5 Faves: Autumn Leaf-Peeping Destinations

October is here and the humidity is finally disappearing down here in Kyushu. Autumn is upon us, my absolute favorite season anywhere in the world but especially here in Japan. Growing up on the eastern seaboard of the United States, I once thought that New England had the monopoly on stunning fall foliage but my years in Japan have proven me wrong. Fall bursts forth here in a vivid explosion of warm-hued colors, from scarlet maples to golden ginkgos. If you’re up for a little momijigari (literally maple leaf hunting) this season, check out the locations below.

1. Daisetsuzan National Park (Hokkaido) – The autumn foliage season begins in mid September in this sprawling national park in the center of Japan’s northernmost island. Try taking the ropeway up Mt Kurodake for a view of the red, orange and yellow leaves against a backdrop of evergreens. 

2. Kamikochi – Nagano prefecture is known for its stunning displays of fall beauty but Kamikochi takes the cake. This popular outpost in the northern Japan Alps offers easy riverside trails for casual visitors as well as some more difficult treks for serious hikers. Come in October for the best leaves and keep your eyes peeled for the park’s resident macaques.

Fall color in Kamikochi
Fall color in Kamikochi

3. Nikko – This is one of Japan’s most picturesque autumn destinations, if you love your leaves mixed with a bit of culture. Fiery maples frame shrines dedicated to Japan’s first shogun and the hills surrounding Nikko are chock full of trails you can follow to give you a close up view of the colors. At only an hour’s train ride from Tokyo, this makes Nikko an easily accessible fall destination (October and early November are best), though come on a weekday if you want to avoid the crowds.

4. Kyoto – Truthfully, if you visit Kyoto in the autumn, there’s really no need to look further afield to get your leaf fix. The city’s myriad traditional gardens mean a postcard-perfect scene around practically every corner and the mountains surrounding the former capital boast some stunning displays of their own, all fairly accessible from downtown. November is the prime month for leaf-peeping but the season lasts into early December as well, depending on the exact location.

Fall leaves
Fall leaves

5. Takao – This easy-to-access mountain within the boundaries of Tokyo city might be immensely popular with Japanese leaf peepers in late November and early December but come on a weekday within that span and some of the best fall color in Tokyo is yours and yours alone. A ropeway cuts in half the time it takes to reach the summit and crisp fall air might mean a panoramic view of both foliage and a snow-covered Mt Fuji. If you think you’ve come to Japan too late for leaves, this (as well as Tokyo’s urban gardens) are one of the last places to catch some color.

For an excellent, up-to-date reference of what’s turning colors where, pop onto the Japan Guide website for the 2013 color report. More destinations are added as the season progresses and you can check old reports to get an idea of what might be turning at a specific time.

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