Trip Tips: Koyo (Leaf Viewing) in Japan

Last year, I went to Kyoto at the end of November. So did millions of other people from around the country. Were we all equally crazy? Yes, perhaps we were.

Crazy for autumn leaves, that is.

Fall foliage at Nanzen-ji in Kyoto
Fall foliage at Nanzen-ji in Kyoto

Kyoto is known as one of Japan’s top leaf “peeping” destinations and rightly so. The display of scarlet and gold was stunning last year in the nation’s former capital and it was worth battling the crowds to see it. I wrote a post on the experience soon after our return but I’d like to revisit some of those tips here and extend them to Japan as a whole. If you’re in Japan for foliage season this year, here are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. Make the tourism office or the bookstore your first stop – Tourism offices in Japan larger cities and towns are well-equipped to deal with foreign visitors in general, and the staff there will be very “up” on what’s turning color where. In Kyoto, a large board (sadly Japanese only but staff can help you decipher it) lists all of the major foliage spots and their status (from just turning to past peak).

If you’re a reader of Japanese (even intermediate level), however, head for a local bookstore like Tsutaya and visit the magazine section for guides on fall foliage in specific regions. Every year, there is a foliage guide to Kyoto that is available around the country but various regions and prefectures also publish their own specific guides. I just picked up the one for Kyushu the other week that listed the best foliage spots in Oita, Fukuoka and Kumamoto.

2. Go early, late or on a weekday – Assume that every major foliage spot YOU know about is more than likely known to four times as many Japanese. Thankfully, Japan is not a nation known for their vacation time and if you try to time your visit to famous foliage sights on a weekday (Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often good), you’ll often find locales to be fairly free of the usual crush. For example, Ohara (outside of Kyoto) on a weekend in autumn is insane. Ohara on a Wednesday is completely manageable. (Not empty, mind you. But manageable.)

A ryokan garden in Kyoto, open to the public
A ryokan garden in Kyoto, open to the public

3. Don’t discount the “nonspots” – Everybody knows that Kiyomizu Temple is extraordinary in autumn. Likewise, Rikugien Garden in Tokyo. But not everyone knows about the changing leaves in Showa Kinen Park on the western outskirts of Tokyo, or the plethora of golden ginkgo trees that line the streets and surround the castle of Kumamoto. My favorite foliage experience in Kyoto last year came in a small garden attached to a ryokan not far off the Philosopher’s Path. The gate was open and visitors were invited to wander in but we were the only ones there to admire the cloak of colors on the garden’s maples. The best trees aren’t always the most public or obvious ones.

4. Get off the beaten track – In my native country, many people love to visit our beautiful national parks but they never seem to get much beyond the front gate. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton … all have simply staggering backcountry  but it often goes unseen. The same is true of Japan’s mountains and parks. The ropeway up to Mt Takao is clogged in late autumn but the six trails that also cover the mountain are not. Kamikochi’s riverside trail is always packed but the paths up into the higher peaks of the Japan Alps are less so. Granted, many Japanese love to hike and you won’t find empty trails but it’s not nearly as bad as near the carparks.

Gingko leaves
Gingko leaves

5. Pack patience – This goes without saying. On our visit to Tofukuji in southeastern Kyoto last year (on a weekday, no less), we could barely shuffle along more than five meters a minute. Lots of feet were accidentally stepped on, several elbows accidentally thrown, all in the quest for a good photo op. Koyo is not exactly a “zen” experience. But the chance to witness nature at its finest – and it is FINE here in Japan – is worth every moment.

I’ve already shared a few of the more prominent leaf viewing locales in Japan here on the blog but check back next week for some of the lesser known foliage spots around the islands. Happy fall!

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