Get your fall fix wherever you are in Japan—from Hokkaido’s mountain ranges to the secret valleys of Kansai, there’s plenty of koyo to go around.
Rivaling the crowds of cherry-blossom season, autumn in Japan is alive with the spirit of seasonal appreciation, albeit in a slightly more reflective, reserved way. Koyo—the act of autumn-leaf viewing—is a beautiful way to frame a new town or put a different take on much-loved spot. Perfect for hikers, city strollers and nature-lovers alike, the changing leaves transform regular streets into stunning seasonal postcards and parks into picturesque scenes worthy of a painting. Mountains offer vistas across multi-tonal valleys and gorges are filled with falling leaves—the only difficult bit is choosing where to go.
Peak foliage times for 2018
Starting with Hokkaido and stretching down to Kyushu, the best times for autumn leaves vary from September to mid-December, but it’s not quite as simple as going from east to west… While the general rule works this way, you’ll be pleased to know there are some areas that are neighbors, but have up to a month difference in their peak times due to factors like altitude or plant-type.
For example, if you’re arriving in Tokyo a whole month before its peak viewing time in late November, pop on the train to Nikko where the leaves turn in October. Another way to catch the leaves is to check out the primary tree types: ginkgo, for example, stay golden for longer than many other trees, so if it’s late in the season, head for places with plenty of them.
1. Daisetsuzan | Hokkaido | Mid-September – Mid-October
Hokkaido’s largest national park, Daisetsuzan is a wild and rugged space shaped by volcanic eruptions of the past and little else. A heaven for hikers and campers, it is also stunning in autumn, as whole swathes of the mountains are covered in warming hues.
The Ginsendai trailhead is one of the first spots in Japan to see the leaves change and is very popular, with shuttle buses replacing private transport during the peak season. If you’re keen to hike once you reach it, you can follow the train to the peak of Mount Akadake—it’s steep but otherwise unchallenging, takes 2-3 hours and offers the perfect view of the the famous slope covered in Japanese Rowan trees.
You can also choose from countless onsen in the area—Asahidake and Kogen both have particularly good autumnal views.
From Sapporo catch the Limited express (85 minutes, ¥4,200) or local trains (150 minutes, ¥2,500) to Asahikawa and from there catch a bus to Sounkyo (2 hours, ¥2,000) and from there catch one of two daily buses (60 minutes, ¥800). Car rental may be easier if you can swing it.
2. Hachimantai Mountains | Tohoku | October
Another mountainous region with great views to be enjoyed from hiking trails and onsen alike, Hachimantai is a popular spot for drivers too. The plateaued-top of Mt. Hachimantai doesn’t have the best views, but the winding road (the Hachimantai Aspite Line) up to it do (surprisingly the trailhead carpark is a good spot to stop).
Goshogake Onsen has a small ryokan open to the public as well as relaxed hiking trails which feature smaller mud volcanoes bubbling away in Oyunama pond and the Odoro Volcano which is Japan’s largest mud volcano.
This region is best navigated with a car but there are some public transport options available, with buses traveling from Tazawako Station to Goshogake Onsen on weekends and holidays and more regularly to the Hachimantai Mountaintop Rest House (also from Morioka).
3. Kegon Falls | Tochigi | October – Mid-November
Easily reached from nearby Nikko, the Kegon Falls are one of Japan’s most breathtaking views best viewed from afar, ideally surrounded by autumnal colours. At 100 m tall, it is the only outlet for the waters of Lake Chuzenji and has multiple viewpoints. Take the Akechidaira Ropeway to the observatory for the wider view above or the two observations platforms closer to the base.
If you want to explore a little further, the Senjogahara Trail is easy and short (2-3 hours) and passes the lake, while the Lake Chuzenji Trail is 13km long, unchallenging and starts from the base of Mt. Nantai.
From Nikko, the journey to Chuzenjiko bus terminal takes just under an hour and costs ¥1,150 and is also included in the Nikko All Area pass. Here are some further details getting to Nikko from Tokyo
4. Kawaguchiko | Yamanashi | Early – Mid-October
Already a popular area to explore, Lake Kawaguchiko has its own festival for autumn leaves as well as some very famous spots to admire them. If you head to the northern shore of the lake, Fuji can be seen across the water, framed by leaves if you plan it right. The Sunnide Resort parking lot is an unexpected photo spot, and there are numerous trees along the lakeside walking trail and the Momiji Tunnel is especially popular.
At the heart of the annual Momiji festival is the Momiji Corridor—a stunning spot close to the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum. The festival will take place from November 1-23, 2018 from 9am to 7pm, with an illumination until 10pm. Our Kawaguchiko day-trip guide* has all the tips on bus-passes and transport from Tokyo.
From Tokyo you can opt for a highway bus which takes 2 hours and costs from ¥1,800 or a train journey from Shinjuku Station changing at Otsuki which costs around ¥2,500 and takes around 2.5 hours. More transport details are available in the article mentioned above.
5. Kurobe Gorge | Toyama | Late October – Mid-November
Known for its old-fashioned railway, the Kurobe Gorge is a yet another charismatic koyo spot.
Starting from Unazuki Onsen, the train carries sightseers across impressive bridges and through the gorge all the way to Keyakidaira Station. While riding the train offers incredible views of the gorge, viewing the train as part of the landscape can also be stunning. The observation deck on the Yamabiko Trail offers great views of the famous Shin-Yamabiko Bridge from above and a more foot-orientated experience.
The train has open-air carriages or closed ones, a trip from the first to last stop takes about 80 minutes and costs just under ¥2,000, with two places to stop along the way if you want to break up the journey.
Kuronagi Station is home to the blue Atobiki Bridge and Kuronagi Onsen’s riverside mixed bath. Kanetsuri Station also has riverside baths but they are entirely open to the elements and passersby. The final stop, Keyakidaira has views of the beautiful Sarutobikyo Gorge and foot baths to enjoy, as well the well-known Hitokui Iwa trail—known as the man-eating path thanks to the rock-face location.
From Kanazawa, catch the Shinkansen Hakutata to Kurobe Unazuki Onsen station (¥3,500, 35 minutes) or catch the Ishikawa Railway to Namerikawa, change to the Toyama Chiho railway and walk 10 minutes from Shin-Kurobe station (¥2,300, 2+ hours).
6. Shirakawago | Gifu | October – November
Starting from the beginning of October, the mountains surrounding the well-known homes of Shirakawago begin to adopt the colors of autumn. From hanging persimmon to drying rice crops, the village becomes a picture-perfect scene of traditional seasonal life in Japan.
The trees in the village begin turning a few weeks after those in the mountains, with an evening illumination taking place in early November. Since the winter illuminations have become so popular, a reservation system has been put in place. Autumn is a great time to see the village in an equally stunning state.
From Takayama you can catch one of the Nohi Busses to the village—the journey takes around 50 minutes and costs ¥2,470 one way, or ¥4,420 return.
7. Miyajima | Hiroshima | Mid-November
The famous torii gate may remain unchanged by the seasons, but the mountain and trees behind it certainly don’t. Miyajima’s Mt. Misen creates a stunning backdrop to the temples and shrines of the island as well as offering some great hiking trails to the top and a cable car too.
Momijidani-koen (meaning maple valley park) is a good place to start your koyo viewing while the steps to Daishoin Temple are lined with the brightly colored leaves, making the ascent all the more rewarding. Enjoy the views and be sure to try the deep fried momiji-manju from the shopping street!
If you’ve already been to Miyajima and are looking for an alternative, head out to Sandankyo Gorge—an hour and a half from Hiroshima, the gorge has beautiful leaves and an easy trail with multiple waterfalls.
From Hiroshima head to Miyajimaguchi Station on the JR Sanyo Line or the city streetcar. From there, catch either the JR or private ferry, both cost ¥180 and take 10 minutes to get to Miyajima Island.
8. Korankei Gorge | Aichi | Mid – Late November
When a local priest planted momiji (maple) trees on the path towards Kojakuji Temple, local residents followed suit and the area is now considered one of the best spots in Chubu for koyo. The valley is home to around 4,000 color-changing maples and hosts an autumn festival during November with performances and tea parties on weekends as well as illuminations until 9pm each evening.
There are hiking trails to the peak of Mt. Iimori from Kojakuji Temple and the footpaths along the river are dotted with beautiful trees. One of the sightseeing highlights is the Taigetsukyo Bridge which can be found between Korankei bus stop and the temple.
From Nagoya, Kornakei can be reached via multiple routes. One of the simplest is to catch the Meitetsu Line to Higashi-Okazaki (30 minutes, ¥600) and catch a Meitetsu bus from there (70 minutes, ¥800).
During the festival special buses run from Yakusa Station.
9. Tofukuji | Kyoto | Mid – Late November
Well known for its autumn leaves and therefore pretty crowded to say the least, Tofukuji is one of Kyoto’s many famous koyo spots. Founded in 1236, the temple has some free and some paid entry areas, and one of the latter is the popular Tsutenkyo Bridge.
The 100 m long maple-covered walkway offers views of bright tree-tops and becomes incredibly crowded during the season, but is also beautiful when part of the view itself. The bridge joins the Kaisando and Hondo Halls, with the gardens of the latter designed by famous gardener Mirei Shigamori.
From Kyoto Station catch the Nara Line to Tofukuji Station (¥140) or catch the 208 bus if you’re using a bus pass.
10. Mino Falls | Osaka | Mid – Late November
The Mino Falls are a perfect day trip from Osaka, and while that means they’ll be busy, see it as a ‘part of the experience’ thing and enjoy the people-watching opportunities. The 3 km ‘hike’ is pretty easy as it’s paved, although some spots have been closed due to typhoon damage and alternative routes are not paved (they are hoping to re-open for leaf-viewing).
The shops and restaurants lining the route offer seasonal treats like fried momiji leaves and are well worth a stop, as is the equally-famous Katsuoji Temple. Known for its Daruma statues used to set goals, the temple has some beautiful trees and autumn illuminations from sunset to 7:30 pm.
Osaka has plenty of other koyo spots—have a look at some alternative options in the area.
From Osaka, catch the Takarazuka Line to Ishibashi, change to the Minoo Line and get off at Minoo Station—the journey takes 30 minutes and costs just under ¥300.
11. Rikugien Garden | Tokyo | Late November
One of Tokyo’s top autumn highlights if not Japan’s, Rikugien was designed to reflect six poems and like any garden worth its salt, has plenty of autumnal foliage.
The park has an evening illumination from sunset to 9pm and garden hours are extended with last entry at 8:30pm. Around 400 Japanese maples surround the Sanin Bridge and form Momiji Valley, while the pond offers stunning reflections of the surroundings.
Stop off at the teahouse for matcha and seasonal wagashi and stay late for the lights—they’ll be worth it.
The closest station to Rikugien is Komagome on the Yamanote Line.
12. Seiryu-ji Tokugen-in Temple | Shiga | Late November
East of Kyoto in the lesser-visited Shiga Prefecture lies a painfully beautiful autumnal scene in the grounds of Seiryu-ji Temple. Built during the Kamakura period, the temple has a Zen garden which transforms into a borderline-offensive amount of autumnal colours.
As a small, local temple it is still relatively quiet but growing increasingly popular as the framed view is drawing in visitors.
Similarly, Enkouji Temple in Kyoto offers a beautiful framed view of the garden, and can be easier to access.
From Kyoto catch the JR special rapid to Maibara and change to the JR Tokaido line, getting off at Kashiwabara (75 minutes, ¥1,500). The temple is a 15-20–minute walk from the station.