By far the most recognizable of Japan’s natural phenomena is the cherry blossom. And why not: Who can resist the cotton candy plumes of the pink-white flower? More than anything, blossom season is a time to celebrate. Spring means warmth and evening yozakura parties with drinks and snacks aplenty. What’s not to like?
Autumn leaves, on the other hand, aren’t as famous. The word “sakura” (cherry blossom) is used as a first name, it’s that desirable; conversely, momiji (autumn leaves) is the name of a witch in a Muromachi Period (1392-1573) play. You begin to get the picture.
That said, momiji (also known as kōyō), are not exactly reviled. Back in the Heian Period (794-1185), when hanami (flower viewing) was lord and master, both ume (plum) and cherry trees were planted within the grounds of the courts and noblemen’s mansions, making hanami a relatively passive activity. Going to see autumn leaves was still a done thing, but was more of an excursion; the activity was, and still is, called momijigari (hunting for autumn leaves).
The mountains and valleys of Japan, dyed red with the changing foliage, are as irresistible as the blossoms. But 1,000 years ago in the Heian Period, such rugged places invoked dread and posed outright danger. The “hunting” part came into it because momijigari parties would pick up red leaves as a well-deserved memento; there’s a comparison to kinokogari — mushroom hunting (also precarious).
It was during the travel boom of the relatively peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868) that momijigari properly took off. Increased activity along routes such as the Tokaido and Nakasendo to places such as Kyoto or the Grand Shrines of Ise meant that people didn’t have to hunt as hard — they would pass the trees on their journeys.
Publications like “Miyako Meishozue” fanned the fires of interest in seeking out the leaves, describing kōyō no meisho (famous leaf-viewing spots). From the same publisher came Yuzen Hinagata, a kimono pattern book first published in 1688 that was a veritable Vogue of its day and featured designs with names such as “Autumn Leaves of Tatsutagawa” and “Famous Spots for Autumn Leaves,” and sent fashionable people in their droves — and in their brand new kosode (short-sleeved kimono) — to look at the real thing.
Fast-forward to 2019 and, although hanami remains the more renowned activity, the Japanese equivalent of the weirdly named North American “leaf peeping” is going strong. If you find yourself in the capital, here are some of our very own kōyō no meisho.
Rinshi no Mori Park
Rinshi no Mori isn’t an obvious choice for Tokyo’s leaf-viewing festivities, but it’s actually a prime spot. Born as Meguro Experimental Nursery in 1900, Rinshi no Mori was once an arboretum for the study of trees from across the world. Naturally it’s bristling with them.
There’s a pond with a hexagonal pavilion, where you can sit and admire the view, but the nearby trail through a grove of rakūshō (bald cypress) makes for a miniature woodland walk, while strolling west from the Mochi no Ki Gate yields patches of irohamomiji (bright red Japanese maple).
Koyamadai 2-7, Shinagawa-ku; best leaves from late November to early December
Todoroki is an unassuming place; it doesn’t even have a shōtengai (shopping street). What it does have is Tokyo’s only natural ravine, a gorge carved through the earth less than five-minute’s walk from the station. It’s a “Jurassic Park” of a place with a few Kofun Period (250-538) tunnel tombs and burial mounds in the vicinity, the largest being Noge Otsuka Kofun.
A natural spring, dubbed Fudo no Taki, was deemed suitably spiritual for a Buddhist temple (Todoroki Fudoson), complete with a viewing platform for cherry blossoms and autumn colors. From here, you can gaze down on maple, ichō (ginkgo), and keyaki (zelkova) trees before descending the stone steps to warm up with some tea and snacks at the Setsugekka teahouse.
Todoroki 1-22, Setagaya-ku; best leaves from late November to mid December
One stop out of the city from Jiyugaoka Station on the Tokyu Oimachi Line is Kuhonbutsu Station. The leaf hunt here leads momiji aficionados to Joshinji. This Buddhist temple of the Pure Land sect was established in 1678 and its colloquial name, Kuhonbutsu, comes from its nine Buddhist statues. The handiwork of the monk Kaseki, each of these tall statues of Amida Buddha features a different insō (hand gesture).
It’s also where you’ll find one of Tokyo’s oldest trees: a 700-year-old kaya (Japanese nutmeg) standing beside the main hall. But its neighbor, the ginkgo tree, is the one that’ll turn vivid yellow when the time is right.
The solemnly spacious grounds of the temple feature trees aflame from the end of November — it’s a Technicolor dream.
Okusawa 7-41-3, Setagaya-ku; best leaves from late November to early December
Starting life as a feudal duck-hunting ground in the early 1600s, Hamarikyu Gardens is a marvel of reclaimed land in Japan that isn’t an airport, incineration plant or skyscraper-clad residential area. The ponds utilize the seawater and are tidal, making for one of the more unique water features in a Japanese garden.
It doesn’t get much more autumn-leaves-viewing-y than this: sitting in a faithfully restored teahouse in the middle of a pond looking out over a manicured garden glowing with maple, complete with futuristic skyscraper shakkei (borrowed scenery). If you’re traveling from Asakusa, it’s possible to arrive in style by catching the Tokyo Water Bus (¥1,040 one-way, 35 minutes). Entrance costs ¥300 and the park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Hamarikyuteien 1-1, Chuo-ku; best leaves from mid-November to early December
There are 400 maple trees and 560 ginkgo and other trees that turn fiery shades of red, orange and yellow in this 300-year-old garden. The falls at Takimi no Chaya (Waterfall-viewing Teahouse) add watery goodness to the scene, and you can really feel the autumnal glow at Tsutsuji no Chaya (Azalea Teahouse).
From Nov. 20 until Dec. 12, the park can be enjoyed at night too, when the whole scene is lit up for the autumn colors. There’s a ¥300 entrance fee day or night, and the lights are on from sunset till 9 p.m.
Honkomagome 6-16-3, Bunkyo-ku; best leaves from late November to early December
Japanese gardens don’t usually come mixed with sculpted Western-style ones, or sit on the grounds of Western-style mansions, but this one does. Named for copper mining baron Toranosuke Furukawa, the mansion was built by English architect Josiah Condor in 1917.
The Japanese garden, which arrived two years later than the mansion, boasts 220 maples and can be enjoyed for just ¥150. The chashitsu (tearoom) serves up warming matcha for a real multisensory taste of momijigari.
Nishigahara 1-27-39, Kita-ku; best leaves from mid-November to early December
Showa Memorial Park
The word momiji is written with kanji that literally mean “red leaves.” But come autumn, the ginkgo trees shine gold in Showa Memorial Park. A few minute’s walk from Tachikawa Station on the Chuo Line, it’s the largest park in the Tokyo area and is a destination come autumn leaves or no.
The park boasts not just one but two impressive avenues of ginkgo: Katarai no Icho Namiki (98 trees, 300 meters) and the 106 trees that run for 200 meters along the canal from the fountain near the Tachikawa Gate. For a festive feel in the evening, there’s a light-up event from Nov. 2 through 24 from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Entrance is ¥450.
Midoricho 3173, Tachikawa; best leaves from mid- to late November
Jingu Gaien Ginkgo Avenue
There’s a rival, much more central ginkgo-lined avenue in central Tokyo, running up toward Meiji Jingu Gaien Park. Arrive at Aoyama-Itchome Station and walk along Aoyama-dori to find this very urban, very autumnal avenue of 146 ginkgo trees.
It’s made even better with the imposing 1926 Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery at the end. When the leaves start to fall here you’ll practically be ambling along a yellow carpet.
Kita-Aoyama 1-1, Shinjuku-ku; best leaves from mid-November to early December
Tokyo’s largest riverside park has a cocktail of trees for your autumn viewing needs, with momijibafū (sweetgum), poplar, ginkgo and others painting the riverside in a cavalcade of brick-ish hues. The mix of trees, the river and tangle of trails to tread lends itself for a day of exploration; there’s even the Mizumoto Park Bird Sanctuary, complete with observation hides for some avian spotting. Legend has it there’s a haunted phone booth here, too.
Mizumotokoen 3-2, Katsushika-ku; best leaves from early November to mid-December
It’s outside the urban sprawl that you’ll find the best momiji. Just as in days of yore, thousands of Tokyoites still make their way to spots easily reachable from the city for some decidedly more rugged kōyō spots.
Mount Takao (599 meters) can be reached from Shinjuku Station. From mid- to late November, it’s an easy climb up through leaf-filled forests to the summit. Under the watchful gaze of another mountain, Mitake (929 meters), you’ll find Mitake Gorge; the rough terrain and red leaves will be lit up from Nov. 9 to 24. Nearby Lake Okutama — actually a reservoir — offers up amazing autumn foliage from early October to mid-November; connected to the city via the Ome Line (and a 20-minute bus ride from Okutama Station), you can get to grips with it all by hiking trails like Miharashi no Oka or Ikoi no Michi.
Though Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, may win in terms of its beautiful scenery and its accessibility credentials from central Tokyo, heading further north may yield wilder rewards. Also in Tochigi, Nasu hides a plateau (best around mid-October) centered around Mount Chausu (1,915 meters) worthy of those Heian Period excursions of yesteryear.