‘Koyo’ — meaning autumn-coloured foliage — draws a cult following all around Japan, where people follow the changing of the leaves and base their holidays around this phenomenon.
I was looking forward to walking the Nakasendo Way and Kumano Kodo trails in autumn as I knew it was a good time to travel weather-wise. I thought it might also be quite pretty, but really, it’s just some leaves right?
It wasn’t until I was walking and admiring the autumn palette around me (to all sides, as well as underfoot) that I began to understand why exploring Japan during koyo is increasingly popular, even rivalling the cherry blossom season, which peaks in early April.
I met Japanese people who have experienced many koyo in their lifetime and are still awed by it; stopping to take photos as we walked. For them, it is not just a time to appreciate the natural beauty, but also a time to partake in quiet contemplation and reflection.
Starting out in the Kiso Valley, I looked out on a patchwork of yellows, oranges, reds and burgundy in the surrounding mountains. As I walked through villages and weaved into the forest, the colours created almost a golden glow where the sun hit the leaves. The fallen leaves created a soft carpet and really added to the feeling of being immersed in nature. Every now and then I would find a brilliant red display of leaves — usually near a shrine or temple.
In Koyasan, where the temperatures are much colder, more trees had already turned a brilliant red and even appeared to glow in the dark when lit up by the temple lights.
Though much of the Kumano Kodo is deep in the forest, with plenty of shades of green in the moss and on the trees overhead, I still saw areas of koyo colour as I hiked over the Nonaka Toge pass, around the shrines and along the rivers.
Maple trees are the ‘king’ of koyo, and widely planted in Japanese gardens and temples. This is why ending in Kyoto was stunning — everywhere I looked I saw bursts of colour.
Interestingly, the passion for the season means that koyo is interwoven with everything: your meals, printed your yukata (light cotton kimono), on chopsticks and fans.
Your meals — filled with seasonal produce and flavours — are presented with little touches such as a small maple leaf. 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).
Koyo is also reflected in the language of Japan — the phrase used to describe blushing with embarrassment translates as ‘scattering autumn leaves’.
Late October and November is THE time to travel to Japan to experience koyo. With striking displays of foliage and cooler temperatures, autumn is the perfect time to walk Japan and immerse yourself in nature. I highly recommend it as a phenomenon worth timing your Japan hike for!
FIND OUT MORE