Autumn is one of the most popular times of year to visit Japan, as the summer humidity gives way to cooler temperatures and tree leaves turn from green to vivid shades of red, orange and gold. The tradition of visiting places to admire the stunning autumn foliage is known as koyo in Japan, and a wave of colour spreads across the country from North to South; leaves start to change colour during September in northern Hokkaido and by early December southern Japan has become a riot of colour.
Autumn is also harvest time in Japan, and a trip at this time of year will reward you with delicious seasonal food and fun festivals too!
During autumn the Japanese maple trees are ablaze with stunning red leaves and you’ll see these iconic trees throughout the country in both urban and rural areas such as forests, parks, gardens and temples. There are over a hundred varieties of maple in total, and the leaves turn from yellow through to orange before finally transitioning to a deep red colour.
Gingko is another tree you’ll become familiar with if you’re in Japan during autumn, particularly if you’re heading to Tokyo. Ginkgo is more frequently seen in urban areas rather than out in the forests, and the leaves turn a beautiful shade of yellow rather than red.
Kyoto is a hotspot during autumn and the city’s 2000+ temples and shrines attract visitors from all over Japan, and beyond. If you want to beat the crowds, then visiting the most popular temples at sunrise is a wonderful way to view the autumn leaves bathed in early morning light. Some of Kyoto’s temples (such as the UNESCO world heritage site Kiyomizu-dera) are accessible after-dark during autumn leaf season and the trees are illuminated, for an atmospheric experience that is definitely not to be missed!
Head to one of Japan’s serene parks or gardens to enjoy the centuries-old Japanese tradition of ‘red leaf hunting’ – or momijigari. Kenroku-en (Kanazawa) Koraku-en (Okayama) and Ritsurin-koen (Takamatsu) consistently top lists of Japan’s must-see Japanese gardens, and a visit during autumn will reward you with diverse and vibrant autumn foliage to admire. Don’t forget your camera!
Autumn events have evolved over the years and you’ll be treated to more than just a simple harvest festival if you visit Japan at this time of year. Autumn festival celebrations can involve parades with ornate floats (mikoshi), dance and drama performances, and firework displays too. Many towns also put on elaborate exhibits of chrysanthemum flowers – Japan’s symbol of autumn.
Autumn is a time for hearty eating and enjoying the abundant array of food which the season’s harvests have to offer. Sample fruit and vegetables such as sweet potato, matsutake mushroom, persimmon (kaki), asian pear (nashi), and the sweet and delicious kabocha pumpkin.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan during autumn, why not treat yourself to an elaborate multi-course meal – known as kaiseki-ryori? Often served in ryokan (Japanese inn-style lodgings) you’ll have the opportunity to taste an array of seasonal ingredients served over multiple courses which can include appetisers, raw and grilled courses, and shokuji; rice, soup and pickles. From September to December you’ll get to enjoy the first harvest of ‘new rice’ (shinmai) which has a softer texture and slightly sweeter flavour than rice harvested during the rest of the year.
Those of you with a sweet tooth may want to try wagashi – an intricate Japanese confectionery made from rice bean paste, traditionally served during a tea ceremony to offset the bitterness of matcha. During autumn, ingredients such as chestnut and sweet potato are used, and sweets are crafted into shapes such as berries, maple and gingko leaves.
Have you visited Japan during autumn? Let us know in the comments below! If you missed our recent blog post highlighting five of our favourite autumnal Japanese recipes, head here for some inspiration.
Enjoy all this and more by shopping in-store at Japan Centre Leicester Square, Westfield London and Westfield Stratford City. Alternatively you can get fresh produce delivered straight to your door by shopping online at the Japan Centre website.
Header image: Autumn at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo by Rohan Gillett: https://flic.kr/p/C6789H
Words by Emily Lovell