TOKYO, Dec 6 — If you’ve attempted cherry blossom viewing (hanami) during springtime in Japan before, you’ll know how frustrating it can be to miss the sakura in full bloom. This is hardly surprising when you consider the season for hanami is a couple of weeks at best and sometimes barely lasts a few days.
Much more favourable are your chances with “hunting” autumn leaves or momijigari as the season can last up to three months, from October till December. The Japanese characters for momijigari (from the words momiji and gari, which mean “maple leaves” and “hunting” respectively) can also be pronounced as koyo, a more elegant description as it refers to the “autumn leaves changing colours.”
Expect an explosion of reds, oranges, yellows and browns from trees as varied as maple (kaeda), ginkgo (icho), larch (karamatsu), beech (buna) and zelkova (keyaki). Different trees change colour at different times, with maple leaves being the last to turn, so there’s always some autumn colour for you to track down.
Nikko: The fiery colours of autumn
The koyo season starts early in the mountains so follow Tokyoites to Nikko, a town about 1.5 hours north of the capital by rail. Located along Japan’s Romantic Road, Nikko is the sacred home to two Shinto shrines (Toshogu and Futarasan-jinja) and one Buddhist temple (Rinno-ji). Together, the three religious buildings form a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a beloved koyo destination.
Before you enter the Nikko National Park, where these shrines and temple are situated, pause at the Shinkyo Bridge near its entrance. Considered one of Japan’s three finest bridges, Shinkyo (meaning “Sacred Bridge”) crosses the Daiya River and from its vermilion lacquered surface, you have unparalleled views of the fiery colours of autumn bursting forth in the mountains.
Once inside, don’t miss Taiyuinbyo, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, with its ornate carvings and backdrop of autumn foliage. Chrysanthemums, an autumn flower and the basis for the Imperial Seal of Japan, are on display at Kikukaten, the Chrysanthemum Exhibition in Toshogu Shrine.
Over at the Rinno-ji Temple, spend some time at Shoyoen, a small Japanese style garden with a central pond surrounded by maple trees. The drifting shapes of scarlet momiji on the pond’s surface are a passing pleasure, an apt nod to teachings of impermanence at this Buddhist temple.
Kyoto: Temples light up
You may find that there isn’t enough time in the day to enjoy koyo, especially given the shorter hours of daylight during autumn. Fret not, for some of the best autumn foliage hunting is to be had after sunset. In the historical city of Kyoto (a former capital of Japan), the temples (many which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites) are illuminated in the evenings for a different sort of koyo experience.
Perhaps the most famous of these is Kiyomizu-dera (which means “Pure Water Temple”) which overlooks Kyoto’s eastern mountains, Higashiyama. It’s worth braving the climb via the touristy and crowded Kiyomizu-michi to get there in time for sunset, when the illumination begins. (The challenge is not to be distracted by the various shops offering matcha, mochi and all manner of souvenirs along the way; not an easy task.)
After reaching the bright red pagoda that marks the entrance of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, follow the throngs of like-minded visitors. Don’t flinch at their numbers; everyone is generally well-behaved and before you know it, you will be on the main temple platform with an otherworldly view of the trees around the temple lit up.
The mountains appear to be on fire, almost.
For a more intimate experience, drop by Kodai-ji Temple, a 20-minute walk from Kiyomizu-dera. This Zen Buddhist temple is known for its beautiful Zen gardens, which become breathtaking when lit up in the evenings. The large rock garden in front of the hojo (main hall) has its gravel neatly raked to represent an ocean. A light show transforms this gravel into a screen for a celestial drama full of deities and demons.
The tsukiyama (hill style) garden at the other end of the temple is a tapestry of pond, hills (man-made) and decorative rocks, all of which are framed by maples trees. The brilliant reds and oranges of the illuminated momiji reflected on the surface of the pond are simply enchanting.
Tokyo: Golden avenues
You’d be forgiven if you thought autumn foliage is predominantly red in its palette: the crimsons of maple leaves complemented by the burnished oranges of other fall foliage, creating a fiery vision. If you head to the Japanese capital though, you’d be greeted by visions of... gold.
Did you know that the ginkgo (icho) is the official tree of Tokyo? So it’s no surprise that the city has numerous streets that are lined with ginkgo trees. The most majestic of these has to be the Icho Namiki (or “Ginkgo Avenue”) in the Meiji-jingu Gaien Park.
Located a block away from the Aoyama-Itchome subway station, Icho Namiki showcases well-pruned ginkgo trees in a dramatic fashion. The almost lemony yellow of ginkgo leaves offer a spectacular canopy for crowds to stroll under. You will see folks walking their dogs or tourists dressed in rental kimonos. Senior citizens and school children alike try their hand at capturing the beauty of the golden ginkgo foliage on their canvases.
Shinjuku Gyoen in the centre of Tokyo is perhaps most famous for its springtime sakura. However, if you head to the 58.3-hectare park’s French Formal Garden in autumn, you will discover two boulevards of towering poplar trees that are as impressive as any cherry blossom grove.
The symmetrically designed garden attracts many visitors for the fragrant rose bushes in its centre but during autumn, it’s the copper hues of popura (poplar) leaves that astound. The gravel paths are covered with the fallen dead leaves, a sea of crunchy browns.
Rest on a bench and enjoy a picnic of bottled hot sencha (green tea), roasted chestnuts and in-season persimmon. Koyo isn’t just about hunting but also the contemplation of the beautiful autumn foliage. Winter will arrive soon enough; why hurry?