Experiencing Autumn Colors in Japan

Before traveling to another country, it is crucial to know how their weather works. Does the place you’re going to have four seasons? How will the weather fair during the period you’re going to be there? Like it or not, the answer to these questions highly affects your itinerary. Planning to visit someplace during their winter? If a snowstorm hits, you’re less likely to be able to sightsee. Then again, if you go during the colder months, you have the option to see events exclusive only to that chilly season, such as Snow Festivals.

Japan is an example of a country that has all four seasons. Coming for a visit during each season makes for a different experience, and the Japanese proudly root their lifestyle, history, and culture deeply into these weather patterns. Everyone thinks that the best time to visit Japan is during Spring because of their blooming cherry blossoms – but while the cherry blossoms unmistakably have their own charm and appeal, Koyo is just as magical.

Koyo: The Fall Phenomenon

One of the reasons why autumn is such a wonderful time to go to Japan is because of Koyo. “Koyo” is the phenomenon of the leaves falling and turning from green to red, brown, yellow, and orange; what they call “Autumn Colors”. Autumn is quite celebrated in Japan; they hold festivals per region. The Takayama Autumn Festival is a good example of this; it’s highly ranked on the list of things to do if you’re in Japan during this season. Thinking of bringing children to see the beautiful colors? No problem! Jr. would enjoy himself. The reaction kids have to the different leaves on the floor is priceless.

It always has been a tradition for hundreds of years to marvel at the changing colors of the leaves that adorn the trees all around Japan as the Koyo Front swoops in from the North, unfolding in Hokkaido initially (primarily Daisetsuzan), during the mid-September, but other parts of Japan start as late as October. This front then continues downwards, slowly pulling lower temperatures to the southern parts of Japan. The last trees to turn are found in Kanazawa and the Izu Peninsula in Chubu, Kyoto, and Osaka in Kansai, as well as Tokyo and Kamakura in Kanto. Their trees saturate with fall colors around early December. A safe time to go is around Oct to Nov.

You can tell that Koyo is about to happen to your part of Japan when the lowest temperature of the day hits around 7 degrees Celsius, usually in the mornings. You’ll also (of course) notice the bright, lush, saturated colors of the deciduous trees’ leaves start to creep in on the leaves themselves. Those leaves eventually fill up with color and fall, giving an almost otherworldly beauty to what would have been ordinary scenery. If you want to catch this lovely sight, the period of falling leaves then lasts at least 20 days at its peak. There are no specific dates to this, though, as it varies from year to year.

Different Colors Of An Autumn Leaf

Green, yellow, orange, red, and brown – these are the leaf colors that you will see during autumn in Japan. You’ll also notice that some districts of Japan may have their trees turning their peak colors even though other neighboring district’s trees stay stubbornly green. This is because of the warmth of a location, as well as the kinds of trees in the area, are huge factors that determine when a tree’s leaves turn their peak fall colors. So which trees turn what color? Let’s get specific about them. There are some trees that turn only one color, but there are also trees that peak at more than just one hue.

The Momiji: The Famous Japanese Maple Tree

The Maple (pronounced Momiji) is a prime example of a deciduous, broad-leafed tree that turns into all the colors. For some species of the Maple – which there are 70 of, leaves start off as green from the rest of the year, then slowly start to turn yellow, then orange, then a rich, majestic red. Other Maple variants report sticking to a single color. The Maple tree is so highly associated with Japan’s fall that Koyo and Momiji are written in the same way in Kanji, their native alphabet.

As for trees that turn a shiny red, there’s the Japanese Sumac, the Burning Bush, and the Japanese Rowan. If you’re seeking that earthy brown color, then you’re better off with these variants of Oak; Daimyo, Konara, and Sawtooth. There’s also the Bigleaf Magnolia, different Birch trees, and Chestnut trees. Bright yellows come best off of the Japanese Elm and Ginkgo trees. These are only a few out of the many that adorn the streets, mountains, and national parks all over Japan. Your next question would naturally be, “where exactly are the most visually appealing places to witness the phenomenon of Koyo?” Well, we’ve got the answers.

10 Gorgeous Places to Experience The Colors of Autumn In Japan

Found in the western region of Kyoto, Arashiyama is a great spot to go during the middle of November if you want to be surrounded by beautiful fall colors no matter where you go. This is great because you get to do a lot of activities while still enjoying Koyo. There are temples for you to visit such as the Tenryuji, Gioji, Nisonin, and Adashino Nenbutsuji, and all of them have thick, beautiful trees that change colors as the season gets colder. A walk across Togetsukyo bridge gets you a better view of all the trees that top the hills; same with the Hozu River Boat Tour – though you won’t get to see the beautiful foliage adorn the floor, you still get a wider, farther perspective.

Southeast of Kyoto is the humble Tofukuji Temple. This Zen Buddhist temple has been around since 1236. Though it’s seen quite a number of fires and been rebuilt several times, it still holds its name as head temple of Tofukuji School that teaches Zen Buddhism, specifically the Rinzai sect. It holds many gardens filled with trees turn into a symphony of warm hues during the fall.

These gardens were tastefully constructed and laid out by renowned garden landscapers; one of them being Mirei Shigemori. The design of greenery and layout of the temple are perfect examples of what Buddhist temples in the medieval times looked like. Entrance to the bridge should cost about 400 yen, and the gardens will also cost around another 400 yen. Prepare yourself, the bridge, in particular, has been known to get pretty crowded. Many other people find the view over Tsutenkyo Bridge breathtaking too!

The Rikugien Garden was constructed in the Edo period, circa the 18th century. It is known today as one of Tokyo’s cherished scenic treasures - it’s been designated so since 1953. The word “Rikugien”, if you were to break it down and translate it directly, means “Garden of The Six Principles of Poetry”. As “Rikugi” refers to those six “waka” (A Japanese type of poetry) principles, and “En” refers to "garden". As most gardens constructed in the Edo period, this one has a pond in the middle, as interconnected trails, trees, and hills encircle it. Having a stroll for about an hour around these trails during autumn – even at night - gives you the full foliage watching experience! This is because the park illuminates the trees, giving their flames a dramatic look. It’s found near the Komagome station if you take the train.

Fuji Five Lakes, also known as Fujigoko, is filled with different deciduous trees that set on a colorful metaphoric fire on autumn. Found at the base north of Mt. Fuji, it is called Fuji Five Lakes because it’s literally made up of five lakes; Shojiko, Motosuko, Yamanakako, Saiko, and Kawaguchiko. Their elevation (1 kilometer above the sea!) affects how soon their trees change color; and yes, they do turn a little sooner than their lower-lying cousins. The trees adorn the region around the lakes, slowly inching up to Mount Fuji. Some areas are used for commercial purposes, such as lake resorts, camping sites, and mountain climbing bases. Most of these activities that happen around Fujigoko are mostly round Lake Kawaguchiko. Others lakes are not as accessible as they haven’t been developed yet, but perhaps there are ways by bus. The Maples that pepper the canal near Kubota Itchiko Kimono Museum make for a beautiful yellow and orange site; if you find yourself there during the 23rd of November, you may even get to catch their autumn festival! Yuyake no Nagisa Park is another rich source of fiery hues – if the weather abides, you’ll want to get a panoramic shot of the trees that surround the lake and the mountain.
You will fully appreciate the magic that Koyo works on the foliage.

You’ve heard of the garden of six poetry principles, meet the garden of six sublimities. Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa is high up on the list of most beautiful gardens in the entire of Japan, as it highlights all the trees that bloom during different seasons, such as azaleas, plums, cherry blossoms, and maples. Autumn-specific trees are bunched up together in front of the Craft Museum, right by the Kodatsuno Gate. Kenrokuen Garden has been awing audiences with its natural grace since 1871, and is waiting for you to stop by!

Tired of all the tourist spots? Hold on a minute! Let’s get to something a little less well-known. Momiji-no-yu is special and charmingly quaint Onsen that is right beside the Hokigawa River, which is in the southwest region of Nasu. Nothing artificial here, folks – the water is taken straight from any of the eleven hot springs that surround it. Now imagine relaxing in a hot Onsen during the chilly temperatures that Autumn brings. Not only is it extra soothing during this season, but you’ll also get to enjoy the beauty of the turning leaves. No doubt about it, Momiji-no-yu is a hot bath that’s worth the extra trip.

If you’re up for more warm baths in an Onsen, then there’s an entire town dedicated just for that. Behind Okunikko is Yumoto; a little town that specializes in giving the best Onsen. You can find this gem of a spot in Nikko National Park. They get their calming hot water from both Lake Yunoko (a sulfur lake) and Yunodaira Marsh. Head to the northern part of town to take a dip in the Onsenji, or have a look at the Yudaki waterfall! Whichever activity you choose to enjoy the great autumn scenery, a nice Ryokan (the town is full of them) will be waiting for you to come back.
Tohoku has more than just one fantastic destination when it comes to witnessing Koyo – and it’s all about the Alpine. You can view the array of reds, oranges, and yellows in Mt. Hakkoda from the Hakkoda ropeway, for example. But the surface of Mt. Chokai in Akita and Yamagata is also a real winner with its contrasting colors and sprawling hillsides bursting with color. Anyone up for a hike yet?

All the way up north of Japan is Daisetsuzan National Park, in Hokkaido. What’s special about this park compared to the rest of the suggestions is that this territory is almost completely unspoiled by human design. Everything here grows and sprouts at its own accord, giving a certain wild, raw look and feel to it. Trees aren’t categorically planted or lined; autumn hues spread themselves naturally, and the site of this is stunning! This is the perfect spot for hikers to really enjoy the wilderness and nature, but you must be careful or have a guide with you. There are bears and other wild animals that roam freely in this area.

Lastly, Koishikawa Korakuen in Tokyo is a great nature getaway from the city. It’s in tough competition with the Kenrokuen and Rikugien gardens for being the most beautiful in all of Japan. Also constructed in the Edo period, a giant lake sits as the centerpiece of the landscape, lined full of maple trees. This garden lights up during the fall because it’s got so many fiery red maples. If you look a little harder, you may even spot the unmistakable golden grove of shimmering Ginkgoes. Need a hint? It’s near the lower right part of the garden.

Make A Map Of Areas To Enjoy The Color of Fall

Before you create your itinerary, don’t forget to create a map of where you would like to begin and end your encounter with Koyo. Though you will still see these trees naturally shed their leaves no matter where you are because they’re all over the place, taking the time to really enjoy the beauty of it is an entirely different experience! Set a day aside to follow the map you’ve made (perhaps of your favorite natural parks, gardens, and temples), and don’t forget to take note of when and where you’re visiting, and study when the Koyo drift will take effect in that area. There are maps for that too.