Japan’s Koyo (Autumn leaves) season might just be the most beautiful time to visit this incredible country. Find out more here.
Close your eyes and picture the Japanese countryside bathed in leaves of burnished gold, red and yellow. Now imagine yourself standing there. This is a dream you can make a reality by visiting Japan this autumn to view the Koyo (Autumn Leaves). Japan’s famous Cherry Blossom may get most of the headlines, but the Koyo are just as beautiful, perhaps more so in their variations of colours - red, gold, orange, yellow, brown. Japan is exquisitely beautiful in the Autumn months. There’s also a huge amount to see and do in Japan at this time of year and the weather is at its most pleasant, but of course, it’s those golden leaves that are the star of the show and you can follow their fall right across the country with the Koyo Forecast 2023 and a JR Pass in hand to visit the best Koyo viewing spots using Japan’s domestic rail network.
What is Koyo?
In Japan, Koyo refers to the process of leaves changing colour and falling - the concept of autumn if you will - while Momiji means more literally ‘red maple leaves’ although both words are used to describe all colours of leaves during autumn in Japan. The word has also become somewhat interchangeable with momiji-gari or ‘red leaf hunting’, which is the term used for the custom of viewing the autumn leaves or Koyo. Momiji is the word generally used to describe the Japanese maple whose five-pointed leaves have been synonymous with the season and its traditions. Often, the most famous Koyo viewing locations are spread across the country in parks, temples and mountainous areas.
The custom of viewing the autumn leaves in Japan can be traced as far back as the ancient collection of Manyoshu poetry from the 8th Century. Later examples of hunting for autumn foliage can also be seen in the classic 11th Century text, The Tale of Genji, which is acclaimed as the world’s first ever novel. You can read more about this book and its significance, as well as more about Japan’s literary heritage, in our special Literary Tour of Japan. The Kokin Wakashu poetry collection, written in Heian times, also features many poems dedicated to autumn leaves. Over the centuries, Koyo viewing and momiji-gari have become deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. In Japan, just as the cherry blossom is the symbol of spring, the Momiji is the symbol of autumn.
Red Leaf Hunting
Momiji-gari or ‘red leaf hunting’ is associated with the fleeting nature of life in Buddhism and, like cherry blossom season, there are specific ways to appreciate its special beauty. From ‘slowing down’ to truly notice the changing colours to immersing yourself in the wonder of the natural world, momiji-gari is more spiritual than just taking a stroll through the autumnal leaves and yet it is also something everyone can enjoy and participate in.
Interestingly, Momiji-gari and Koyo does not just refer to maple leaves, but to viewing the fall colours more broadly. Autumn in Japan sees a huge variety of flowers, plants and trees changing colour and generally being beautiful, including orange osmanthus, blood-red spider lilies, and chrysanthemums. Also, while Koyo is often used as a catch-all term to describe all coloured leaves, it actually refers to the colour red while oyo means yellow and katsuyo means brown.
- Red - Full-moon, Japanese trident maples, Japanese sumac, wax tree, Japanese rowan, burning bush, rhododendron.
- Yellow - Painted and linden-leaved maples, ginkgo, poplar, plane tree, Japanese elm.
- Brown - Japanese oaks (Quercus crispula, daimyo, sawtooth, konara), chestnut, birches, Japanese zelkova, Japanese horse chestnut, bigleaf magnolia, Japanese beech.
Also look out for Kochia (bassia scoparia) - a different type of autumn leaves which bloom on the ground like bushes. You can visit the Kochia Carnival on Miharashi Hill at Hitachi Seaside Park. You can reach the park via the JR Joban Line from Shinagawa, Tokyo or Ueno stations to Katsuta Station, using your Japan Rail Pass, followed by a short 15-minute bus ride.
The Koyo Forecast 2023
On 4th September 2023, The Japan Meteorological Corporation issued its official Koyo forecast for this year, specifically focused on Momiji - red maple leaves - and golden Gingko leaves. Momiji will appear first in Sapporo on November 8, then Tokyo on November 30, Osaka on December 3, and Kyoto on December 11. Meanwhile, the Gingko leaves will appear in Sapporo on November 6, in Tokyo on November 25, in Osaka on November 24, and finally in Kyoto on November 27.
Best Places To View The Koyo
Here is our selection for the best places to view the Koyo across Japan:
- Mt. Nasu-Dake - Popular among Japanese red leaf hunters, but lesser known to international visitors, this beautiful area features a suspension bridge and cable car. There are also several onsen on the slopes of the mountain, making it a good place to relax and enjoy the views. How to get there. Take the direct train from Tokyo Station to Nasu-Shiobara Station, the station on the edge of the national park Mt. Nasu-Dake is located in. Several local buses (not covered by JR Pass) depart from here to Nasu Onsen or further to the cable car station (only from April-November).
- Nara - Another excellent choice for autumn views. As a former capital of Japan, Nara has several awe-inspiring temples and shrines on offer, and the entire area has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nara park, famous for its tame deer, is an ideal place to visit in the autumn. How to get there. Take the direct JR Nara Line from Kyoto Station to Nara Station. Also easily accessible from Osaka.
Arashiyama - The valleys and mountains of Arashiyama in Kyoto, an area famous for its bamboo forests, also offers wonderful autumnal colours each year.How to get there. Take the JR Sagano (Sanin) Line from Kyoto Station straight to Saga Arashiyama station. Also in Kyoto, Tenryu-Ji – A UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Arashiyama district, Tenryu-Ji is hugely popular amongst photographers for its incredibly beautiful gardens filled with maple trees. Nanzen-Ji – One of the filming locations for Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, Nanzen-Ji was featured in the film when the character of Charlotte escapes Tokyo in search of ancient Japan, and walks up the steps of this iconic temple at the peak of Autumn. You can follow in her footsteps by visiting Nanzen-Ji this autumn. For more on Japan’s many iconic film locations read our guide to Japan on Film.
Daigo-Ji – You’ll find this beautiful location about half an hour walk from Kyoto Station. Kyoto Botanical Gardens – well worth a visit for its huge variety of plants, flowers and trees.
- Nikko - A sacred site and another of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage areas, Nikko is an area of outstanding natural beauty, particularly in autumn. Visit Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji for beautiful autumn foliage. How to get there: Take the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Utsunomiya station, then the local JR Nikko line.
- Kawaguchiko - Want to see the iconic Mt. Fuji bathed in autumn colours? Kawaguchiko in the ‘Fuji Five Lakes’ district is the place to go. and is arguably THE best place to see the famous Mt. Fuji surrounded by autumn colours. Kawaguchiko also has its own ‘Momiji Matsuri’(maple festival) held in November. How to get there: Take a direct train from the Tokyo Shinjuku (JR) Station to Otsuki Station, the entry station to all the Fuji Five Lake areas.
- Mt Takao, Hachioji - This stunning beautiful maple covered mountain is about 50 minutes by train from central Tokyo using your Japan Rail Pass. Get off at Takaosanguchi Station at the foot of the mountain.
- Nikko - Often referred to as ‘Shogun Country’ for its traditional architecture, shrines and the stunning Toshogu mausoleum, Nikko is also home to a beautiful array of autumn trees, plants and flowers. Check out Ryuzu Waterfall or Shoyoen Gardens.
- Oze National Park - A day trip from Tokyo, this national park features a different kind of Koyo in the form of ‘autumn grass’ which gives the area a unique landscape. To reach Oze, take the JR Joetsu Shinkansen to Jomo Kogen Station.
- Ibaraki - Red maple leaves surround the spectacular Fukuroda Falls, Mt. Yamizo, Mt. Nantai, and Okukuji Valley. From Tokyo, use the JR Joban Line from Ueno Station. You can access major Ibaraki stations from Narita using the JR Narita Line.
- Daisetsuzan National Park, Hokkaido - Located in the North of Japan, this beautiful national park is one of the areas where the Koyo will begin each year so you’ll need to move quickly to catch it.
- Yoro Valley, Chiba - Yoro Valley is ideal for viewing the autumn leaves while hiking with several excellent trails and is a straightforward day trip from Tokyo. To get there, take the Keiyo Line from Tokyo to Soga. Change at Soga to the Uchibo Line and change to the Kominato Line at Goi Station.
Tokyo - Icho Namiki is one of Tokyo’s most iconic autumn destinations. The city’s most popular autumn leaves event, the Meiji Jingu Gaien Ginkgo Festival is also held at Meiji Jingu Gaien each year and features the iconic Ginkgo avenue of trees.
Rikugien Garden – this Edo-Period strolling garden was built in the 1700s for the Tokugawa Shogun and boasts a huge variety of maples that bring the garden to life each autumn.
Shinjuku Gyoen in the heart of Tokyo is a great choice for enjoying some beautiful autumn colours while in the city.
If the beauty of nature appeals to you, then Japan’s natural landscape has a huge amount to offer.
- Autumn is the perfect time to go hiking, climbing, and walking in Japan. These activities are very popular in Japan and autumn is the best time of year to do it. Read our Quick Guide to Hiking in Japan to get started.
- Naturally, the pleasant autumn weather also makes it the ideal time for other outdoor activities such as cycling, watersports, and getting up close and personal (safely of course) with Japan’s wildlife.
- Our Meet and Greet Service is ideal if you would appreciate a helping hand on your arrival in Japan. One of our Japanese travel specialists will meet you in person at the airport, activate your JR Pass, help you reserve train tickets, and book anything else you may want to do upon arriving in Japan. It’s like having a personal assistant to look after you on arrival.
- Similarly, investing in a PocketWifi device means you can stay connected to family and friends online, check directions, language tips, and more, without worrying about running out of data. Our PocketWifi offers unlimited data, supports up to five devices, and they are easy to pick up on arrival and drop off at the end of your trip.
- Finally, for more on the weather and seasons read our guide on when the best time of year is to visit Japan.