February 22, 2024

Swap spring cherry blossoms for fall leaves for Japan’s most Insta-worthy vacation

cNoiseblossoms mean big business for Japan: Every year, an estimated 63 million local and international tourists travel to and through the country to witness the cotton candy spectacle, spending $2.7 billion. But I would say that Japan’s natural beauty is best seen in the fall.

I have visited Japan several times, the first two of which coincided with the height of the country’s famous cherry blossom season. Don’t get me wrong, the trees are incredibly beautiful, but seeing them can be a hit and miss experience. They don’t bloom on the same dates every year and bloom schedules vary by region, meaning it can be tricky to know exactly when to visit. Plus, their petals only last about a week, parks fill up with picnickers and Instagrammers, and airlines jack up prices to take advantage of the influx of cheerful tourists.

After our blossoms were filled, my husband suggested we visit in the fall because he had read that Japan’s fall foliage rivaled that of New England. I was sold – and soon discovered that the Japanese are (almost) as enthusiastic about autumn shades as they are about spring. Numerous foliage events are held across the country and the Japan Meteorological Corporation publishes an autumn foliage forecast. Although there is a peak time for this too, the colors start changing much earlier – meaning you have almost two months to enjoy them.

The sublime gardens of Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo

(Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo)

Japan has two types of trees that turn particularly impressive shades: momiji (maple) leaves turn vibrant red, while ginkgo leaves turn sorbet yellow. Together they provide a fiery spectacle.

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Our first stop was Kyoto, home to the must-see Kiyomizu-Dera – an impressive temple complex perched on the mountainside. The imposing great hall is unlike anything you will find elsewhere: constructed from wooden beams cleverly slotted together without the use of nails, it stands on 139 poles. I found the view from the large veranda striking enough in the spring, but in the fall it is taken to another level. Before your gaze reaches the city in the distance, you are hypnotized by the thousands of surrounding trees that burst into orange and red at this time of year.

Find deer and leave Momiji-dani Park

(JNTO)

Another day took us to the Philosopher’s Path, a lovely 2km stone path along a canal that attracts blossom fans, but has an equal appeal to the foliage. There I quickly discovered that Japanese autumn weather – generally dry and sunny with temperatures averaging 18-20 degrees Celsius – is ideal for long walks where you can enjoy the rich surrounding colors at your own pace.

Lots of people come to Tōfoku-ji Temple, but I was especially impressed by Daikakuji Temple – a lesser-known but equally serene place. After walking barefoot on the lush tatami mats in the temple, I stepped outside to walk around the large, tranquil pond. With a clear blue sky overhead, the hour I spent among vermilion trees, small torii gates, and inscribed stone tablets seemed almost too perfect to be real.

It was mesmerizing to witness the array of colors as Fuji appeared in the background

Other leafy highlights came courtesy of Hakone, an onsen (hot springs) town near Mount Fuji. Hidden in the mountains, this bather’s utopia is surrounded by nature. To get a bird’s eye view of the trees in all their glory, we hopped on the cable car that runs from the city to Lake Ashi. Ignoring my slight fear of heights and seeing the many colors as Fuji appeared in the background was enchanting. After strolling along the shores of the lake, flanked by warm-colored mountains, we returned to our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) to soak weary feet in the bathwater of our balcony hot tub while we drank in the view.

Our final stop took us to Tokyo, where – rather surprisingly – there were still plenty of places to enjoy the greenery. Matcha latte in hand, I headed to Meiji Jingu Gaien – a large, peaceful park that you would never guess, located next to the hectic streets of Shinkuju. With more than 500 blossom trees, it’s a remarkable sight in spring, but I was thrilled to now find paths lined with yellow ginkgo trees, their branches coming together to create a dazzling green cocoon. The next day, after a busy morning browsing Ginza’s chic shops, I headed to another spot of tranquility: Rikugien Garden. Here I came across a mix of ginkgo and momiji spread across traditional stone bridges and lanterns (and in autumn they also have an evening illumination – tickets ¥1,100, about £6).

A festival at Lake Kawaguchi includes tree lighting

(JNTO)

For those looking to get out of Tokyo, I highly recommend the mountain town of Nikko. You’ll find the famous ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ monkeys at the impressive site of Toshogu Shrine – the resting place of Japan’s most famous samurai leader. After exploring the numerous buildings, we headed to the photogenic Shinkyo Bridge and Ryuzu Falls – which, embellished with orange and red momiji leaves, really caught my breath.

When we stopped at Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Osaka, Beppu and Ise, everywhere we went, vibrant leaves awaited in abundance – and the sight never got old. The Japanese cherry blossoms may steal the stage, but the autumn leaves will forever hold a special place in my heart.

The Japanese landscapes come alive with colors in autumn

(JNTO)

Other viewing areas and fall foliage events

Obara Shikizakura Festival

Visit Obara at Toyota for a unique experience. It is home to rare ‘Shikizakura’ cherry trees, which bloom in spring And autumn – meaning visitors can enjoy both blossoms and leaves in the latter part of the year.

Kiyomizu-Dera night light

The sight of this iconic building and the surrounding nature, bathed in warm tones, is a feast for the eyes. (Tickets ¥400, about £2.15)

Fuji Kawaguchiko Autumn Leaves Festival

This month-long festival at Lake Kawaguchi features tree lighting, taiko drum performances and food stalls. For an unforgettable photo of Mount Fuji, head to Chureito Pagoda in Arakurayama Sengen Park.

NAKED autumn leaves Shinjuku Gyoen

This autumn, the ‘creative laboratory’ NAKED will present lighting and projections for the trees in the Shinjuku Gyoen Garden in Tokyo. Tickets from ¥2,000 (about £11).

Hoshida Park

This vast mountain park just outside Osaka is a hiker’s paradise. Enjoy incredible foliage views from the famous ‘Star Swing’ wooden suspension bridge.

Kobe Municipal Arboretum

The botanical park covers 132 hectares and is home to 3,000 trees – including momiji and dawn redwoods – that look especially beautiful in autumn.

Travel essentials

How do you get there?

Japan Airlines offers direct flights from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda, with a flight time of approximately 13.5 hours.

Stay there

Home to more than 200 momiji trees and a historic pagoda, Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo’s Japanese-style garden is a breathtaking sight in autumn.

Granbell Hotel Kyoto offers Japanese-style rooms in the traditional Gion area, a short walk from Kiyomizu-Dera.

Read more of our best hotel reviews in tokyo

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