November is my favorite month in Japan. For much of the low-lying areas of the nation (and a few mountainous areas that have yet to turn), November is foliage month. Autumn in Japan is unlike anywhere else in the world. In my home state of Pennsylvania, our neighboring mountains turned mottled hues of rust, gold and brown. In Japan, the palette is vivid – brilliant scarlet maples and stunning yellow ginkgoes are the most common colors, but these is also silver pampas grass and dark pink kochia bushes, the latter seen most frequently in Hitachi Seaside Park.
Most of the following events deal with foliage, but there are a few other events not to miss this month:
1. Gokanosho Foliage Weekends (Kumamoto)
I have never seen foliage like that of Gokanosho and gosh darn, I have looked high and low. This mountainous region in Japan is tucked into the southern part of Kumamoto prefecture and is practically impossible to reach. That was part of the appeal for the Taira clan (also known as the Heike) as they fled from their defeat at the Battle of Dan-no-ura in 1185. Their legacy is all over the valley, with suspension bridges for their transit, hidden villages and a local museum dedicated to the clan.
On the first two Sundays in November, the residents of Gokanosho convert all of their extremely narrow mountain roads into a one-way system (enforced by volunteers who direct cars at all intersections). This makes getting around the region a bit easier than on other days, when two cars meeting on a lonely pass can me backing down around numerous curves until you reach a pull-off. Get maps locally or drop me a line (I have an old copy).
This year’s dates: 11/6 and 11/13
2. Tori no Ichi Rake Fairs (Tokyo)
Rake fairs are a sign that the year is drawing to a close and it’s time to think ahead to what you want out of 2017. Rake fairs, also called tori no ichi, are held in November on the day of the Rooster. (I’ll wait while you grab your celestial calendars to sort that one out.) They take place almost exclusively at Otori-jinja, or Otori Shrines, shrines that house the god of good fortune and successful business. While you do yourself and your business a favor if you come to pray to the deity on those days, your fortune will dramatically improve if you purchase one of the elaborately decorated bamboo rakes on offer. They’re supposed to help you “rake in” good fortune in your business, and really, who doesn’t want that?
Interestingly enough, in my research for this post, I learned that when there are three days of the rooster in November (which there are not in 2016), there is a good chance there will be a major fire in the city.
This year’s dates: 11/11 and 11/23
3. Kunenan Opening Days (Saga)
Kunenan is a small villa and garden located not far from Takeo Onsen in Saga Prefecture. The small sukiya (open-plan) style villa and grounds were the escape of a Meiji-era businessman, who spent 9 years constructing his second home.
Kunenan is only open 9 days a year, and those nine days always correspond to the time when Saga’s fall foliage is at its finest. Why the limitation on visiting? I don’t know. But during those days, expect significant crowds, especially over the Thanksgiiving Labor Day holiday.
Most visitors arrive by car, using one of the large parking lots on the outskirts of the site and riding to the villa via shuttle bus. Visitors are then given a number upon check-in. It’s important to watch the staff near the ticket counters; they will post a series of entrance numbers (ie 8500-8595) that will indicate when it’s your turn to enter the actual garden.
Kunenan is generally open from November 15th-23rd.
There are plenty more events in November that have to deal with foliage, particularly temple garden light-ups. These mostly occur in Tokyo and Kyoto (though other cities do get in on the action), with the tourism office in each city having either a complete list or the most up-to-date information available.