A lot of people think of spring when they plant to visit Japan because of the sakura (cherry blossoms). But more and more visitors are discovering an alternative to spending spring season in Japan: fall season.
Fall in Japan is from September to early December. It is when the trees across Japan change into vibrant colors, when the harvest from the sea and the land are bountiful, and when you will find many festivals to enjoy.
Here are my recommendations for the top ten things to do in Japan during the fall season.
1. View the Autumn Leaves
Japan has a lot of trees whose leaves change from green to koyo (紅葉; fall colors). Koyo pertains to the shades of red, orange, and yellow that the leaves showcase during this season. Foremost are the leaves of ginkgo trees which have different shades of bright yellow and the momiji (Japanese maple) leaves, which can range from yellow to bright red.
To the Japanese, koyo is as important and beautiful as the sakura (cherry blossoms). Viewing the colorful leaves is one of the most anticipated activities during this season.
Trees change color from North to South, from Hokkaido to Kyoto. Variations in the annual climate of the country can affect the timing of the foliage change. If there are typhoons then the trees might not change color or might shed their leaves early.
But, usually, fall leaves are best viewed in the following areas during the following months:
- Late September to mid-October – Hokkaido
- Mid-October to mid-November – Tokyo
- Mid- to late November – Osaka
- Late November to early December – Kyoto
Similar to what they do during hanami (cherry blossom viewing), the Japanese have different ways of enjoying koyo. Some are content with having a picnic under the trees. Some have extravagant parties.
And just like during hanami, there are different favored spots to view the leaves of fall. Even highly urbanized cities like Tokyo and Osaka have popular leaf-viewing spots. Let’s look at some of the best places to quietly enjoy the fall foliage.
- The Main Hall of the Meigetsuin Temple in Kamakura, Kanagawa
The main hall has a circular window that perfectly frames the scenery of the temple’s inner garden. Visitors are allowed to enter the hall only in June when the temple’s famous irises bloom and in late November to early December when the fall foliage is at its best. Visitors have to pay extra to enter the area, but the additional fee is worth it.
- Fureai Park and Kawami Shikisakura no Sato in Obara, Aichi
Want to view sakura and koyo at the same time? Then head to Obara, Aichi in early November.
This place has over 10,000 sakura trees of the shikizakura (four-season) variety. This type of sakura blooms in March and early November. So, you can see the iconic pink flowers with red momiji leaves.
If you want to feel like you’re in a festival then stroll through Fureai Park with its trees and food stalls. If you want a more quiet experience then climb the scenic stairs of Kawami Shikisakura no Sato.
- Metasequoia Road in Takashima, Shiga
Japan has a lot of streets and paths lined with trees that make you feel like you’re in a tunnel of leaves when you’re walking through them. Metasequoia (dawn redwoods) Road is 2.4 km. long and is lined with the trees that turn bright orange in fall.
- Hitachi Seaside Park, Ibaraki
You might not think of trees when you hear the words seaside park, but the Hitachi Seaside Park has hills with kochia shrubs that turn a bright crimson during fall.
- Kokoen Garden in Himeji, Hyogo
Japan has immaculately maintained gardens that are also great to stroll through during fall. Kokoen Garden is just a short walk from the famous Himeji Castle. It consists of nine separate gardens landscaped in the Edo style. During the fall season, the trees exhibit the full range of koyo.
- Momiji Tunnel in Lake Kawaguchi, Fujikawaguchiko and Minobu, Yamanashi
If you’re hunting for the perfect spot for some fall pictures of Mt. Fuji, take a day trip from Tokyo to Lake Kawaguchi in nearby Yamanashi Prefecture. It has a “momiji tunnel” that you can use to perfectly frame Mt. Fuji across the lake.
- Tsuta Numa Lake in Aomori
The lake is surrounded by trees that turn from green to yellow to vermillion. What’s better is that on clear days, the lake’s placid waters perfectly reflect the trees.
- Byodo-in Temple in Kyoto in Uji, Kyoto
People always flock to Kiyomizudera Temple and Tenryuji in Arashiyama, Kyoto when fall comes. But one not-so-secret viewing spot is the Byodoin Temple. The trees in the grounds change color to match the red color of the temple’s pillars.
Before you head out to the various viewing spots, be sure to check out Japan’s fall foliage forecasts for the best time to view the leaves.
2. Outdoor activities
Fall weather in Japan is usually mild and the temperature is comfortable so it’s the best season for outdoor activities.
Hiking is one of the most popular activities to do during this season. Japan has a lot of hills and mountains to hike. For example, Tokyo has Mt. Fuji, Mt. Takao, and Mt. Oyama; Osaka has hiking trails to the Meiji no Mori Mino Quasi-National Park; Nagoya has Mt. Iimori that’s covered in momiji; Hokkaido has the “sulfur mountain,” Mt. Iwo.
If you’re into cycling instead of hiking, then try to complete the 60 km. biking route of Shimanami Kaido from Onomichi, Honshu through the islands of Mukaishima, Innoshima, Ikuchijima, Omishima, Hakatajima, and Oshima, and finally to Imabari, Ehime. This well-paved and highly-maintained route is described as “the most ideal route for cyclists” since it has several stop-over points and some scenic spots. You can rent a bike at Onomichi Station. Find out more here and here.
If you want a different type of fall adventure then cross the rickety Yume no Tsuribashi (Bridge of Dreams), a 45 cm.-wide suspension bridge over the Sumata River in Shizuoka. You might feel dizzy if you look down, so focus on the beautiful fall scenery up ahead. Or dare to cross the Iya no Kazurabashi (bridge made of mountain vines) that is 2 meters wide and 14 meters above the Iya River in Tokushima.
Fall is also perfect for camping.
If you want to experience glamping (glamorous camping) then try Hoshinoya Fuji’s services like fully-equipped cabins, eating exotic meat like boar or deer meat, and watching the stars through telescopes. Or, you can spend a night in one of Odagiri Garden’s treehouses in Nasu, Tochigi.
But if you’re into old-fashioned camping, then go to Hokkaido’s Lake Kussharo, a popular beach/hot springs/campground.
3. Soak in an Onsen with an Awesome View
A more relaxing way to view the fall leaves is to soak in an onsen (hot springs) while sipping sake (Japanese rice wine). Here are some of the best onsen with the best koyo views.
- Kuroyu Onsen in Akita
Kuroyu Onsen is located inside the Towada Hachimantai National Park. It is one of seven hot springs in Nyuto Onsen Village. What makes it unique is that it still has a kon yoku rotenburo (mixed gender open-air bath). In general, hot springs have separate baths for the genders.
- Naruko Onsen in Miyagi
What makes this onsen unique is that it has almost 400 different sources of hot spring water. For hot spring enthusiasts, you can hop from one bath to another. While you’re in the water, you can enjoy the foliage from the Naruko-kyo Gorge.
- Spa Village Kamaya and Anyo-no-Yu in Nikko, Tochigi
Spa Village Kamaya boasts of 100% natural hot spring water. Its open-air baths have a great view of the surrounding natural wonders of Nikko. Meanwhile, Anyo-no-Yu is a hot spring foot bath that is open to all. There is no entrance fee to use the facility so locals and visitors can often be seen soaking their tired legs in its water.
- Mangan no Yu in Chichibu, Saitama
This town is near Tokyo so you can make a day-trip to it if you’re in the capital. Hike up Mt. Hodo then unwind in a bath that has a view of the mountain, the valley of the Nagatoro river, and the waterfall from the onsen’s outdoor bath.
- Omaki Onsen in Toyama
This onsen is tucked away in a secluded spot along the Sho River. It is accessible only by boat. So, even before you soak in a bath, your eyes will already be full with the view from the cliffs surrounding the river. The onsen has a 1 star (considered Interesting) from the Green Michelin Guide.
4. Attend an Autumn Festival
Japan has a lot of matsuri (festivals) all-year-round. For the fall season, some of the most popular festivals are the following:
- Takayama Autumn Matsuri in Gifu
This festival is considered one of the most beautiful festivals in Japan. It is held twice a year, once in spring and another in autumn. The Autumn Festival is held from October 9-10.
About a dozen lavishly decorated and huge floats are paraded across the town. Some floats have karakuri ningyo (mechanical dolls) that move and dance. With the floats are people wearing traditional clothes from as far back as the Edo period.
The festival is actually held by the Hachiman Shrine of Gifu, so some people call it the Hachiman Festival. Part of the festival is a procession of a mikoshi (portable shrine). The shrine’s kami (deity) is placed in the mikoshi and paraded through the town. It is only during the festival when the deity leaves its shrine.
At the end of the first day, a special float with 100 lit lanterns are paraded across town.
- Meiji Jingu Gaien Ginkgo Matsuri in Tokyo
This festival celebrates Emperor Meiji’s birthday. About 150 ginkgo trees line an avenue that is 300 meters long. At the end of the avenue are vendors selling food and souvenirs.
- Danjiri Matsuri in Kishiwada, Osaka
This festival is in mid-September and mid-October. Danjiri (wooden floats) weighing about 4 tons each are created by local carpenters and raced across town by local men. Spectators cheer their favorite danjiri while munching on food from stalls lining the race route.
- Sawa-jinja Aki Matsuri in Katori City, Chiba
This festival is considered an Intangible Folk Cultural Property and has been celebrated for at least 300 years. Floats made from zelkova wood are decorated with 4-meter-tall dolls representing historical figures are paraded through the city. To get people more excited, festival participants sing the 40 songs of the Sawara Bayashi (traditional songs).
- Taimatsu Akashi Matsuri in Sukugawa, Fukuoka
This great fire festival held in November at Mt. Gorozan is considered one of the big three fire festivals of Japan. About 30 pine torches that are 10 meters-tall are lit to commemorate those who died in wars during the Sengoku period. As the torches burn, drums are played to heighten the festival feeling.
- Jidai Matsuri in Kyoto
Want to experience what autumn was like during the Heian era? The Jidai Matsuri, which is held annually on October 22, celebrates the founding of Kyoto. People wear costumes from historical periods of Japanese history and engage in activities like horseback archery.
- Kita Ward Fireworks Festival in Tokyo
Hanabi (fireworks) are usually displayed during summer. But the Kita Ward of Tokyo ushers in the autumn season by shooting about 7,777 fireworks into the sky. The event is organized by a private association. For this year, it will be held on September 28 at the Arakawa Riverbed and the Iwatsuki Sluice. Premier seats at sold for a price. The most expensive is at the Red Watergate Area for 20,000 yen! If you want more details, go here.
5. Hold a Tsukimi (moon viewing) Party
The moon plays a special role in Japanese mythology. It is no wonder that the people revere its beauty. The Japanese also used to follow a lunar calendar, which was based on the cycles of the moon instead of the sun.
The tradition of tsukimi started in the Heian period. It is usually held during the full moon of September and the waxing moon of October. In the past, aristocrats held parties that involved eating and reciting poetry in gardens or aboard boats that would float through rivers at night.
Today, people decorate their houses with pampas grass and look at the moon while eating dango (glutinous rice stuffed with ingredients like strawberries or sweet bean paste or chestnuts) and other seasonal food like sweet potato and sake that are considered as “offerings” to the moon. Even when the moon is not visible, for example during a cloudy or stormy night, tsukimi parties are still held.
6. Spend Halloween in Japan
Halloween is fast becoming a uniquely modern festival across Japan.
In Tokyo, street parties are held in Shibuya and Roppongi and attended by thousands of party-goers in various costumes.
For this year, Tokyo’s Sanrio Puroland will have a special Pompompurin zombie attraction where visitors need to hunt for special mushrooms that will turn Pompompurin back into his cuddly Golden Retriever self.
In Osaka, Universal Studio Japan has Halloween Horror Nights has ghoulish character roaming the theme park and rides and attractions that take on scary add-ons.
7. Sample Seasonal Food
In Japan, there is a term that roughly translates to “autumn’s appetite.” This is because the season coincides with the harvest and festivals so people have a lot of chances and reasons to eat.
Must-eats include the following:
- Shinmai (new rice): Rice is a staple of many Japanese cuisines. So, delicious rice is always a must when you’re in Japan. Shinmai (new rice) is from the first harvest of rice in autumn and can be bought only from September to December. It is considered softer and sweeter than regular rice.
- Matsutake (pine) mushroom: These mushrooms are supposed to be Japan’s counterpart of the black truffles of France. You can eat it grilled or as one of the ingredients of a nabe (Japanese style hotpot) or as soup. It is very hard to find so the highest quality mushrooms are sold at about $1,000 per pound.
- Sanma (Pacific saury): As I noted in my article on traditional Japanese food, sanma is one of the seafood available in autumn. Sanma can literally be translated to “autumn knife fish.”
The Meguro Sanma Matsuri held every September 8 in Meguro, Tokyo celebrates freshly grilled sanma by giving these for free. If you plan on taking part in next year’s festival, better go to the venue really early.
Otherwise, you might just wait in line for the whole day and still not get any sanma at all.
- Kuri (chestnuts) and Grapes: Hunt for some kuri (chestnuts) or harvest grapes at the Tanaka Vineyard in Saitama. Chestnuts can be roasted or added to rice.
- Aomori Apples: The Aomori Sightseeing Apple Garden Marusenkawamura allows people to pick their own apples from the orchard. There are 26 varieties to choose from.
- Amaboshi or Tsurushigaki (dried kaki or persimmons): Although persimmons can be eaten raw or added to desserts, some are dried or pickled in brine. If you’re tired of all the sweet and salty food you’ve been eating, why not try some sour amaboshi?
- Yaki-imo (roasted sweet potato): These are traditionally sold through trucks like the picture below, but convenience stores and vending machines nowadays sell them too.
- Kabocha (pumpkins): Although these are sold all-year-round, they taste best during fall. They are not used in soups or stews in Japan. Mostly these are sold as croquettes or included in curries.
- Ginkgo nuts: These are harvested when the trees start changing color. Usually, these are sold as snacks in izakaya (pubs).
- Wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets): For fall, these sweets make use of ingredients like kuri (chestnuts) and kaki (Japanese persimmon). For example, kuri dorayaki (Japanese pancake buns stuffed with roasted chestnut cream) and momiji manju (dorayaki shaped like maple leaves stuffed with sweet red bean paste; a popular souvenir in Miyajima, Hiroshima).
- Modern Japanese Sweets: Nowadays, international companies also create seasonal sweets like:
o Häagen-Dazs’ Rich Pumpkin (pumpkin ice cream with pumpkin sauce sourced from Hokkaido) and Murasaki Imo Tartelette (a crispy sandwich ice cream with custard ice cream, murasaki or purple sweet potato sauce, and a murasaki wafer cover.
o KitKat’s Chestnut (white chocolate, wafers, and chestnut cream); Sweet Potato (white chocolate, wafers, and baked sweet potato cream); or a flavor a little bit closer to home, Apple Pie (white chocolate, wafers, and apple cream), which comes in a limited-edition purple Halloween packaging.
- Seasonal Fast-food Chains Meals: Just like sweets manufacturers, fast-food chains also offer seasonal food. This year, Starbucks is offering a limited-edition Imo Mitsu (Japanese sweet potato syrup) Frappuccino (coffee with milk, cream infused with sweet potato, and laced with imo mitsu syrup) with a side of imo kenpi (fried strips of candied sweet potatoes) and Sweet Potato Gold Macchiato (caramel macchiato with imo mitsu syrup).
- Nihonshu (sake): Sake is usually brewed in winter, aged during spring and summer, and ready for drinking in fall.
Also, if you’re in Tokyo from October 3-6, go to Yoyogi Park and have a food trip at the annual Hokkaido Food Festival. About 100 stalls sell Hokkaido specialties.
If you’re in the city Oct. 24 to Nov. 4, head out to the Komazawa Olympic Park for the Tokyo Ramen Show 2019. You’ll be able to sample regional ramen in just one place.
These two events are held annually in Tokyo so if you don’t get to go this year, make sure you include them in your itinerary in your next trip.
8. Attend the Tokyo Game Show
For all gamers out there, the Tokyo Game Show the game convention to always look forward to each year. Here you’ll find new game releases, indie games, and all sort of electronic entertainment from some of the biggest names in video games like Bandai, Konami, and SEGA. Those who love cosplaying can show off their stuff in this event too. This year’s event is already over but be sure to mark your calendars for next year’s convention.
What would fall be without an Oktoberfest? Yokohama is the birthplace of Japanese beer and the best place to be from October 4 to 20. There will be live performances, food, and, of course, beer! Over 140 varieties of beer will be offered, including some limited-edition Oktoberfest beer. The Yokohama Oktoberfest 2019 will be held at the Red Brick Warehouse.
10. Watch the Sumo Grand Tournament
Sumo is a uniquely Japanese sport. It is considered a full-contact wrestling/martial art. Combatants need to force any part of their opponents’ bodies to touch the area outside of the circular ring. One other unique aspect of this sport is that it incorporates Shinto rituals during bouts.
Annually, the Tokyo Basho (Grand Tournament) is held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo in September while the Fukuoka Basho is held at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center in November.
This year, the Rugby World Cup is being held in different cities across Japan from September-November. See the schedule here.
There you have it, my recommendations for a fun-filled fall season in Japan. Do you agree with my list? Or do you have a favorite activity or spot that’s not in the list? Let me know in the comments section.