Capture Japan’s most sublime scenic season

Capture Japan’s most sublime scenic season

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

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 late 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.

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 26 to Dec. 11; 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.     

3-11-2 Hase, Kamakura City (5-minute walk from Hase Station; Enoshima Dentetsu line)
Open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. for night viewing (Nov. 26 to Dec. 11) weekdays open Saturday, Sunday open until 7 p.m.
Admission: Adult 300 yen, elementary school students 100 yen
For more information, call 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.

1300 Gora, Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun (5 minute walk from Koen-Ue Station; Hakone Tozan Tetsudo Cable Car)
Open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Admission: adult 900 yen ($9), 65 or older 800 yen, high school and college students 400, junior high school students and below free
For more information, call 0460-82-2623

Did you know? Autumn (winter) leaves on Okinawa

Although Okinawa seems to be irrelevant to autumn leaves, Japanese wax tree and Indian almond turn their color to brilliant red in Okinawa.  “Both the trees turn their leaves to brilliant red in December or January,” says Jun-ichiro Higuchi, Chief Curator of Southeast Botanical Gardens.  “You can see Japanese wax tree in somewhere in mountainous location while Indian almond can be observed anywhere in parks and schoolyards in Okinawa.”

Actually, colored leaves of Japanese wax trees on Mt. Gusukuyama of Iejima Island and in the mountainous parts of Tokashiki Island have been reported as a seasonal topic in a local newspaper.  “Although the contrast of these tinged wax tree leaves against other evergreen leaves of Okinawa seems to attract visitor’s attentions, we, Okinawans, don’t actually appreciate them as the mainland Japanese do in autumn,” said Hidekatsu Gimami, Tokashiki Village’s Tourism, Commerce and Industry Division.  “The colored wax trees seem to a kind of reddish flower to me, yet the colored leaves of always realized us that winter has come.”

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