The Japanese are a people seriously infatuated with the seasons, and one of the greatest expressions of that obsession is the love of koyo. Koyo literally means “red leaves” but is used for all colors of autumn foliage, and in this season it seems the entire country goes mad for it. Much like cherry blossom viewing in the spring, people flock, cameras in tow, to famous gardens and parks to view the changing colors of the leaves. But unlike cherry blossom viewing, autumn foliage viewing seldom involves lively picnics and sake drinking: the impending fall of the leaves is more conducive to long walks and quiet reflection.
The quintessential autumn tree is the momiji (Japanese maple), with its delicate leaves slowly turning a fiery red. Icho (ginkgo) is another favorite; its fan-shaped leaves turn a deep golden-yellow. A number of other trees are also noted for colorful foliage, such as keyaki (zelkova), hazenoki (wax tree), sakura (cherry) and hanamizuki (dogwood).
Koyo begins at a slightly different time year to year and place to place, but because each species of tree has its own schedule there is bound to be autumn foliage to see throughout the season. In Tokyo the leaves generally begin to turn in early November and peak late in the month or in early December. In the mountains and colder areas of Kanto the leaves start in October and peak around mid-November.
Trees can be seen displaying their fall foliage all over the city and even a trip to the local park is bound to impress. But it’s worth making a trip to see some especially beautiful examples of autumn leaves, and the following is a list of recommended koyo spots in and around Tokyo.
Perhaps the prettiest autumn leaves in the city can be found along Icho Namiki (Ginkgo Avenue), a street connecting Aoyama Dori to the sports fields of Meiji Jingu Gaein. 300 meters in length, what the avenue lacks in length is more than made up for in grandeur: it is lined with 146 magnificent gingko trees dating back to the Taisho period, when they were planted in commemoration of the Meiji Emperor. The trees are nice enough in the summer when their greenery lends the avenue a refined, European feel, but when the leaves turn color in the autumn they are simply stunning. From mid-November to early December, when the leaves are at their peak, Meiji Jingu Gaien will hold its 10th annual Icho Matsuri (Ginkgo Festival), with the nearby sports fields filled with food and drink stalls, a market, free entertainment and more.
Two of Tokyo’s best traditional Japanese landscape gardens are Rikugien and Koishikawa Korakuen, and they are both planted with hundreds of well-manicured koyo-bearing trees. Rikugien is especially worth an evening visit between November 22nd and December 14th, when the trees are lit up. The lights are on nightly from sunset to 9:00pm; expect crowds on weekends. Further afield, Sankein features stunning traditional gardens housing a collection of Edo period buildings; the park lights up the autumn leaves nightly from November 20th to December 21st.
Large western-style parks like Shinjukugyoen, Yoyogi Koen and Showa Kinnen Koen are more inviting for picnics and strolling, each with thousands of trees planted on spacious grounds. Smaller parks such as Hikarigaoka Koen, Shikinomori Koen, Kitanomaru Koen, Inokashira Koen will also be filled with autumn color.
Autumn is a favorite time for walking and hiking in the mountains, and there is no shortage of peaks within reach of Tokyo. Takaosan, a diminutive but sacred mountain in western Tokyo, is one of the best, and on December 7th English Adventure will hold an Autumn Foliage Walk, a guided hike on the mountain open to all ages and nationalities. The Okutama area in western Tokyo has numerous spots for autumn leaf viewing, including Okutamako (Okutama Lake) and Mitakesan (Mount Mitake). Nagatoro Keikoku (Nagatoro Gorge) is also pretty in the autumn, and the Arakawa Rhine Kudari lets you see the foliage from a traditional wooden raft as it makes its way over the rapids of the Arakawa River.
Getting further away from Tokyo, Hakone makes a great weekend trip, with Ashinoko (Lake Ashi) and Hakone Kyukaido (a section of the Edo period Tokaido Highway) being good places to see some fall color; Susuki Sogen features another type of autumn foliage: fields of silvery susuki (pampas grass). Nikko is beautiful in the fall, and also in Tochigi Prefecture are Nasu and Shiobara, which have both autumn leaves and wonderful onsen (hot springs). Finally, Kamakura is good for either a weekend visit or a day trip. Many of the temples are planted with momiji and icho trees, with Engakuji Temple, Kaizoji Temple, Hasedera Temple, Meigetsuin Temple and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine especially recommended. The hills and forests surrounding Kamakura offer several hiking trails with good autumn color as well.