September 30, 2017

The Ultimate Koyo Guide

Koyo is the Japanese term for the fall leaves. This primer will provide you with all the basic that visitors need to know to enjoy autumn.

A river runs through Tokyo's area of Okutama, an excellent spot for koyo

Japan is famous for its four distinct and beautiful seasons. From the cherry blossoms in spring to the lively festivals of summer, there’s something awesome waiting regardless of when you visit. With fall just around the corner though, it’s time to start getting ready for the vibrant leaves of autumn. As temperatures starts to dip and the trees begin to change, the entire country turns into a dazzling canvas of brilliant yellow and orange hues. It’s truly a sight to behold!

Since antiquity, the locals have been enjoying the magnificent colors that characterize autumn. As you might imagine, Japan has no shortage of places to enjoy these breathtaking natural vistas. The beauty of the vivid leaves is even further accented when paired with traditional Japanese architecture. Many regions peak in November but some areas can start changing as early as September or as late as December.

The Japanese word for the changing autumn leaves is “koyo.” We’ll be using this term throughout this article so make a mental note before moving on. It’s a lot easier than repeating “the changing leaves of autumn” over and over again. Regardless of the terminology though, it would require an endless number of pages to compile a full list of all the spots. To streamline things, we’ll instead be focusing only on some easy-to-get-to recommendations for foreign travelers.

General Tips for Koyo in Japan

A woman in a kimono holds a DSLR camera for shooting koyo

Cherry blossoms definitely get all the hype but autumn is by far my favorite time of year. Before diving into the specifics though, let’s first take some time to go over some best koyo practices. Keeping these tips in mind when planning an outing will help you get the most out of your leaf-viewing time.

  • Avoid weekend excursions to popular tourist areas. The likes of Kyoto, Nikko, and Nara can typically be crowded as is and Koyo season often marks a dramatic increase in visitors. For these areas, weekday visits are more advisable.
  • Dress in layers. While the daytime hours can be mild and pleasant, the cold creeps in very quickly after sunset. You can always take something off but you can’t add what you don’t bring.
  • Prepare your camera, battery, and sizable SD card. You will take lots of pictures while taking in the scenery and it’s easy to use up all your charge before you know it!
  • Check the weather forecasts. It’s usually dry during this season but there are exceptions. Rain, snow, or even typhoons can mess with your plans.

Metropolitan areas like Tokyo and Yokohama as well as some of the urbanized areas of Chiba and Kanagawa Prefectures can at times seem like endless concrete jungles. While there are of course some great spots dispersed in between all the drab buildings, it’s better to escape the madness all together if you can. Luckily though, lush nature is only a short trip away from the inner city by train, bus, or car. The following are some of my favorite spots across the country:

Options for Koyo in Central Tokyo

Autumn leaves at a garden in Tokyo that is great for koyo

Despite its reputation as an endless sea of high rise buildings, Tokyo actually has many excellent spots for koyo. Shinjuku Gyo-en, though well-known as a popular location for cherry blossoms, is also one of the city’s best spots for an urban autumn experience. Here, you’ll find some of Tokyo’s finest gleaming red maples and glowing golden gingko trees. The skyscrapers in the distance only add to the romantic urban charm. This park tends to be more well-kept than nearby Yoyogi Park.

While Shinjuku Gyo-en promotes a more modern atmosphere, Rikugi-en in Komagome is another noteworthy Tokyo alternative. This well-preserved traditional Japanese garden is one of Tokyo’s oldest. True to tradition, it was designed with seasonal changes in mind; subtle modern techniques further enhance the experience. Flaunting spectacular fall colors, the garden is lit up at night during koyo from mid/late November through early December.

Tokyo’s Koishikawa Korakuen, a spot that is amazing for koyo

Lastly, another one of my favorites is the lovely natural oasis at Koishikawa Korakuen pictured above. I’ve written in depth about this place before but the hidden enclave of beauty can be found near the massive Tokyo Dome stadium and accompanying complex. If you do visit, treat yourself to a ride on the Ferris wheel after for a great view of Tokyo.

Best Time for Koyo: Mid-November through early December. The cherry trees peak earlier than the Japanese maples and gingkos. Gingko trees in Tokyo often hold their leaves until mid-December.

Options for Koyo in Tochigi Prefecture

Nikko’s iconic Shinkyo Bridge during the koyo season in autumn

In the Northern part of the Greater Tokyo region lies Tochigi Prefecture and Nikko. The area is a huge draw for travelers year-round, and autumn is no exception. Nikko is one of the most popular places to enjoy koyo. Furthermore, Nikko itself is only the first step into the nearby autumnal wonderland. Unfortunately, the prefecture has very limited public transportation. If you have an international or Japanese driver’s license, this would be a great time to use it.

By the way, know that Nikko’s traditional buildings are indeed also splendid against the colorful fall backdrop. The region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a reason: 103 temples, shrines, and other structures can be found in Nikko. There’s enough content to last for a good two days or so!

Lake Chuzenji during the koyo season in autumn

Close to Nikko lie the spectacular Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzen-ji. The drive up the mountain side is nothing short of stunning in any season but koyo time is extra special. Kegon Falls is a dramatic waterfall that drops straight down 100 meters. When surrounded by foliage, the falls are especially colorful in this season. Nearby Kegon Falls is Lake Chuzen-ji, a massive lake in a volcanic crater. It’s the perfect getaway to experience koyo in peace and the lake’s sheer size prevents it from becoming overcrowded.

If you’re going to visit Lake Chuzen-ji, try to do so either around sunrise or sunset. In the early morning, the mist around the lake is especially picturesque. At sunset the koyo coloration intensifies and its reflection on the lake is simply superb.

Best Time for Koyo: Late October/early November

Options for Koyo in Yamanashi Prefecture

Mt. Fuji is also a great spot for koyo as seen by the autumn leaves here

If you have a driver’s license, Yamanashi Prefecture is the ideal place for a scenic autumn drive. Its abundance of forested mountains and its low population density make it a peaceful day-trip. One side of Mt. Fuji also lies in Yamanashi Prefecture. Head for Lake Kawaguchi to view the mountain in all its majesty. In this season, the air is generally clearer and Mt. Fuji will have an ice cap. The mountain tends to hide all summer long so this is your chance to get a postcard-perfect snap of Japan’s most iconic symbol.

Don’t miss the Maple Tunnel, a walking trail surrounded by Japanese maple trees. They flame with a blazing red color during koyo. The trail also spots location to view view Mt. Fuji framed in the fiery foliage. Visitors should also note that the “Fall Leaves Festival” at Lake Kawaguchi occurs in early November. This year, the event runs from November 1–23. Expect live performances on stage and plenty of delectable food stalls. Also, the Maple Tunnel will be illuminated with L.E.D. lights between the hours of 4:00 PM to 10:00 PM.

While renting a car would likely be your most convenient option, Lake Kawaguchi is also accessible by train. It’s a 15 minute walk from Kawaguchiko Station on the Fuji Kyuko Line. Before moving on, you should also be sure to grab a bowl of “hotowhile you’re in the area. This seasonal dish is a piping-hot, hearty stew made with miso, thick flat noodles, pumpkin, and other local vegetables.

Best Time for Koyo: Any time in November, although the middle of the month should be the best time.

Options for Koyo in Hakone

Hakone’s Lake Ashi during the koyo season in autumn

Hakone is one of those areas where you can go extra “Japanese” with your seasonal experience. Kill two birds with one stone and enjoy both koyo and a soak in an onsen at the same time! Be sure to keep on the lookout for a rotenburo or outdoor bath for the best experience. Though there are many options for this, I’d like recommend Tenzan Onsen. To avoid going on a tangent, refer to my my area guide for more information.

In addition to natural hot springs, Hakone also has a lot to offer outdoorsy types too. Unfortunately though, most of the walking trails around the Owakudani caldera are currently closed. While it’s a shame that such a unique landscape isn’t available, the trails are closed as a precaution due to recent volcanic activity. Fret not though, my fellow travelers. Hakone still offers many other sites to enjoy the fall foliage.

Susuki is also great during koyo as seen in this image of Hakone

Perhaps one of Hakone’s most striking landscapes during autumn are the Susuki fields. Susuki is tall, tufted grass which changes to silver and amber hues in autumn. A popular walking trail cuts through the field. Alternatively, Lake Ashi is equally as stunning as the fall leaves reflect radiantly off the water. Be sure to grab tickets for the pirate ship while you’re there! This is one of Hakone’s most unique offerings.

What if remote nature walks aren’t your thing though? Don’t worry, Hakone has you covered here too. Just hop on the Tozan Line and head to Gora Station. The Japanese style gardens at the Hakone Museum of Art are always bursting with color. What’s more, there is even a traditional Japanese teahouse on site. Just be sure to check the schedule; while they are usually open almost every day in November, the whole facility closes on Thursdays.

Best time for Koyo: November with higher elevations experiencing changes in the beginning of the month. Most locations will reach peak viewing around the middle of November. If you are picky about timing, note that the Lake Ashi area can look sparsely colored at times too. This is largely due to the high proportion of Japanese cedar and other evergreens that do not change

Options for Koyo in Okutama

A river in Tokyo’s Okutama area, a great spot for koyo during autumn

While Okutama is actually located within Tokyo, it is quite a distance from the city’s center. Despite its more remote vibe, the journey to Okutama is actually quite convenient. This secluded site is perfect for both camping and outdoor events. You’ll find many campgrounds scattered around the area. Some locations even rent out equipment and barbecue supplies. This can make Okutama fun for both larger groups and families with young children.

Autumn tends to get chilly quickly meaning there are far fewer locals camping out. This is fantastic news for koyo enthusiasts as you’ll likely have the area to yourself! Nearby Lake Okutama is another excellent viewpoint as the scarlet and yellow pigments pair harmoniously with the crystal clear river.

Best Time for Koyo: Late October and early November. The first weekend of November is the Autumn Festival at Okutama Lake.

Options for Koyo on Mt. Takao

Tokyo’s Mt. Takao is also an excellent spot for koyo during the months of autumn

Western Tokyo’s Mt. Takao has become incredibly popular with Tokyoites in recent years. With its stunning view of Mt. Fuji and pristine nature, it is easy to see why. It also helps that the mountain area is directly accessible by express train from Shinjuku Station. Be sure to check with Hyperdia or a similar service for the latest schedules.

As you might expect, Mt. Takao is mountainous terrain and the leaf coloration can vary considerably between the base and summit. Keep this in mind when planning your trip. I would recommend you leaf peep when the summit is at the peak of koyo. The red maple leaves at the viewpoint and surrounding the temple are utterly dazzling.

Another word of advice! Make sure you wear very good walking shoes. Several parts of the trail can be steep, narrow, or uneven, and fallen leaves can be a slippery hazard. Additionally, albeit unlikely, snowfall can sometimes occur during this season. In 2016 for instance, Mt. Takao was already blanketed with snow come early November. While the wintry powder is certainly charming, you’ll need to deal with the cold that accompanies the snow.

Best Time for Koyo: Mid to late November is usually peak koyo season. The trees at the base change later and may hit peak around early December.

Options for Koyo in Kyoto & Nara

A temple in Kyoto set against the backdrop of the autumn leaves during koyo season

The obvious choices for the Kansai region are not always the best. While the views are spectacular, so are the crowds. During koyo season, the majority of tourists descend in vast herds upon Kyoto and Nara. Kiyomizu-dera and the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto are famed for their autumn view, and hence are notoriously crowded. Likewise, formerly peaceful areas such the tranquil Tofuku-ji temple complex become absolute madhouses during October and November.

Where does one go to enjoy koyo in relative peace then? If you are in Kyoto and want to try to preserve your sanity, try the Silver Pavilion or the other Higashiyama temples as alternatives. While still highly popular, the Silver Pavilion is less crowded than its gaudy, golden cousin. The gardens around the the structure also maintain a traditional Japanese atmosphere.

Fushimi Inari Taisha’s endless red torii gates and stone foxes appear even more surreal against the vivid koyo backdrop. Hordes of tourists, however, can spoil the atmosphere. Try going very early in the morning and beat the crowds. Remember, few visitors hike the full trail. The further you trek up the mountain trail, the more peaceful your experience will be.

A deer at Nara Park grazes against the backdrop of an impressive koyo display during autumn

Much like Kyoto, Nara tends to be very crowded during koyo as well. Nara’s beloved deer park is no exception. The friendly and sacred deer look exquisitely picturesque alongside the koyo coloration. The same advice for visiting Fushimi Inari Taisha applies here; going early in the morning on a weekday may help avoid some of the hustle and bustle here.

Early morning visits in general are a great way to avoid the masses in Kyoto and Nara. Keep in mind, though, that many temples and other attractions don’t usually open before 9:00 AM. Shinto shrines tend to be open 24 hours a day as are most public parks. Use this information to plan your schedule accordingly and dodge the swarms of domestic and foreign tourists.

Other Options for Koyo in Japan

The cable car to Mt. Koyo during the koyo season in autumn

Of course the best slices of Japanese autumn beauty require a slightly further excursion. Of these, Mt.Koya in Wakayama Prefecture shines like a gem in Western Japan’s koyo crown. Luckily, the limited number of trains to Mt. Koya ultimately means it is far less crowded than Kyoto or Nara. You’ll find Mt. Koya is located approximately 2 hours from Osaka and 3 hours from Kyoto by train. Bear in mind that direct express trains are few and far between so check in with Hyperdia first before departing.

One of the best things about Mt. Koya is that it showcases the true harmony between traditional Japanese architecture and nature. During the fall months, the mesmerizing hues of autumn only further solidify this unity. Mt. Koya is a well-known Buddhist retreat so you should jump on the opportunity to savor some traditional shojin ryori while you are there. This unique cuisine is comprised of vegetarian fare that is prepared with fresh seasonal ingredients.

Heading west to Himeji is another great koyo alternative. In the fall, the best site is not the castle but rather a temple called Engyo-ji. You need to take a ropeway up Mt. Shosha to reach the temple. The koyo view from the ropeway is outstanding in and of itself. Don’t be fooled though, this is only the beginning. Once you reach the top, head for Engyo-ji. The temple complex actually dates back over a thousand years. It is completely engulfed in nature while embraced by lustrous red and gold leaves.

Hyogo Prefecure’s Engyo-ji temple complex during the koyo season in autumn

If the temple looks strangely familiar to you, there are two reasons for that. The architectural style is incredibly similar to Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto. Engyo-ji allows you to experience the atmosphere of Kiyomizu-dera minus the selfie-stick stampede. The other reason is that you may have seen it in a movie. Parts of “The Last Samurai” were filmed on location at Engyo-ji.

If you are traveling by car, nearby Mt. Seppiko offers some jaw-dropping views. The area also offers some enchanting hiking and climbing trails however these pathways become exceptionally dangerous in rainy or damp weather. Soggy fallen leaves can be similarly hazardous. In short: I recommend you just enjoy the view. One does not need to wander the trails to experience Mt. Seppiko’s impressive autumn landscape.

If you’re using public transport, take the bus from Himeji Station to Mt. Shosha and ride the cable car from there. After experiencing the mountain’s stunning koyo, you can also opt to hop off the bus near Himeji Castle on the way back.The outer perimeter is surrounded by traditional walls and parks. The castle grounds set the stage for a leisurely scenic stroll beneath the ever-changing leaves.

Best time for Koyo: Most of the Kansai region hits peak in mid-November.