Momiji (紅葉) is the Japanese word for the red-tinted maple leaves in the fall. Kōyō (紅葉) on the other hand, designates the natural process of the leaves changing colors from green to red in autumn.
Now, you surely noticed that they both use the same kanji. The historical meaning and translation of the kanji for momiji are “red leaves”. Every autumn (aki, 秋), all the maple trees of Japan slowly turn from a bright green to a deep crimson red. This has attracted many visitors and become a seasonal custom called momijigari (紅葉狩), which translated into red leave hunting.
This tradition was born during the Heian era (平安時代, Heian jidai) in the Kyoto region of Japan, running from 794 to 1185. The word gari (狩, がり) was not only used when talking about hunting deer, but also for the picking of fruits. Of course, the rich and wealthy of the time, the aristocrats, they didn’t do these kinds of activities.
The Heian era is famous for its art, especially poetry and literature. They loved the finer things in life, and thus, appreciate the beauty of nature as the seasons passed. They have taken to the mountains and temples to view the beautiful maple leaves, and borrowed the word gari for their momiji viewing.
This activity was restricted to higher class people up until Edo period (1603-1868) where it became accessible to anyone.
For Buddhists, it’s a transition that is important both spiritually and symbolically, because it reminds us that life is ephemeral. Nothing lasts forever. Momijigari is also very present in eighth-century Manyoshu poetry, and the classical Heian Period novel ‘The Tale of the Genji’.
This autumn hobby has persisted until today, and everyone loves to go at least once to view the leaves when fall comes around. Momijigari is a few-century-old tradition that can be enjoyed in many ways: hiking, picnic under maple trees, walks in parks and more.
The first change of color can usually be witnessed in September in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. From there, week after week maple leaves will turn from green to red going down south. The whole country dresses up with a gorgeous red. This is called the kōyōzensen (紅葉前線, こうようぜんせん), the autumn leave front. Some of the best spots on the way are Nikko, north of Tokyo, or Oirase, and of couse Kyoto.
The Japanese Meteorological agency will release a forecast several weeks before. But on average, you can count one month after the first red leaves in Hokkaido to see the best of the fall colors in the Kanto and Kansai regions. That usually means October to late November.
Whereas the sakura season is very brief, amount 2 weeks in each region, momiji season lasts longer and is, for some, even more beautiful. Lasting longer, you can take your time to visit the best places around the country!
As the beautiful foliage makes its way from north to south, we’ll recommend you a few places to visit along the way. Of course, there are many more, and smaller, less-known local trails and temples might offer just as gorgeous of a view, here are some of the better known momiji viewing locations in Japan!
Source: JR Rail Pass
Source: Fun Japan
Let’s start with a World Natural Heritage Site: Shiretokogo Lake. Located in central Shiretoko Peninsula, it’s an area made of five lakes surrounded by a primeval forest. It’s surrounded by two beautiful paths you can go on for a stroll while appreciating the beautiful landscape.
Try the Elevated Wooden Path to enjoy one of the lakes. You can walk it in about 20 minutes. The other path, the Ground pathway, is made for the other 4 lakes. Stroll on the Elevated Wooden Path to enjoy one of the lakes.
Source: Japan Guide
At the very north of the Tohoku region, on Japan’s main Honshu island, you’ll find Aomori prefecture. That’s where Lake Towada is located. Oirase Stream is a river that flows from Lake Towada into Aomori prefecture. Starting from Nenokuchi in Lake Towada, it runs for about 14 kilometers and is sided by breathtakingly beautiful landscapes, waterfalls and clear streams.
You’ll see trees hanging along the side of the stream, making it look like the water is flowing through a tunnel. It’s a gorgeous autumn walk.
Source: Living Nomads
Moving down to Kanto, there is of course a good momiji viewing spot in Tokyo. More specifically: Koishikawa Korakuen, a Japanese garden that recreates famous views from around the country, including Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, and a river in Arashiyama, Kyoto. In autumn, the garden's 480 Japanese maple trees turn to a bright red and gold.
In November, you can usually participate in the Autumn Leaves Festival and enjoy tea ceremonies as well as traditional performing arts.
A few hours north of Tokyo, in Tochigi prefecture, are the famous Ryuzu Falls, a major waterfall in the Oku-Nikko area. Nikko is known for its Three Great Waterfalls, which, inaddition to the Ryuzu falls, include the Kegon Falls, located near Lake Chuzenji, and Yudaki Falls, which runs from Yuno Lake.
Ryuzu falls see the water split into two streams by a large rock near its basin. The view is stunning. You can enjoy a fresh cup of tea at the nearby teahouse, or go for a walk.
Nikko also offers other beautiful autumn leaves spots, such as Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine.
Our hometown : Osaka. Osaka Castle Park, with its dungeon on top of the hill, offering a great view of the city, is not the only place where you can enjoy momiji in the city, but definitely a great one! With both ginkgo trees and maple leaves.
It’s an easily accessible park that gives you many ways to enjoy the fall leaves and awesome photo spots. If you’ve got a little time on your hands, we also recommend taking the train north of the city to walk the Minoh trail under the fall foliage, all the way to the waterfall!
Source: Japan Online Tour
That’s another beautiful momiji viewing location. Kifune Shrine is approximately an hour north from Kyoto Station, with subway and bus. Kifune Shrine has a long history and enshrines the god that governs water.
I would actually recommend you to go to the nearby Kurama and do the short 2-hour hike over the mountain and through the Kurama temple to end your hike in Kifune. It’s a lovely and easy walk up and down the mountain. Once you arrive by the Kifune river, there will be plenty of charming teahouses and ryokans to welcome you for a refreshing break.
During the month of November, you can also see beautiful illuminations that reflect the magnificent colors of the autumn foliage. You may also stop there on November 7 for the Ohitaki Festival and the Onikkukoin Grand Festival. On this day, there is a 1.5-meter tall bonfire, and Shinto priests perform purifications.
Source: Gaijinpot blog
Still in Kyoto, Arashiyama, is a must-go. Famous for its Bamboo Forest and Togetsukyo Bridge, it is also home to gorgeously colored trees in fall. There are many places to appreciate the colors.
Whether you want to hop into a small boat, walk around the forest or take the Sagano Romantic Train, there are activities for everyone. Don’t forget to also visit the Sogenchi Garden, a stunning garden in the World Heritage Site of Tenryuji Temple.
To avoid the crowds, go early in the morning, or treat yourself to an overnight stay at one of the beautiful Ryokans to experience Arashiyama without the tourists.
Source: Matcha Japan
The Saito family was a wealthy merchant family during the Taisho period. In the city of Niigata, they built their villa: The Saito Villa. It was used as a vacation home. But its well-preserved beauty now attracts visitors from all over the country to visit it.
The way the garden was arranged around the house, was to keep the fluidity of both entities and allows for all the greenery to be enjoyed from within the house.
Especially in fall, the scenery is gorgeous from the banquet halls of the villa. The leaves are visible through the unique window frames on the upper floor. It’s a wonderful experience to visit this villa during autumn.
A landmark in Japan: the Great Torii which appears to be floating in the sea during high tide, is a symbol of Miyajima. Just a few kilometers away from downtown Hiroshima, you can take a short ferry ride to this island. After a quick walk from Itsukushima Shrine, near the Great Torii, you will arrive at Momijidani Park, a location famous for autumn leaves.
The view near the vermillion-painted Momijibashi Bridge is unique. There are also wild deer nearby, you can also try to take a picture of the deer together with the foliage. Or you can go for a hike and reach the top of the mountain to enjoy the island from above the trees!
This garden is quite unique as it’s one of the largest in the country. Ritsurin Garden is a Japanese garden composed of six ponds and thirteen human-made hills. It was developed against the backdrop of Mt. Shiun and makes for picture-perfect photos in the fall.
The crimson Japanese maple trees are lit up in the evening, and it creates a mystical ambiance in the garden.
Finally, our last recommendation will be for Kyushu, the southernmost of the 4 mpain Japanese island. Host to the Kamado Shrine, Fukuoka welcomes this piece of history dedicated to human connections and relationships at the foot of Mt. Homan.
Walk through the tunnel of autumn leaves during fall, when all the trees engulf the stairs leading up to the shrine. The later you go, the more leaves you’ll find covering the ground, making it an aery area to visit in the evening when the shrine is illuminated.
We’ve talked a lot about momiji, but actually, they aren’t the only beautiful leaves to watch in fall. Once autumn arrives and morning temperatures drop, ginkgo trees also prepare to shed their leaves, painting Japan's parks and gardens in crimson and gold.
Also called ichō (銀杏) in Japanese, the gorgeous ginkgo are very different from momiji as they are not red but bright yellow and have a different shape too.
You can often find those trees in shintō shrines, as they are said to host local spirits. Gingko trees also inspired Tokyo city’s symbol for more than 30 years now, because of its “T” shape (for “Tokyo”). Fun fact: did you know that gingko seeds are edible and a popular snack in Japan?
Make sure you select a few areas to enjoy the momiji! Combine nature and temples for the best momijigari experience. All you'll need, is a camera or smartphone to capture the moment. In some popular tourist areas such as Kyoto, it is also possible to rend a kimono to take traditional looking souvenir photos!