Autumn’s Regal Splendour
I enjoyed writing this piece for Escape, a luxury magazine produced in Tokyo by GPlus Media.
If Japan’s falling cherry blossoms evoke delicate snow as they flutter across the country, then its autumn leaves are their polar opposite — a fierce blaze that spreads in the reverse direction from north to south. Cherry blossom viewing garners more global attention but many Japanese actually prefer koyo, the act of viewing vibrant autumn leaves. Judging by Japan’s increasing autumn tourist numbers, the world is catching on, too.
Japan has more tree species that change color than anywhere else. After a scorching, humid summer, autumn brings cool temperatures and crisp air perfect for outdoor adventures. The wave of fiery foliage travels at about half the speed as the cherry blossoms, so koyo is a somewhat more leisurely, less crowded affair, with as much historical and cultural significance as the pink petal juggernaut.
There are records of koyo in the 8th-century Japanese poetry anthology, the Manyoshu and 11th-century classic novel, The Tale of Genji. Centuries ago, aristocratic nobles planted cherry blossom trees in their private gardens but headed to the mountains for leaf gazing. These sensuous excursions inspired other courtly pursuits such as painting, music and fashion. The ritual of koyo gradually spread to commoners and is still widely enjoyed today.
Local media reports track the koyo front closely as dates for this seasonal phenomenon change each year. It generally starts in the northern island of Hokkaido in mid-September and reaches down to southern Kyushu by mid-November. Practicing koyo can be as simple as venturing to a nearby park to picnic under tree branches or visiting a local shrine or temple to admire splashes of red, orange or yellow against the architecture.
Other beautiful experiences include strolling down a uniform golden path of gingko trees in Tokyo’s Meiju Jingu Gaien Park or flying above multi-colored hillside vistas on a rope way in the hot spring town of Hakone. You can visit historic Nikko’s Lake Chuzenji in the morning when mist lends a dreamy tint to its scarlet landscape, or Kyoto’s Kiyomizudera Temple in the evening when illuminations enhance its crimson backdrop.
Back up in Hokkaido’s Daisetsuzan National Park, mild autumnal weather is ideal for camping, or you can stay in a luxury resort with an outdoor bath to combine koyo with a bit of pampering.
Whatever the setting, don’t forget to look down. Fallen leaves on the ground create intriguing patterns. Ruby red maple leaves look especially vivid contrasted against emerald green moss. The Japanese maple is koyo’s most adored celebrity. Its star-shaped leaves are even salted, then fried in tempura batter as a tasty treat.
Every year, koyo sweeps across the nation, inflaming its population. It can be traditional, modern, reflective or festive; its permutations are as diverse as the hues of the changing leaves. No wonder the Japanese are renowned for honoring their seasons.