Koishikawa Korakuen 5

Koyo: Japanese maple trees’ red leaves

Momijigari: contemplating momiji in the fall season

Koyo is a Japanese word to express the maple leaves turning red, fall’s symbol across the entire archipelago. During this change of season, momijigari is a popular tradition for Japanese people to celebrate the second most beautiful season, after the spring and the natural pink shade from cherry trees that characterizes it.

Although spring seems to be the flagship season to travel in Japan, thanks to the sakura 🌸 (cherry blossoms), Japanese fall also offers great charm. The climate stays mild rather late in the season, and starting October you can see the leaves coloring to orange and red.

Let’s review some vocabulary by reading only one term at a time (the kanji, 紅葉, literally means "deep red leaves"):

  • momiji 🍁 refers to the tree (maple tree);
  • koyo represents the leaf itself.

Observing this change of autumn colors (equivalent to ohanami) is called 紅葉狩りmomijigari, literally the "hunt" for this natural chlorophyll transformation.

The Japanese maple tree (Acer japonicum or Acer palmatum) exists in several varieties whose colors can vary from glowing reddish purple to a lighter orange. We can also add the Ginkgo biloba (銀杏 ichô), whose shades alternate between an old orange or a powerful yellow, sometimes up to a vibrant green.

The result of all these colors can be very impressive and produces a flaming spectacle during the day that is magnified in the night when lights pointed toward these trees are switched on. Here is an interesting fact: Acer, which is easy to breed and take care of, can be cultivated as bonsais.

The maple tree is also used in the culinary field; it offers a delicious coating for cakes and other sweets such as mochi or manju.

When admiring momiji in the fall

This custom of contemplation dates back to the Heian period. Due to an aristocratic legacy, it was spread to people only during the Edo period. From the 21st century onward, hordes of foreign tourists come to hunt these gorgeous colors.

Even though fall starts from September 21 to December 21 according to the Japanese calendar, the actual period in which you can see the red glow of the leaves usually starts toward the end of this period, from mid-November up to the beginning of December. The fall’s contemplation happens to be longer than the one for spring.

The leaves start to color slightly at the end of August. This natural show is mostly exclusive to September in the northern part of Japan and then progresses down to the southern part of Japan.

Just like for the sakura, the Japanese weather service is capable of precisely forecasting the beginning of the fall colors, sometimes up to several weeks in advance, and indicate their progression through the country (紅葉前線 koyo zensen). Here are the average days of koyo depending on the region:

City Estimated color peak
Hokkaido mid-September > late October
Tohoku early October > mid-November
Nikko mid-September > late October
Hakone early November > late November
Tokyo / Kamakura mid-November > early December
Fuji 🗻 late October > mid-November
Kanazawa mid-November > early December
Kyoto / Nara / Osaka mid-November > early December
Yoshinoyama early November > late November
Koya-san late October > mid-November
Miyajima mid-November > late November
Kyushu early November > early December

At the ends of these periods, visiting is still worth it. The leaves might be falling, but they created glowing natural carpets on the ground.

2019 koyo are late!

Due to Japan’s stifling heat during the summer in 2019, leaves are expected a bit later this year. In September, the Japanese weather agency produced the following forecast:

  • Sapporo: November 7
  • Sendai: November 26
  • Tokyo: December 3
  • Kyoto - Osaka: December 1
  • Fukuoka: December 7

Where to do momijigari in Japan

Once the dates are planned, the main part of momijigari is to decide where to contemplate the leaves.

The best area is Kyoto and its surroundings. However, Ginkgo biloba lovers may not want to forget about Tokyo (as it is its symbol).

Koyo can naturally be found in parks and gardens, including around temples and shrines, if you want to observe them from a closer point of view. Outside cities, numerous hiking paths offer spectacular landscapes along with a rewarding long walk.

Pay attention to crowds, especially in cities! During light-ups (nocturnal lights mostly in temples), waiting lines may last up to several hours and it is possible you may not to be able to get inside if you do not queue early enough. Read our visit articles to know the details of each site’s opening hours.

Kyoto and Kansai

Tokyo and surroundings

  • Tokyo: Icho-namiki (ginkgo) between Meijijingu-gaien and Aoyama-dori, Rikugi-en, Koishikawa Korakuen, Shinjuku Gyoen, Yoyogi Park et Omotesando, Hama-rikyu, Inokashira Park, Ueno Park, Mukojima Hyakka-en, Gotoku-ji, Kinuta Park, Komazawa Olympic Park, Arisugawa no Miya
  • Mount Takao
  • Mount Mitake and Okutama (Hatonosu Valley)
  • Tachikawa: Showa-Kinen Park
  • Kamakura
  • Nikko (Ryuzu in particular)
  • Oze
  • Kokubunji : Tonogayato Garden
  • Chiba: Umegase Valley, Yoro Keikoku
  • Akigawa Valley
  • Nagatoro

Fuji and Central Honshu

West and South Japan

  • Hiroshima: Miyajima, Taishaku-kyo, Sandan-kyo
  • Okayama: Go-kei, Kanba
  • Shikoku: Konpira-san, Kankakei
  • Fukuoka: Hikosan, Kamado-jinja, Komyozen-ji, Shiranoe, Raizan Sennyoji Daihion, Momiji Hachimangu
  • Kyushu: Kunenan, Kyusuikei, Kuju, Yabakei
  • Tottori Daisen

North Japan

  • Hokkaido: Daisetsuzan, Shiretoko, Onuma, Noboribetsu, Aoba, Shikotsuko, Akan, Sapporo Nakajima
  • Tohoku: Hachimantai, Towada, Hakoda, Chuson-ji, Naruko, Urabandai, Aomori Oirase Keiryu

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Attention: as for the sakura season, accommodations are booked well in advance, long months before the momijigari period, so it is highly recommended to book your room ASAP!

Last Updated on October 15, 2019 Koyo : les feuilles rouges des érables japonais