I love the woodsy smell of cedar and fir trees. I love the way the pine trees form a warm, bright doorway back to the daylight from the cool shadows. I love the mossy shades of green and the dampness underfoot of the fallen foliage. I love admiring the autumn palette displayed in a patchwork of yellows, oranges, reds and burgundy in the surrounding mountains. I love the dappled light that intermittently sets the red and yellow leaves ablaze. I love Autumn.
Shinrin-yoku is the Japanese word for absorbing in the atmosphere of the forest or “forest bathing”.
Historical texts show Japanese people traveling to view the leaves changing colour as far back as the 8th century. Maple leaves are so ingrained in the culture that words used to describe the experience of seeing them often appear in Japanese sayings and proverbs.
“Scattered autumn leaves,” means to go red with embarrassment.
“Hands like tiny maple leaves,” describes an infant’s hands.
“Like maple leaves and deer,” is similar to “Two peas in a pod.”
One of Japan’s most captivating aspects of autumn is the stunning transformation of the country’s landscapes. As temperatures drop, the lush green leaves of Japan’s trees become a mesmerising orbit of warm, rustic colours. This phenomenon, known as “koyo” or autumn leaf viewing, is a beloved pastime for locals and tourists alike.
Much like the cherry blossom season, aki (autumn) is entrenched in Japanese tradition. There’s even a term that refers to searching for autumn foliage: momijigari. For centuries, Japanese people have taken pilgrimages across the countryside to appreciate the autumn scenery and find koyo (autumn leaves). I could see why this time of the year could easily rival the cherry blossom season, which peaks in early April.
The passion for the season means that koyo is interwoven with everything: meals are garnished with leaves, delicacies are prepared in the shape of maple leaves, seasonal produce such as the sweet potato is elevated into tasty desserts, street foods and snacks. Autumn designs are printed on yukata (light cotton kimono), on chopsticks and fans. Shops and alley ways are decorated with artificial boughs of autumn-coloured leaves. There is a particular sake for autumn – Hiyaoroshi, and the local breweries, including Kirin, release limited edition autumn beer in cans featuring maple leaves. You can eat autumn leaves too: a small town outside Osaka sells momiji tempura (fresh maple leaves salted or sugared and then fried in batter).
After months of steamy weather, an epic transformation begins across Japan. Trees change seemingly overnight from green to red, orange and yellow, turning the landscape into an artist’s palette of autumnal hues. 🍂
Seasons occur because Earth is tilted on its axis. The four-season year is typical only in the mid-latitudes, i.e. places that are neither near the poles nor near the Equator. Places near the Equator experience little seasonal variation. They have about the same amount of daylight and darkness throughout the year. Places near the poles have only 2 seasons – Summer and Winter.
Japan is one of the few countries in the world that has always experienced four distinct seasons, and each one is joyously celebrated. Like cherry blossoms in springtime, the autumn leaves attract international visitors from October to November.
However, climate change is altering such weather patterns. Global “boiling”, as the UN has described it, means summer is starting earlier and lasting longer, effectively squeezing out spring and autumn.
In Japan’s case, some scientists warn the country could start experiencing only two seasons, Japan Today reported. Spring is also shrinking as temperature rises start earlier, in part due to the melting of snow in Eurasia caused by climate change Both the cold of autumn and winter and the warmth of early spring are necessary for cherry blossoms to bloom. The impact of autumn’s ‘fade’ is huge — not just environmentally but also socially and culturally.
Many trees in 2023 have shed their leaves without reaching their full colouration. This is due to the record-breaking heat in the summer of 2023. On Nov 7, the temperature in Tokyo hit 27.5 deg C, beating a century-old record for November. Hokkaido’s leaves turned roughly 16 days later than usual.
We’d thought that booking our trip for November would ensure that we would safely be ensconced in the leaf changing process. We were fortunate that we were travelling to more mountainous areas, like Kyōsan in the Wakayama Prefecture. It was only once we left the relative warmth of Tokyo (still high 20 C’s) that we started to see the leaves falling and the colours coming to life.🍃
The fiery foliage is so vibrant it’s as if someone turned up the saturation.
When I think of flowers and Japan, I think of cherry blossoms. But to the Japanese, there’s a flower for every time of year, and during Fall, it’s the chrysanthemum. This flower is celebrated in festivals, shows and home displays.
Like the cherry blossom, the chrysanthemum, called “kiku” in Japanese, symbolises the season, but more than that, it’s a symbol of the country itself. The monarchy is referred to as the Chrysanthemum Throne and the imperial crest is a stylized ‘mum blossom. The chrysanthemum seal is embossed on Japanese passports. The flower is also a common motif in art, and it’s seen in everyday life depicted on the 50-yen coin.
Left: The world’s most powerful passport in 2022, allowing its citizens visa-free access to 193 countries, features the chrysanthemum.
Above: The 50-yen coin with the esteemed chrysanthemum embossed on the back.
We needn’t have been worried about the absence of autumn foliage in Tokyo. We went to see the Chrysanthemum exhibition at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. The visit changed completely my view of chrysanthemums: uniformity, scale of displays and encountering with never-seen-before varieties.
It was interesting wandering through the busy park that we had visited a few years earlier during spring. People had gathered in their hundreds to picnic beneath the blossoms. Now they were all back, celebrating the autumn season’s offerings.
Chrysanthemums were brought to Japan from China in the 8th century and were originally used as medicine and regarded a symbol of longevity. A few centuries later, in the Kamakura period, the ‘ichimonji’ type became the official crest of the Japanese royal family. This crest has sixteen petals and especially ambitious chrysanthemum growers aim to raise identical flowers
The chrysanthemum is a flower loved for its wide range of looks, from tightly symmetrical flat blooms and dense round balls, to wilder looking tufts and brushes and long spidery falls. It is also revered as a medicinal herb with the power to extend life.
The humble ‘mum, stalwart of autumn’s cut flower trade, is a whole different thing when Japanese masters get hold of it. Perhaps the most impressive of all the displays is this amazing creation – It’s called a Thousand-bloom chrysanthemum, or Ozukuri. The ‘thousand’ blooms are growing on a single plant! If you could look under its skirts, you’d see just one centimetre-thick stem. That sounds hard enough, but the flowers must form concentric circles in a perfectly balanced dome, with only a single flower permitted on each stem.
Another class of the Japanese art is the trident form, in which a single plant is grown to produce just three superb flowers. Sounds simple enough, but the challenge is to train the flowers to be perfectly balanced, with the flower that forms the point of the triangle slightly taller than the other two. All three blooms should be the same size.
I was amazed at the giant mop-head chrysanthemums, and some that look like enormous dahlias. Some look like scruffy sea urchins. There are some that are trained to cascade like a waterfall. In other cases many different colour flowers grown on a single plant.
There were enormous pots of chrysanthemums in vibrant colours that looked like daisies.
Our last stop was in Kyoto, 3rd week of November. We took a stroll along the peaceful Philosopher’s Walk. Again we were amazed to see the gorgeous autumn leaves where we had seen so many cherry blossoms on our previous visit!
Basking in the reflected glow of a cascade of red maple leaves in Kyōsan 🍁