During the early phase of the season, the colours are mostly found in the mountains where entire slopes turn orange, yellow and red, and provide some of the most amazing seasonal sceneries. Hiking is the most rewarding way to see the colourful leaves in the mountains, but many spots can also be conveniently reached by train, bus or ropeway.
In the second phase of the autumn leaf season, the colours descend into Japan's cities, where they can be viewed in parks and gardens. Among the highlights are the autumn colours in the temples and gardens of Kyoto where they beautifully complement the buildings' elegant architecture. Almost surreal is the sight of the trees during evening illuminations, which are held at selected gardens and temples. With Japan's great north-south extension, autumn leaves can be viewed anywhere in the country for nearly three months.
The season starts around mid-September in the highest mountains of Hokkaido, and then gradually moves into lower elevations and more southern latitudes before reaching Tokyo and Kyoto in the second half of November. In some locations, the colours can be enjoyed into December. Depending on temperatures during the preceding months and weeks, the timing of the autumn leaf season can vary by a few days to one or two weeks from year to year. Unlike cherry blossoms, which usually last for only one week, autumn colours can usually be enjoyed over a couple of weeks or so and are therefore a little bit easier to catch than the blossoms.
The maple tree or momiji is the indisputable king of autumn colours. The word "autumn colours" (pronounced: koyo) is written with the same kanji characters as the word "maple tree". Maple trees are native to Japan and can be seen in their wild form in forests. Humans have cultivated over a hundred varieties of maple trees over the centuries for decorative use.
It is some of these cultivated maple tree varieties that come with the most brilliant autumn colours, turning gradually from a beautiful green into yellow, orange and finally a shiny red. Maple trees are used widely in Japanese gardens, and the temples and traditional gardens of Kyoto are some of the best places to admire them. They are also encountered in forests, mountains and city parks.
Arguably the second most popular tree for autumn colours is the ginkgo (Japanese: icho). The leaves of the ginkgo trees do not turn
red. Instead they turn into one of the most brilliant yellow colours that nature has to offer. Ginkgo trees are more easily found in temples, shrines, urban parks and along city streets than in nature. The Metropolis of Tokyo has chosen the ginkgo as its symbol tree.
The variety of trees found in the mountains naturally differs somewhat from that found in the cities and gardens, especially in the higher elevations. The king of autumn colours in the higher elevations of mountainous Japan is the nanakamado or Japanese Rowan, a shrub whose leaves behave similarly spectacular as the leaves of the maple tree. The nanakamado offers particularly nice sights above the tree line where the shrub sometimes monopolizes entire mountain slopes.
Another beautiful tree in the higher elevations is the Japanese larch or karamatsu, the only conifer to change colours (and lose its needle shaped leaves) in autumn. The larch tree rivals the ginkgo tree with its brilliant yellow colours.
Among the many other trees and shrubs found in Japan, some produce nice autumn colours, while others go directly from green into an unremarkable brown. Among the more attractive other trees are the Japanese zelkova (keyaki), the beech (buna), the Japanese horse chestnut (tochinoki), various vines, the birch (shirakaba), the Japanese lacquer tree (urushi) and rhododendron (tsutsuji). The leaves of cherry trees (sakura) also change into a reddish orange, but not a particularly brilliant one.
A final contributor to autumn colours are grasses. Known as kusamomiji (grass autumn colours), some types of grasses in marshlands and on mountainous plains and slopes can provide attractive yellow colours that sometimes fade into a fascinating red. The marshland of Oze National Park is one of the nicest places to enjoy autumnal grass.