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When is the Best Time to Visit Japan for Autumn Leaves?
Picture | January 11th, 2019 | Dayna Hannah
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When the intense humidity of summer finally releases Japan, the carefree atmosphere shifts to a renewed sense of duty. Students return to class and workers begin preparations for end-of-the-year goals. Despite the hustle, unique opportunities for locals and international travelers alike crop up in the fall. Many cities hold charming festivals at local shrines to give thanks to the gods for plentiful harvests. Once the autumn leaves start changing, their shades of crimson, vermilion, and gold highlight the beauty of this season.

Before your next autumn tour in Japan, let’s delve into some of the most common questions about fall and viewing the colorful autumn leaves. When you come, you’ll be an expert on things like the best time to see autumn leaves or the best places to enjoy the fall season.

HOW DO YOU SAY AUTUMN IN JAPANESE?

For readers who have never studied Japanese, let’s begin with an introductory lesson. The word for autumn in Japanese is aki (秋), and the word for autumn leaves is kōyō (紅葉). Interestingly, the word kōyō not only means fall foliage, but when paired with the verb suru (する; to do) also describes the act of trees changing colors. This is just one of many useful Japanese phrases. However, a more pertinent question for travelers might be….

WHEN IS AUTUMN IN JAPAN?

Japan's subtropical and subarctic temperatures create unique climates. The northern regions—including Hokkaido—experience long and harsh winters. However, even this extreme environment enjoys four seasons like the rest of Japan. In contrast, Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands stay relatively warm year round, and this area experiences a hot, rainy season in summer and a cooler, drier season in winter.

Simply put, fall generally begins in September and ends in November. Depending on where and when you travel, you might experience cool temperatures earlier or later in the season. So, let’s go over the best times and places to experience fall in Japan!

Note: The Autumn Equinox (21st, 22nd, or 23rd of September depending on the lunar calendar) is a national holiday in Japan. Many establishments close if the equinox falls on a weekday.

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT JAPAN IN AUTUMN?

Hokkaido might experience fall first, but the season lasts a considerably short time before the biting chill of winter settles in. You might see people wearing down jackets as early as October in some of the windy, coastal towns. The changing season travels south through the next few months. Generally speaking, central Japan starts to see autumn leaves in October, and in November southern Japan finally gets its share of golds, reds, and oranges, but some places peak in early December. You can decide when the “best time” to visit Japan in autumn is depending on where you want to go!

WHAT ARE THE BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN JAPAN DURING AUTUMN?

Northern Japan

The Sounkyo Gorge in Hokkaido has an abundance of waterfalls along its sheer cliffs, but two in this region stand out. The Ginga no Taki (Milky Way Waterfall) gracefully trickles along the rock face, while its neighboring Ryusei no Taki (Shooting Star Waterfall) thunders down the cliff. In autumn, the hundreds of trees surrounding the falls explode in a gold so bright they seem to shimmer under the sunlight.

The stunning Lake Towada is the jewel of Aomori Prefecture. The crystal blue water surrounded by vibrant autumn colors attracts nature lovers from all over the world. You can take in this spectacular sight while hiking in the mountains or by boat. Charming small towns and villages on the shore provide avenues for activities like renting a kayak or paddle boat, tours, and fishing for rainbow trout, eel, and salmon.

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Central Japan and Kansai

There’s a saying in Japan that goes “Never say ‘Kekko’ (that you’re satisfied) until you’ve seen Nikko!” Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture (a day trip from Tokyo) is known as one of the most naturally beautiful destinations in Japan. Japanese people travel here to admire the hills as they come alive with red and gold leaves. Famous spots include the Kegon Falls (ranked among Japan’s top three waterfalls), Lake Chuzenji, and the cedar trees of the Nikko Suginamiki Path. Make sure you check out the Toshogu Shrine (Tokugawa Ieyasu’s final resting place), where you can see the iconic “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” monkey carving.

Mt. Koya is a deeply significant religious site in Japan. It serves as the center of Shingon Buddhism, which is a blend of Japan’s major religions: Shintoism and Buddhism. It’s a sought-after destination for pilgrims, especially in the fall. Many temples offer lodging for weary travelers. UNESCO World Heritage Site Kongobuji Temple offers a place for guests to enjoy tea and features the largest rock garden in Japan. At Okunoin Temple, you can see headstones of famous figures from history like Oda Nobunaga, Takeda Shingen, and Date Masamune.

In Kyoto, the brilliant golds and scarlet reds surround the city’s distinguished castles, temples, and shrines. Many well-known sightseeing spots like Kiyomizu Temple stay open past sunset and illuminate the trees with light displays. For the best views-from-afar, head to the Arashiyama district where several species of maples decorate the mountains in a patchwork of color.

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Southern Japan

One of the best places to view beautiful autumn foliage in southern Japan is Ritsurin Koen Park in Shikoku. Visitors stroll through the 750,000 square meters to take in one of Japan’s loveliest landscape gardens. You can spend 2 hours walking the entire park, or you can ride a traditional Japanese boat on one of 6 ponds. In the past, only the social elite could delight in such glamor, but now everyone has the chance to revel in regality!

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WHAT SHOULD I WEAR IN AUTUMN IN JAPAN?

Autumn is the most comfortable season in Japan with average temperatures in Tokyo hitting around a pleasant 22°C (71°F). It rains quite a bit in September in mainland Japan, but Hokkaido doesn’t have a rainy season! In general, it might be a good idea to pack both long and short sleeved shirts as well as a windbreaker for hiking. If you plan on hiking one of Japan’s famous mountainous regions, like Mt. Fuji, prepare for a drop in temperature and strong winds in the higher altitudes!

Once you’re all packed and ready to go, let us be your guides on your autumn leaves tour in Japan!


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