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Momijigari: Chasing Autumn Leaves in Japan



In Japan last year, I sought out the best spots to view the crimson foliage not knowing that I was indulging in a centuries-old tradition called momijigari — chasing autumn leaves.

Osaka Castle and autumn leaves
Osaka Castle and autumn leaves

Apart from enjoying the food, it was practically all I did from Osaka to Kyoto to Nara and back to Osaka — look for trees with the most magnificent colors and take photos with landmarks in the background. Osaka Castle may be a must see for most tourists but I was more interested in the gardens surrounding it and framing the castle to serve as a location reference.

I did the same thing in Kyoto. While most people were busy taking photos of the Golden Pavilion and its reflection on the pond, I was busy finding an angle so I could have autumn leaves framing the Zen Buddhist temple.

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and autumn leaves
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and autumn leaves

In Nara, while our tour guide was queueing up for tickets to the Great Buddha Hall at the Tōdai-ji Temple Complex, I moved away from the tour group to find the perfect angle to juxtapose the wooden structure against the crimson leaves on the branches of a tree and on the ground.

The Great Buddha Hall at the Tōdai-ji Temple Complex in Nara
The Great Buddha Hall at the Tōdai-ji Temple Complex in Nara

We were lucky to have visited Kansai region just when the autumn foliage was starting to peak.

Why do leaves change color in autumn anyway?

Not all leaves change color in autumn. Only the leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs do that and they get their cue from nature.

Once the morning temperature dips to around 7C, the leaves start to turn yellow. From yellow, the leaves turn orange then red and, finally brown. Then, in winter, they fall to the ground leaving the branches of the trees bare.

Come spring, deciduous trees and shrubs grow new leaves that follow the same cycle that coincides with the seasons. Birth, death and rebirth.

Meanwhile, evergreen trees stay green irrespective of the season.

Late November to early December is the best time to view autumn leaves in Kyoto and Osaka

I should have been more diligent in doing my research when I booked this year’s trip to Japan. I thought that the leaves change color at the same time irrespective of where you are in Japan. Wrong. Very wrong.

Koyo (crimson leaves) in Kyoto. November 27, 2018.

Because temperature around the country varies, autumn leaves first appear in the north — in Hokkaido — as early as mid-October. They peak in Sapporo in late October, and in Kyoto and Osaka in early December.

Considering that the original destination for our early November trip was Sapporo, we could have caught the autumn leaves at their peak. But, you know, Sapporo is neither Osaka nor Kyoto. As lovely as Sapporo might be in the winter, it is not the “kitchen of Japan”. Osaka is. And it does not have the charm of Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. We decided not to change the schedule but, instead of Sapporo, we booked flights to Osaka, and accomodations in Osaka and Kyoto.

Will we see splendid autumn foliage on our November trip? Oh, I don’t know. I hope so. Chasing autumn leaves is a wonderful way to appreciate and be awed by nature. If the temprature in Kyoto and Osaka start dipping earlier this year than usual, we just might get to enjoy the autumn foliage. It would be lovely to do momijigari with my family.