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Discover the Japanese Maple Tree: The Colors of Autumn

Autumn in Japan is an incredible experience. Discover the best places to see maple leaves in Japan and plan your next adventure with JAL.
Discover the Japanese Maple Tree: The Colors of Autumn

Discover where to find the most spectacular "maple leaf hunting" spots in Japan.

Japan might be best-known for its iconic cherry blossom season, but the country’s idyllic scenery also comes to life throughout autumn with Japanese maple trees. With the season best experienced from late November to early December, autumn in Japan provides travelers with another chance to see the country in full bloom.

Known as aki in Japanese, autumn’s red, yellow, and golden brown maple trees span the entire country, making it easy to get amongst the vivid hues during your journey. With Japanese maple trees holding a symbolic place in local traditions, planning your visit to Japan around this striking season is a rewarding decision.

While cherry blossom season often steals the headlines, Japan’s autumnal maple trees are just as impressive. As foliage across the country slowly shifts to warmer tones, wandering the picturesque coastal and in-land prefectures delivers an unmatched experience. Here, we delve into the wonders of autumn in Japan.

What makes autumn in Japan so special?

What makes autumn in Japan so special?

Planning your visit to Japan around the serene autumnal beauty presents numerous unique adventures and activities. For those who love to explore the countryside, countless hiking trails and mountaintops become immersed in thick, verdant vegetation that resonates with brilliant fall colors. Meanwhile, Japan’s tranquil lakes and canals reflect the colorful overhead leafage.

Japan’s autumn is just as magnificent in the cities. With pristine parklands situated around almost every corner, the treetops burst to life with delightful hues. Soon, graceful leaves drop to the ground, blanketing the meandering paths with a kaleidoscopic layer of foliage. For those who love the cozy nature of autumn, there's no better time to visit Japan.

Fall in Japan also offers some appealing advantages to cherry blossom season. For one, there’s not quite the same rush from enormous crowds as there are plenty more places to visit. Catching cherry blossoms in full bloom is also notoriously unpredictable. Fortunately, autumn’s longer-lasting nature makes timing your visit far simpler.

What is the significance of the maple tree in Japanese culture?

What is the significance of the maple tree in Japanese culture?

Beautiful Japanese maple trees have become one of the most recognizable motifs in Japanese culture. The most revered species, acer palmatum, symbolizes peace, longevity, and prosperity. Although it’s estimated that around 1,000 varieties of Japanese maple exist, this specific variety is especially renowned for its bright-red foliage, slow-growing nature, and century-long lifespan.

These charming maple trees have been an enduring image in Japanese art and poetry for over a thousand years. For example, references to Japanese maple trees and the momijigari tradition – or maple leaf hunting – feature in ancient poetry anthologies like Man'yōshū. From circa AD 759, this text is the oldest known assemblage of Japanese waka poetry.

Poems about Japanese maple trees also appear in Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a classical anthology created by fabled Japanese poet Fujiwara no Teika in 1235. Featuring one hundred Japanese waka by one hundred poets, many of these tales detail the awe-inspiring quality of maple trees. Meanwhile, the species has also influenced foreigners, with legendary British broadcaster Clive James crafting the poem, Japanese Maple, on his deathbed.

Visual artists have also created fascinating works based around the Japanese maple tree. Celebrated ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai often featured vibrant red leaves in his iconic paintings and woodblock prints. In one piece, he depicts crimson maple leaves floating down Nara's Tatsuta River. Meanwhile, Hokusai’s contemporary Kunisada also produced works that capture this significant time of year.

What is momijigari?

What is momijigari?

Momijigari is a centuries-old Japanese autumnal tradition that involves heading out to admire these attractive trees when the branches become coated in deep red-toned leaves. Rising to prominence during the Edo period (1603 – 1868), it’s believed momijigari emerged from noble families who would travel to specific regions to enjoy autumn's splendor.

So, when can you experience momijigari at its best? Naturally, you need to plan your visit to Japan in autumn, which runs from September to November. However, like the cherry blossom season, parts of Japan explode with color at slightly different periods depending on the area's specific climate.

For example, the northernmost island of Hokkaido sees momijigari begin around mid-September. However, cities to the south, like Tokyo and Kyoto, produce autumnal colors about a month later. Meanwhile, the trees can stay immersed in crimson and amber leaves until early December. Compared to the temperamental cherry blossom season, it's easy to hop between cities or time your visit from overseas.

The best places to see Japanese maple trees in Tokyo

Experiencing the best of momijigari is more than possible throughout the lush streets of Tokyo. With the city bursting into warm autumnal colors in November, these destinations are ideal for hunting Japanese maple.

Meiji-Jingu Gaien Park – Experience the official tree of Tokyo 

Meiji-Jingu Gaien Park – Experience the official tree of Tokyo

Set in a scenic pocket of Shinjuku, Meiji-Jingu Gaien Park is home to hundreds of ginkgo trees – the official tree of Tokyo. Transforming from green to golden yellow in late November, one of the city's best spots for momijigari is Ginkgo Avenue, a 300-meter-long boulevard flanked by parkland, fountains, and the Meiji Memorial Museum. 

With thick ginkgo trees lining both sides of the avenue, taking an autumn stroll beneath the branches is a spectacular experience. This time of year also welcomes the annual Jingu Gaien Ginkgo Festival, which celebrates the changing leaves with fascinating street performances, food trucks, and more.

How to get to Meiji-Jingu Gaien Park: Several train stations are a short walk from Meiji-Jingu Gaien Park, including Shinanomachi Station, Aoyama-Itchome Station, and Kokuritsu-Kyogijo Station. 

• Address: 1-1 Kasumigaokamachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0013
• Operating Hours: Open 24 Hours
• Contact Details: +81-33-401-0312

Rikugien Gardens – Hunt for maple leaves after dark

Rikugien Gardens – Hunt for maple leaves after dark

The Rikugien Gardens is a luxurious green space in Honkomagome, a bustling neighborhood in northwestern Tokyo. With this tranquil garden renowned for its Japanese-style landscaping, traditional tea houses, and central lake, it’s no surprise this manicured spot is a popular choice for momijigari.

The Rikugien Gardens has several dazzling locations, including the superb Fujishirotoge viewpoint and the Tsutsuji no Chaya teahouse. Plus, the gardens remain lit until 9 PM in autumn, providing sizeable crowds with outstanding opportunities to soak up the serenity and capture some unmissable shots.

How to get to Rikugien Gardens: The main entrance for the Rikugien Gardens is an 8-minute walk from Komagome Station via the JR Yamanote Line or Namboku Subway Line. You can also walk 11 minutes from Sengoku Station on the Mita Line. You'll need to make an advanced reservation to enter the gardens.

• Address: 6-16-3 Honkomagome, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-0021
• Operating Hours: Daily from 9 AM to 5 PM
• Contact Details: +81-33-941-2222

Showa Memorial Park – Wander a picturesque autumn landscape

Showa Memorial Park – Wander a picturesque autumn landscape

Spanning 180 hectares, the Showa Memorial Park is a must-see destination for locals and visitors when fall arrives in Japan. Set in Tachikawa-shi, about 40 kilometers to the west of Tokyo, making the trip to this remarkable national park ensures you’ll discover momijigari at its most exquisite.

Across a rich combination of Japanese maple and ginkgo trees, the landscape transforms into a red and yellow wonderland. Alongside an extensive offering of winding bike paths, hiking trails, flower gardens, ponds, and more, this diverse environment delivers a Japanese autumnal experience like no other.

How to get to Showa Memorial Park: Catch the Chuo Line Tachikawa Station, then walk for about six minutes to reach the park’s southeast entrance.

• Address: 3173 Midoricho, Tachikawa City, Tokyo 190-0014
• Operating Hours: Monday to Saturday from 9:30 AM to 5 PM, Sunday until 6 PM
• Contact Details: +81-42-528-1751
• Cost: 450 yen

Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens – Visit a treasured ancient park

Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens – Visit a treasured ancient park

Established in 1629, the Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens has long been one of Tokyo's most prominent parklands. Although this serene spot contrasts against the nearby Tokyo Dome, this fascinating combination of landmarks only makes this place more interesting to visit during the autumn time. 

Throughout this extensive park, you’ll discover immaculately kept gardens featuring native and international species. There’s also a selection of ancient arched bridges that allow you to cross over canals, while peaceful stone paths follow alongside picturesque lakes. Here, the scarlet Japanese maple trees look simply amazing.

How to get to Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens: Ride the Marunouchi Line to Korakuen Station, then walk for five minutes to reach the north entrance. You can also travel to Iidabashi Station on the Tozai Line and walk for eight minutes to find the southwest entrance.

• Address: 1-6-6 Koraku, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 112-0004
• Operating Hours: Daily from 9 AM to 5 PM
• Contact Details: +81-33-811-3015
• Cost: 300 yen

The best places to see maple leaves throughout Japan

If you’re spending an autumn visit to Japan outside Tokyo, there’s no shortage of gorgeous places to explore. Add these destinations to your itinerary and experience momijigari throughout the country.

Fuji Five Lakes – See the summit from every angle

Fuji Five Lakes – See the summit from every angle

Fuji Five Lakes is a must-visit region, no matter the time of year. Surrounding the base of Mount Fuji, about 100 kilometers from Tokyo, five alluring lakes offer virtually endless spots to enjoy autumn’s colorful beauty. With the summit providing a fascinating backdrop, exploring these scenic lakefronts delivers an unforgettable experience.

For example, Lake Kawaguchi resonates with crimson Japanese maple trees reflecting off the water’s edge. This lovely spot also hosts the Fuji-Kawaguchiko Autumn Leaves Festival – an annual event featuring local cuisine and handicraft stalls. Meanwhile, the nearby Momiji Tunnel is another famous autumn viewing point.

How to get to Fuji Five Lakes: Catch the Chuo Line train to Otsuki Station, then change to the Fujikyuko Line to travel to Gekkouji Station. Several buses also operate from the Shinjuku Bus Terminal and Tokyo Station.

• Address: Fuji Five Lakes, Yamanashi

Lake Towada – Connect with untouched nature

Lake Towada – Connect with untouched nature

Close to the northern tip of Honshu, divided by the prefectures of Aomori and Akita, Lake Towada is a well-known spot for admiring Japanese maple trees. As the 12th-largest lake in Japan, this sprawling waterfront looks fantastic when the trees lining its banks start to change color.

Featuring scenic hiking trails and charming waterfalls in the surrounding forests, the shores of this crater lake welcome autumn foliage as far as the eye can see. Plus, cooler conditions in this part of the world mean Lake Towada is one of the first places in Japan to undergo an alluring autumnal shift.

How to get to Lake Towada: Catch the JR Bus Tōhoku service from Aomori Station to arrive at the JR Bus Towadako Station stop.

• Address: 486 Towadakohanyasumiya, Aza Okuse, Towada City, Aomori 018-5501
• Contact Details: +81-17-675-1015

Mikuni Pass – Observe a striking landscape

Mikuni Pass – Observe a striking landscape

Set along the fringes of Hokkaido’s Daisetsuzan National Park, the Mikuni Pass is a breathtaking road sitting at a lofty 1,139 meters above sea level. Although the drive along this elevated stretch is astonishing enough, it’s even more dramatic in autumn as the forests encircling the road complete their seasonal evolution. 

The most scenic part of the Mikuni Pass is undoubtedly the undulating Matsumi Bridge, which emerges from the treeline to provide views across the landscape. A nearby observation deck means you can look down into the Tokachi-Mitsumata Caldera to catch top-notch views of the broadleaf and conifer species.

How to get to Mikuni Pass: The easiest way to reach Mikuni Pass is to rent a car. However, you can catch the Dohoku Bus service to the Sounkyo Bus Terminal and then taxi the rest of the way.

• Address: Sounkyo, Kamikawa, Kamikawa District, Hokkaido 078-1701

Risshakuji Temple – Crest a mountainside shrine

Risshakuji Temple – Crest a mountainside shrine

Japan’s collection of mountain shrines is as good as anywhere in the world. However, few are as striking as the Risshakuji Temple. Also known as Yama-dera, this fascinating place is tucked into a steep hillside in the lush prefecture of Yamagata. Completed in 860 AD, this cherished pilgrimage site is even more attractive once autumn arrives.

Rising through the forest up more than a thousand steep stairs, you'll find numerous spots to catch your breath and admire the views. However, reaching the top is a glorious experience, with a pagoda nestled on the craggy mountainside looking out across the surrounding valleys cloaked in autumnal colors.

How to get to Risshakuji Temple: Departing Tokyo Station or Ueno Station, catch the Tohoku-Hokkaido Shinkansen to Sendai Station. Change to the Senzan Line to reach Yamadera Station, the walk four minutes to reach the lower temples.

• Address: 4456-1 Yamadera, Yamagata City, Yamagata 999-3301
• Operating Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 4 PM
• Contact Details: +81-23-695-2002

Book your trip today with JAL Japan Explorer Pass

Autumn is one of the best times to explore Japan. With untold destinations across the country blooming with radiant red, yellow, and orange plant life, there’s also a staggering array of cultural events and festivals celebrating this distinctive occasion. 

Whether you’re traveling between domestic locations or arriving from overseas, Japan Airlines offers a world-class service that makes your journey a breeze. Check out the JAL Japan Explorer Pass to discover special airfares for over 30 cities across our extensive domestic network.

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