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The secret charm of Kyoto's maple trees in May

Green maple leaves are seen here on the grounds of Tofukuji in Kyoto's Higashiyama Ward, on May 9, 2017. (Photo courtesy of JR Central)

KYOTO -- Ask a random person what the words "Kyoto" and "green" evoke, and they may well mention the Kyoto Protocol -- the United Nations treaty designed to tackle climate change. It's a fairly safe bet that they will not tell you about "aomomiji," the green maple leaves that start to decorate the city in May, about a month after the considerably more famous cherry blossoms.

    The reality, however, is that Kyoto's green maple leaves also deserve attention. Admittedly, it would be a struggle to persuade the general public that the green maple leaves are more stunning than the cherry blossoms. But earlier this month, I had the honor of being shown around the city's Tofukuji temple by one of its monks and was able to admire the temple's foliage firsthand and find out that Kyoto also boasts trees worth seeing in May, and they're green, not pink.

    As part of its Kyoto green-maple campaign, JR Central -- the firm that operates the Shinkansen (bullet train) route between Tokyo and Kyoto -- lists a total of 37 recommended viewing spots in the city on its tourism website, "So da, Kyoto Iko." The list is undeniably enticing. However, to the more cynical amongst us, the firm's Kyoto green-maple campaign could just be seen as a shrewd marketing ploy to bolster shinkansen sales in May, following the highly lucrative sakura season in late March and early April. After all, it's no great secret that Kyoto usually sees a drop in tourists between April and May -- the Kyoto Municipal Government calculated in a recent tourism survey that, in 2015, the number of visitors dropped by 311,000 between these two months.

    Such cynicism aside, there is indeed a subtle, calming quality to the maple leaves with their verdant allure. They provide a pleasant, understated alternative to Kyoto's more vivid pink cherry blossoms and red maples -- which continue to dominate Kyoto's horticultural hierarchy.

    Green maple leaves are seen here on the grounds of Tofukuji in Kyoto's Higashiyama Ward, on May 9, 2017. (Mainichi)

    The question is, with 37 recommended green-maple spots, which venue should be shown the green light first? My choice is Tofukuji -- a Zen Buddhist temple built in 1236 on the east side of the city.

    Tofukuji boasts an impressive ravine packed full of maple trees that have earned the temple global recognition. It has two wooden viewing bridges (Tsutenkyo and Gaunkyo) at opposite ends of the ravine that are perfect for taking photographs. However, dangerous overcrowding on these bridges prompted Tofukuji to implement a photography ban in November 2016 -- during the height of the popular red maple-leaf season.

    "Taking photographs from either the Tsutenkyo or the Gaunkyo bridges with a cell phone, smartphone, digital camera, with or without a selfie stick, is forbidden because it is very dangerous," the temple warned in a message on its website in October 2016.

    Tofukuji's photography ban sent ripples around the world -- mainly because Kyoto and photography go hand in hand. Reports even appeared in some major newspapers in countries including the U.K. But, somewhat significantly, the ban was a clear reminder that Kyoto can become very crowded during the "peak" cherry blossom and red maple seasons, and that in some cases it might be preferable to visit at other times of the year.

    "Many people have said that visiting Kyoto during the peak seasons is hard work," says Norihiro Oe, who works in tourism development at JR Central. "The issue of dealing with overcrowding in Kyoto during those seasons has become a major talking point." Taking this reality into consideration, the idea of going to admire Kyoto's green maple leaves in May, without any crowds to worry about, suddenly becomes a lot more appealing.

    There are also a number of weather-related merits that support Kyoto's green maple case. The climate in Japan in May is still very agreeable, and the incessant downpour during the June-July rainy season is still several weeks away. But perhaps the biggest advantage of all is being able to dodge the crowds.

    For those who want to avoid the crowds, and also visit somewhere off the beaten track, then I would suggest visiting Kifune Shrine -- which is described on Google Maps as a "small Shinto shrine in the hills." The shrine is placed first on JR Central's list of recommended spots.

    A red gate (torii) at Kifune Shrine in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward is seen here, on May 10, 2017. (Mainichi)

    An impressive red torii gate greets you at the entrance, beyond which steps flanked by maple trees lead up to the shrine. Once you reach the top, it is possible to purchase a votive tablet -- shaped and colored like a green maple leaf -- which can be used to write a wish and hang in the grounds. Furthermore, the shrine is offering special weekend "light-up" sessions in the evening through May 28 this year, with lights shone onto the green maple leaves between sunset and around 8 p.m.

    Green maple-style votive tablets (ema) are seen here on the grounds of Kifune Shrine in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward, on May 10, 2017. (Mainichi)

    So, with calming green scenery, minimal crowds, pleasant weather -- and permission to take as many photographs as one likes from the bridges at Tofukuji at this time of year -- why not break with protocol next time, and visit Kyoto in May? (By David Spurr, Staff Writer)

    GETTING THERE:

    To get from Tokyo to Kyoto by train, the quickest method is to take a Shinkansen bullet train from either Tokyo or Shinagawa stations to Kyoto Station. For Tofukuji, the nearest JR station is Tofukuji, one stop east of Kyoto Station on the JR Nara Line. Kifune Shrine can be reached by taking the Eizan Electric Railway's Kurama Line from Demachiyanagi Station to Kibuneguchi Station.

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