Autumn Colors Season: When Japan Comes Back to Life

Autumn is my favorite season in Japan. The weather becomes delightfully reliable with a low chance of rain, (very likely) no typhoons, and, more importantly, the summer humidity (and mosquitoes) is long gone.

Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, is the first region to greet the autumn with cool temperatures starting as early as September. Daisetsuzan National Park is the best place to visit for the earliest fall foliage experience in Japan in the backdrop of a unique landscape that brings together an active volcano and, in my view, the most picturesque valley in the country.

While the temperature and the humidity level in Tokyo start to get down to a breathable degree towards the end of September, it takes another two months for the fall colors to hit the town. In terms of the fall foliage, the ever-lovable Kyoto is on a similar timeline to Tokyo. For both cities, the end of November to early December is usually the best period to view the autumn colors.

For those planning a fall foliage trip to Japan, these are some of my favorite places in Japan to experience the fall colors. The list covers some relatively less-known spots in addition to well-known ones.

Fall in Japan, by lake Yunoko in Nikko
Lake Yunoko in Okunikko greets the fall colors in early October

Okunikko: one of the earliest fall colors viewing spots near Tokyo

Every year, come mid-October, I take the train to Nikko (and more specifically Okunikko) for my first fall colors hunting outing of the season. While the fall colors do not arrive in Nikko town until early November, the higher elevations starting at Ryuzu Waterfalls greet the season as early as early October with the peak viewing season usually occurring in mid-October.

While a day trip from Tokyo is possible, I usually prefer to stay for a night or two in Nikko to have more time to enjoy the colors and to increase my chances for sunny days (I usually end up getting one rainy and one sunny day). 

Yutaki Falls in autumn

As soon as I arrive at Nikko Station, I take the bus to Ryuzu Falls, which offers one of the most memorable fall colors scenery in Japan and hike up to Lake Yunako with stops at Senjogahara Marshland and Yutaki Falls on the way. 

I walk the same parkour two to three times during the same trip each year. There is always a new tree to notice and different lighting to inspire alternative photographic compositions. The trail follows a flat ground with no ups and downs, and it feels more like a stroll than a hike.

For those departing from Tokyo, I highly recommend the Nikko pass offered by Tobu Railways. The pass covers a round-trip train ticket between Asakusa in Tokyo and Nikko and all the bus fares within Nikko for four days.

For more, you can read my Nikko post.

Aoni Onsen in Aomori
Fall colors seen through the windows of one of the baths in Aoni Onsen

Tohoku: Japan`s best kept secret and a wonderful autumn colors destination

Do not get me wrong; Tohoku is already very popular among the locals but this fairly large region of Japan is somehow still not as well known to the international visitors.

The region, home to six prefectures, is impossibly rich in terms of the cultural (especially in terms of traditional crafts) and nature sites. A few years ago, I benefited from the highly advantageous JR East`s Tohoku pass (available to anyone with a foreign passport including the foreign residents of Japan) for a week-long trip to Tohoku in late October.

I started with Lake Towada and Oirase Stream region, a wonderful destination for easy hikes by a picturesque stream and lake, and vibrant fall colors experience. There is a 8-kilometers long trail that accompany the Oirase Stream which also features several waterfalls. It is a very popular spot for photographers who are into long exposure waterfall shots. For more you can read my Lake Towada and Oirase Stream post.

Aoni Onsen in Aomori
Morning light over Aoni Onsen

My second stop was Aoni Onsen located near the onsen town of Kuroishi. Aoni Onsen enjoying a secluded location deep in the forests of Aomori remains my favorite onsen stay in Japan to this day. There are four different baths in the facility (open 24 hours) each featuring large windows overlooking the surrounding forest. Experiencing the colors through the steamy windows of Aoni Onsen was both visually and physically a memorable experience. The facility where there is no electricity is lit with oil lamps, creating a novel-like setting reminiscent of the Edo Period. For more you can read my Aoni Onsen post.

Tokyo: very underrated autumn foliage viewing destination

Believe it or not, Tokyo is one of the most rewarding fall colors viewing destinations in Japan. There are more than 100 parks in the city each offering a different autumn atmosphere.

Lady walking in the middle of ginko trees in Tokyo Japan
Showa Memorial Park greets the fall colors earlier than most other places in Tokyo

For the gingko trees, Showa Memorial Park (Showa Kinen Koen) located in the western part of the city is the place to go. If you are a very eager autumn colors hunter like me, the added benefit is that the park greets the autumn colors season (late October) much earlier than most places in Tokyo.

Shinjuku Gyoen Fall
Fall in Shunjuku Gyoen Park in Tokyo

During the normal fall colors season, I love to visit Shinjuku Gyoen Park at least several times in the season, always early in the morning right after the park opens at 9 am. There are many different sections in the park hosting giant trees and picturesque ponds.

Mizumoto Park, largest public park in Tokyo, will particularly please those looking to enjoy the fall colors with less crowds (probably everyone) and in the absence of a surrounding urban scenery. I live very close to Mizumoto Park and bike to the park at least a few times during the autumn colors season. The park is home to a network of bike and running paths overlooked by giant cedar trees and is one of the best kept secrets of Tokyo for the nature lovers.

Family walking through red colors in a park in Kyoto
Kyoto Gyoen National Garden

Kyoto: autumn in the most lovable city in the world

I cannot guarantee no crowds but, just like Tokyo, Kyoto is another well (or overly?) known but still a must-visit fall colors destination in Japan.

I try to visit the city for a week at least once every few years during the autumn season. I usually start my days with a walk to the Kyoto Gyoen National Garden where thousands of trees offer the most secluded fall colors viewing experience in Kyoto. A few years ago, during my morning visits to the park, I ended up becoming friends with the locals after running to each other under the same tree every single morning.

For a more shocking and jaw-dropping fall foliage viewing experience, Ruriko-in Temple located in northern Kyoto is the place to go. The large lacquered table carefully positioned on the second floor of the temple building serves as a mirror that reflects the autumn colors flushing out of the surrounding forest in all their glory. The temple is, as expected, one of the most popular autumn color viewing spots near Kyoto, and advanced bookings are therefore required to visit the temple during the fall colors seasons. 

For more, you can read my post about Kyoto where I list some of my Kyoto favorites.

Kanazawa: lively town and vibrant colors

Kanazawa, rightfully getting more popular, is another wonderful urban destination in Japan to experience the fall colors. Home to one of the most cherished gardens in Japan, Kenroku-en, two impressive museums that include a contemporary art museum with a surprisingly large and striking collection of artwork, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, and D. T. Suzuki Museum honoring the life and works of the Buddhist philosopher, and well preserved old quarters similar to those in Kyoto (but with less crowds), Kanazawa is a rewarding destination in every season.

I once had the great fortune of spending 10 days in Kanazawa during the peak fall colors season (end of November). My favorite fall colors viewing spots were the small pond in front of Kanazawa Castle and the rarely visited back garden of the D. T. Suzuki Museum where I often found myself all alone.

There are some of my favorite fall foliage viewing spots in Japan, but there are of course many more. If you ask me to pick one season to visit Japan, my answer would be “Forget about the Sakura, the fall season is when Japan comes to life”.