As the hot and humid Japanese summer becomes something of a distant memory (or half-remembered sweaty nightmare), the cool, crisp air and shorter days signal the start of “koyo” season, the changing color of the leaves in autumn. While spring cherry blossom season (“hanami”) is a short, vibrant celebration of spring beauty and anticipation of warmer days to come, autumn’s “koyo” is a more reflective affair, but no less celebrated.
People flock to popular spots to see the once green and verdant trees in their many hues of reds, yellows and oranges, often whole mountainsides ablaze with color. As with the cherry blossoms, autumn sweeps across the country in a steady wave, starting early in September in the northern reaches of Hokkaido, and often not peaking in Kyushu until mid-December. In the higher elevations of the Japan Alps in central Honshu, autumn often arrives a full month or so earlier than in the surrounding lowlands.
Here are some of the best places across the country to enjoy this natural spectacle.
Daisetsuzan – Hokkaido (from mid-September until mid-October)
Autumn comes early in Hokkaido, and the red and golden leaves of the centrally located Daisetsuzan national park make this remote area worth visiting. A huge expanse of sprawling forests, crystal clear rivers and alpine plateaus, and as the largest national park in Japan it can be difficult to choose where to go. A good option is the attractive resort town of Sounkyo, located in a spectacular valley of high cliffs and cascading waterfalls, with its multitude of hot springs and traditional ryokans. Be sure to take the ropeway to see the alpine forests in all their autumnal brilliance. More adventurous types can go hiking around Asahi-dake (an active volcano) or explore the trails which start at Daisetsu Kogen, located 1260m above sea-level (watch out for bears).
Access: Regular buses to Sounkyo Onsen from Asahikawa and Kamikawa stations.
Rikugien Garden – Tokyo (late November to mid-December)
There are countless places to see wonderful fall foliage as easy day trips from Tokyo (Kamakura, Oze, Hakone), but for a great spot within the city itself, a visit to Rikugien Garden is a must. A number of trails wind their way around the large central pond and wooded areas of this Edo Period landscape garden, which features miniature representations of scenes from 88 famous poems. Tearooms allow visitors to enjoy the autumn maple colors in a more relaxing fashion, but perhaps it’s best to visit later in the day for the magical evening light up (until 9 p.m.).
Access: 10-minute walk south of Komagome station on the JR Yamanote line.
Chuo Alps – Nagano (from late September to late October)
The high peaks of central Honshu, which are collectively termed the Japan Alps, are of course well-known among outdoor aficionados, and nestled in between the much larger northern and southern ranges are the Chuo (or central) Alps, some of the most easily-accessible alpine mountains in the region. In the autumn, crowds of people ride the Komagatake ropeway, which ferries people up to 2612 meters in only 8 minutes, and from this lofty vantage point visitors can marvel at the alpine scenery, which is only accentuated by the crimson and gold foliage which spills down the flanks of the impressive Senjojiki cirque. When the weather is clear, the views out towards Mt Fuji are breathtaking.
Access: Frequent buses from JR Komagane station.
Arashiyama – Kyoto (from mid-to-late November)
Whatever the season, the famous temples and gardens of Kyoto always evoke a serene beauty, but the coming of autumn transforms the city’s landmarks into something quite special. Anywhere you go in the city you will likely stumble across a cultural treasure, but Arashiyama on the city’s western edge is particularly notable, with the famous Togetsu-kyo bridge neatly framed by the surrounding hills which enclose this picturesque old district of ancient shrines, bamboo groves and temples. Romantics can rent a rowing boat to get a unique view of the fall foliage (and a good upper body workout to boot), or take a short hike up to Kameyama park, which offers splendid views of the whole of Kyoto, with added monkeys.
Access: From the city, take a JR train to Saga-Arashiyama station, or hop on Kyoto City Bus No. 28 and get off at Arashiyama-Tenryuji-Mae.
Miyajima – Hiroshima (from early November until early December)
Renowned as one of the three most scenic places in the whole of Japan, Miyajima Island attracts the crowds in the fall. A ride on the ropeway which leads up Mount Misen is a popular way to appreciate the beautiful autumn colors which cloak the island in this season, but arrive early (or late) in the day to avoid a long wait. The world-famous Itsukushima shrine and the many varieties of maple trees at nearby Momijidani (maple valley), in all their rich splendour, are particularly photogenic at this time of year.
Access: From central Hiroshima, take tram line 2 or a JR train to Miyajima-guchi station. There are frequent ferries from the nearby ferry pier.