Literally translated as 'red leaves,' kōyō is to autumn what cherry blossoms are to spring in Japan. Both natural events bring the Japanese out en masse to celebrate the changing seasons, with hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties in the springtime and momiji-gari (maple leaf viewing) in the fall.
Such festivities are tinged with more fervour in the spring, when the Japan Meteorological Agency tracks predicted blooming dates of cherry blossoms across Japan. Boozy picnics on a mass scale occur in parks boasting cherry blossom trees, as hanami fever grips the land. Because the blooming cycle is so fleeting, this springtime event tends to be more highly anticipated and intensely celebrated. Shops are flooded with cherry blossom merchandise and food, the colour pink suddenly popping up in decorative garlands and flower-shaped sweets.
But autumn's kōyō is just as visually stunning and feels less fraught with urgency, as the turning leaves remain on the trees much longer than fluttering cherry blossoms. It also allows more variety in the experience – if you're not particularly fond of picnicking under the trees with ten thousand others (as during cherry blossom season), kōyō affords many opportunities to take in the spectacle by exploring rather than sitting and drinking in a crowded park. Shades of red, vermilion and gold light up forested hillsides, shrine and temple grounds, public gardens and city avenues all over the country.
Though bright-red Japanese maples are most recognisable, many other showy trees burst into colour, like the deep golden ginkgo and burnt-orange zelkova trees. Kōyō sets wild hillsides aflame with variegated hues of scarlet while city streets are enlivened by pops of shocking orange. The most popular viewing areas can get crowded with admirers, but it's also possible to take in the colour by taking a multi-day trek through the mountains or roaming the paths of an out-of-the-way public garden.
Elevation and temperature dictate the when and where of the brilliant leaves, but the season generally lasts from September to November, beginning in the cooler regions and higher elevations and reaching warmer, more southerly areas last. In fact, autumn is to be one of the best times of the year to visit Japan, as summer's heat and humidity give way to cooler weather.
A few favourite Kōyō spots
The Japan National Tourist Organization highlights viewing spots for the best autumn colour according to month, for regions all over Japan – a helpful tool for planning your trip.
Asahidake, Hokkaidō – With a hot spring at the base of this active volcano, Asahidake is part of Daisetsuzan, Hokkaido's largest national park. The leaves here begin turning in September, making the alpine backdrop even more dramatic. It's possible to take one- to two-day treks through the national park, as well as shorter day hikes.
Arashiyama district, Kyoto – Kyoto rolls out the red, leafy carpet during kōyō season, when the city's many temple and shrine grounds look even more elegant. On the outskirts of Kyoto, the Arashiyama district is famous for its autumn colour, with mountain views from the Tōgetsukyō bridge and small temples surrounded by colourful trees.
Hakone – A lovely mountain town near Mt Fuji, Hakone is a wonderful destination in its own right. With hot springs, small museums, traditional gardens and a mountain lake, the fall foliage only makes the scenery all the more gorgeous.
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