When it comes to fall foliage in Japan, you can experience it in two ways. One is stay in the city and look for places where trees grow: parks, gardens, temple grounds, university campuses. There you can marvel at what Japanese gardeners and arborists are capable of, skillfully blending nature with traditional architecture and urban environment, so that when the season comes it all becomes picture perfect. Another is to go up the mountains, where nature is more or less untamed and creates wonders without any human interference. Both ways offer unforgettable experience, but with a slightly different flavor.
Kyoto with its amazing temple gardens is undoubtedly the top city destination for fall foliage in Japan. The downside is the crowds: they take away much from the places initially intended for peaceful contemplation. There are some ways around it, such as avoid weekends and national holidays, go very early in the morning, go when it rains, etc. But no matter what you do, unfortunately there will be tons of people in Kyoto doing the same thing during the season. Still I think it’s worth seeing at least once in a lifetime.
Mountain destinations are abundant throughout the country with no distinct top one. A popular place that can be easily reached from Tokyo (and one of my personal favorites) is Nikko in Tochigi prefecture. It’s famous as a site of Toshogu shrine, but also offers splendid natural landscapes if you go further up the mountains. In season the mountain slopes turn various shades of yellow and red, with spots of green from the evergreens, so that it all looks like an artist’s palette. It also gets very crowded on weekends and holidays, when the only road taking you up and down is packed with cars (weekdays are much better though).
But the truth is, even if you don’t go chasing famous spots, just by being in Japan at the right time – somewhere, anywhere – you can still get your share of autumn beauty. It can be a city street lined with gingko trees, a small waterfall you’re passing by, an unknown temple where the only maple tree just happens to be bright red when you’ve decided to step inside for a minute. So, go explore. Autumn will find you.