Get out and explore Japan's fabulous autumn foliage

Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi
Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi

Get out and explore Japan's fabulous autumn foliage

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

As autumn sets in and the leaves start transforming Japan’s forests and mountains into golden, fiery and crimson hues, an almost primal urge calls us to flock to this magical flora on outings and countryside cruises. It’s “momiji-gari” – time to track down scenic fall foliage.

The Japanese have been taking to nature to view autumn’s multi-hued foliage, or “momiji,” for centuries. The tradition is believed to have begun in the Heian Period (794-1185).  Since then, countless deciduous broad-leaf trees have been planted in the gardens of Kyoto, Kamakura and other old cities to facilitate this seasonal pastime.

As the name momiji-gari, or fall foliage hunting, suggests, originally people enjoyed “koyo,” the reddening or coloring of leaves, by searching out the perfect specimen and collecting a sprig to admire its beauty close up.

Just as the cherry blossom is a symbol of spring in Japan, these colored leaves embody the spirit of autumn. Whereas the nation’s cherry blossoms, or “sakura,” bloom seasonally from south (starting in February on Okinawa) to north,   the “koyo front” starts early September in the northern island of Hokkaido’s Daisetsuzan mountain ranges and moves southward. The front moves across mainland Japan, arriving in Kyushu in early December.

While “hanami,” or cherry blossom viewing, parties abound in the springtime, more sober “nodate” tea ceremonies traditionally take place outdoors in the fall.

During the early phase of the season from September to early November, the colors are mostly found in the mountains where entire slopes turn orange, yellow and red, and provide some of the most amazing scenery. Hiking may be the most rewarding way to see the colorful leaves in the mountains. Soaking in mountain hot springs amid the vibrant landscape is another great way to enjoy this autumn splendor.

In mid to late November, the colors descend into the cities, where they can be viewed in parks and gardens. Autumn colors in the temple gardens of Kyoto or Kamakura, with all their traditional charms, are exceptional ways to witness a Japanese autumn. The sight of the trees during evening illuminations, at selected gardens and temples, are fantastic.

Since, however, there is an abundance of maples and other deciduous broad-leaf trees virtually anywhere in mainland Japan, the charm of autumn is never far away.

Turning over a colorful leaf

Many Japanese consider the transformation of fall leaves in Japan to be one of the most beautiful in the world. According to Jun-ichiro Higuchi, chief curator of the Southeast Botanical Gardens, there is good reason for this: The vegetation and climate here are conducive to such autumnal beauty.

“Changing autumn leaves mainly occur with deciduous broad-leaf trees before they fall to the ground,” Higuchi explained. “Although 30 percent of the globe consists of forests, those with deciduous broad-leaf trees that change color are concentrated in the eastern Asian coastal regions, the eastern part of the North American continent along with some parts of Europe. Amazingly, 70 percent of Japan contains forest with a variety of deciduous broad-leaf trees.”

According to Higuchi, 50 to 60 kinds of deciduous trees in Japan change their colors in autumn. The colors depend on the kinds of trees. While most maple leaves change to red or orange, others change to yellow or brown, and each leaf gradually changes individually: “This gives forests a complex combination and variety of colors, making Japan’s autumn leaves uniquely beautiful.”

When predawn temperature lows drop below 46 degrees Fahrenheit, leaves start changing color. The process accelerates greatly when those temperatures drop below 41 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Large temperature difference between day and night, clean air, sunshine and adequate moisture for good photosynthesis – all these factors help the leaves turn stunning reddish or orange colors,” Higuchi added.

This is why the most famous viewing spots for autumn are often located in valleys or around mountainous lakes and waterfalls.

Where on Kanto Plain to view Autumn

From November to early December, many of the famed fall viewing spots on the Kanto Plain can be found in the mountains of Hakone and on the Izu Peninsula. Here are a select few.

Niji-no-sato in Shuzenji Town
Situated in the hilly center of the Izu peninsula, Shuzenji town is known for representing autumn foliage attraction. The town offers hot spring resorts, open-air baths on a river bank, elegant Japanese bridges, classic gray-tiled inns and pristine, yet charming temples and shrines, which attract countless tourists domestically and internationally. Niji-no-Sato (home of rainbow), a 123-acre park (same size of Tokyo Disneyland) in the town, accommodates various natural and traditional attractions.  In its maple forest, you’ll find breathtaking autumn colors from 1,000 trees between late November and the beginning of December. During the season, the forest is beautifully lit up and draws many tourists.

Address: 4279-3 Syuzenji, Izu City
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Aug. – Sep.), 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Oct. – Feb.), extended to 8 p.m. during the period of autumn leaves lit up (end of Nov.)
Admission: (Ages 12 or older) 1,220 yen, (ages 4-12) 610 yen
TEL: 0558-72-7111

Hasedera Temple, Kamakura City
Since Kamakura is only 30 miles from Tokyo, it makes for a great day trip, especially in the coolness of autumn. While the popular “Ten-en Hiking Course” is ideal for beautiful vistas with many colored autumn leaves, the many temples and shrines of Kamakura are also good place to appreciate the autumn beauty. Hasedera Temple is especially well known for this. The garden will be lit up from Nov, 21 to Dec. 6; visitors can enjoy fantastic views of autumn leaves and old temples. As this temple is only 7-minute walk to the famous Daibutsu (Big Buddha), it is convenient for a town walk in Kamakura.

Address: 3-11-2 Hase, Kamakura City (5-minute walk from Hase Station; Enoshima Dentetsu line)
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. for night viewing (Nov. 21 to Dec. 6) weekdays open Saturday, Sunday open until 7 p.m.
Admission: Adult 400 yen, elementary school students 200 yen
TEL: 0467-22-6300

Hakone Museum of Art, Hakone-cho
Autumn colors can be seen across the Hakone region from early November to early December depending on the elevation. Located less than 60 miles from Tokyo – and home to many hot spring resorts – this is one of the most popular holiday destinations on the Kanto Plain.  Lake Ashinoko, Horai-en Garden and Hakone Museum of Art are some of the best places to view autumn leaves in Hakone. Hakone Museum also displays mainly Japanese ceramics from prehistoric times through the Edo Period (1602-1867) as well as a pretty moss garden with stone paths that’s ideal for communing with autumn in November. There is also a teahouse and Sekirakuen Japanese.

Address: 1300 Gora, Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun (5 minute walk from Koen-Ue Station; Hakone Tozan Tetsudo Cable Car)
Hours: Fri - Wed, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Admission: Adult 900 yen ($8.5), 65 or older 700 yen, high school and college students 400, junior high school students and below free
TEL: 0460-82-2623

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