In times past, some Native Americans believed the autumn colors were made when the Great Hunter finally shot the Bear, whose blood spilled across the landscape in the form of red leaves.
In my view, as I cycle around Tokyo, the trees appear to be more like well-preserved bottles that finally let forth their red and golden wines to celebrate the end of a glorious year.
Of all the seasons, perhaps the best time to be in Tokyo is during koyo, which means “red leaves.” Reminiscent of the U.S. state of Vermont, the Gatineaus in Canada or northern England’s entrancing Lake District, Tokyo is a natural wonder of the world for a few weeks at this time of year.
Yet surprisingly, millions of people run away from Tokyo, thinking they have to climb Tsukuba, Takao or other mountains to get drunk on the wine-colored foliage.
This is just perfect for cyclists in Tokyo. While hoards of koyo-seekers are waiting in line for trains or cable cars, or jostling for camera positions in crowded mountain temples, central Tokyo at this time of year is quiet — but bursting with a cornucopia of color.
In contrast to the bacchanalian rites of spring’s cherry-blossom season, the solitude of autumnal cycling seems perfectly suited to the mood of koyo. Alone on a bike or in a small group of cyclists, it’s possible to cruise silently to quiet corners of parks and temple precincts in parts of town well away from the crowds. If the leaves aren’t peaking in one park, we can spin over to another spot where they are. If the leaves are falling, it feels like a dream to glide through them on an empty sidestreet.
Best of all, cycling helps the senses to open up and appreciate the world around, and to transcend the boxed-in feeling created by cars, trains and canyons of concrete.
The hypnotic rhythm of pumping legs and spinning wheels can also induce the type of meditative state achieved by ancient wandering haiku poets, who didn’t have urbanites bumping into them as they paused on a mountain path to pen their thoughts.
To explore the autumn colors of Tokyo, I cycle east and north from Shibuya, up and down Roppongi-dori, to the national Diet, where trees sprinkle leaves onto empty streets, and then around the Imperial Palace, where the boulevard is open only to bicycles (which can be rented near Nijubashimae Station) until 3 p.m. on Sundays. Avoiding the masses enjoying koyo on the palace grounds, I circle around north to the adjacent Kitanomaru Park.
Once a part of Edo Castle, this park, rebuilt after a fire in 1657, has a science museum, 400-year old gates, and a martial arts arena, the Nippon Budokan, which also hosts huge music events.
The moats and ponds are important habitats for mandarin ducks and winged winter emigres from Siberia, as well as lovers seeking a getaway from bigger, busier parks. In addition to the oak and camphor trees, this area features the most well-known autumnal tree, the Japanese maple, or momiji. More delicate than its North American cousins, the momiji has a broad palette — from lemon orange to fiery red to burned purple — and its brilliance changes depending on the sunlight and time of day.
A few minutes further north, the Koishikawa Korakuen gardens (next to Tokyo Dome) feature ponds reflecting incredibly red momiji. Along with other urban oases such as Hamarikyu and Rikugien (which is lit up until 9 p.m. during koyo season), a ¥300 entrance fee at Koishikawa helps to downsize the crowds — and to pay for the preservation of one of Japan’s highest art forms, landscape gardening.
Heading west along Yasukuni-dori, past Yotsuya and Akasaka Palace, we go uphill toward the Meiji Jingu Outer Gardens, or Gaien, and a spectacular avenue of golden ginkgo trees named Icho Namiki (Ginkgo Avenue). Two rows of trees form an Acropolis devoted to the worship of golden leaves, which resemble Japanese fans or elephant ears. Avoiding the pedestrians strolling under the tunnel of branches, a cyclist can meander up and down the street to find the best camera angles against the sharp blue sky of a cold day.
Like many of Tokyo’s venerable trees, the ginkgos were planted in the Taisho Era (1912-26) in memory of the previous Meiji Emperor. From Nov. 16 to Dec. 14, the area hosts an Icho Matsuri, with food and drink stalls in the nearby sports ground. For cyclists, this area is great all year on Sundays, when cars are forbidden along a circular route — though caution is needed among children on training-wheels near the National Stadium.
Just beyond that sports mecca we pass under the tracks outside Sendagaya Station, to the free bike-parking area at Sendagaya Gate on the southwest side of Shinjuku Gyoen (entrance fee ¥200). Perhaps one of the most inspiring and well-manicured city parks in the world, Gyoen boasts more than 20,000 trees, including about 1,000 maples and 500 ginkgos, as well as majestic Himalayan cedars and crown-shaped bald cypress. It’s a good place, too, to learn about other trees that grace the urban landscape, among them keyaki (zelkova), hazenoki (wax tree), hanamizuki (dogwood), as well as that national emblem, sakura.
A forest within a city, the Gyoen’s fountain of flora has supplied cuttings and seeds to source many of the sycamores, tulip trees and others seen along the roads of Tokyo. Birds, including green Amazonian parakeets that have surprisingly adapted to the Kanto climate, often visit here on their tours of the city.
With a circumference of 3.5 km, the park as a whole is a 58-hectare work of art, a masterful display of Japanese, French and English gardening philosophies, full of symbolic rocks, spellbinding shapes and optical illusions — and all this backed by the Docomo Tower and Shinjuku’s skyscrapers. Designed with French assistance in 1906 to be an Imperial garden, it was burned to ash in 1945 but it was then replanted and reopened in 1949 as a national garden for the public. I could live in this park, and grow vegetables among the bushes — except for the fact that it closes at 4:30 p.m. every day (and all day on Mondays).
From there, however, climbing up Aoyama-dori and then whizzing down Omotesando past the zelkova trees toward Harajuku Station, we reach the heart and lungs of Shibuya’s youth culture, Yoyogi Park.
With bicycles for hire, its cycling path around the park provides a good workout any time of year, but just now takes us past psychedelic fields of gold and crimson. People roll around in the leaves like children in the year’s first snowfall, or take pictures surrounded by koyo carpets. Then, in the evenings, DJs or drum circles often fill the park with music and laughter.
From here, with the right bike and ample energy, it’s only an hour’s ride along canals and backstreets to Inokashira Park, or a 50-km one-way trip along the Tamagawa River to the visual feasts of Okutama. But even that can get overcrowded. During the craze for koyo, it’s better to stay in Tokyo.