Abbot's Chamber. Actually this comprises four types of dry garden surrounding the abbot's quarters.

After paying 200 yen (about 83 cents) to enter the reception hall of the Hojo , you trade your shoes for a pair of strangely voluminous brown plastic scuffs, and then you spend a few moments viewing the rooms along the corridor. This helps prepare you to view the gardens. To your left, after you leave the darkness of the corridor, is the sand and rock composition by Mirei Shigemore, one of this century's major Japanese designers. Designed in 1939, this small rectangular-walled garden was intended to be viewed from the long porch of the abbot's reception hall, built in 1236.

Unlike many Zen landscapes that recreate the essence of a natural scene, this garden's spirit is one of power, evolved from the complex intellectual theme of the temple's history.

On a sea of raked gravel, a long, low rock lies between top-heavy upright stones; and expnding lines of raked gravel circle like eddies around rocks in the sea. With each step along the veranda, the angles and relationships between the stones change, revealing a complexity interesting to Westerners accustomed to gardens full of flowers, paths, and trees.

By late afternoon, the valley of maples is deep in shadow, the air chilly and pungent with smoke, and the bridge toward Kyoto almost empty. On the far side of the bridge, the roasters and sellers of chestnuts are still there.

An old woman, hair sprinkled with ashes like faded glitter, is selling yet, her apron full of blackened chestnuts. Her hands are sooty after a long day of wrapping chestnuts in white paper envelopes for autumn revelers. But she smiles , and, with simple grace, presents what may be her 2,000th envelope as if it were her first.

The chestnut shells are brittle and the meat sweet and dry as the paper envelope warms my cold hands. As I walk toward the train station, it is like the evening after a county fair, the last few stragglers smiling at each other and lifting tired children into their arms.

Before you go: Contact the Japanese National Tourist Organization, 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10011; tel. (212) 757-5640 for its brochure, "Japanese Gardens." This contains an extensive listing of gradens, dates of construction, styles, opening times, nearest public transportation and admission prices -- rarely over 300 yen (about $1.25).

An excellent booklet for first timers and/or visitors planning their own itinerary, with some excellent recommendations for restaurants and Japanese-style inns, is "Japan Unescorted," published by Japan Air Lines. It is available for $2 (including postage) from Japan Air Lines, Box 10618, Long Island City, N.Y. 11101.

In Kyoto: While most of Kyoto's gardens can be visited without prior arrangements, Shugakuin and Sento Palace require reservations, made through the Imperial Household Agency. In Tokyo, call 03-213-1111, in Kyoto, 075-211-1211. To ensure a reservation, particularly during spring and fall, call five days before the day you wish to see the garden. You must pick up reservation cards in person, and you must bring your passport.

An essential stop for visitors in Kyoto is the Tourist Information Center, across from Kyoto Station. The staff will explain which buses will take you to various gardens and write the nearest bus stop in Japanese for the bus driver. They'll also locate your destination on a street map and indicate estimated travel times.

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