This past November I flew up to Osaka to meet Kat, my good friend from college, and finally experienced Autumn in Japan. We’ve done the exact same trip a year back where we met in the middle – she flew from Los Angeles and I came from Singapore – in Osaka.
I guess we must really have a knack for accidentally picking the best time to visit Japan. This time we came during the best time of the season for Autumn Leaf viewing, also known as Momijigari in Japanese. At that time, neither of us even knew Momijigari is a thing!
Autumn in Japan – What is Momijigari?
As it turns out, Autumn in Japan is indeed a very special season. Momijigari (紅葉狩り) is the Japanese tradition of visiting areas where leaves have turned red in the autumn. “Momiji” means red leaves, and “Gari” means hunting – so quite literally, it means hunting autumn leaves.
The tradition began in the Edo period when royalties started visiting certain areas of Japan just for the purpose of enjoying the autumn leaves. I could see why, because the leaves have changed into its beautiful fall colors – Ginko trees turn brilliant yellow, Maple trees turn vibrant red, and other trees turn various shades of brown while some remained green. It makes for a warm blend of colors that is very pleasing to the eye.
I’m convinced Japan is the most beautiful country in the world. They’ve got something for every season – Sakura in the spring, beautiful snowy mountains in Hokkaido (which I’ve yet to visit), amazing diving in Okinawa (still on my bucket list) and Momijigari in the fall.
When is the best time to see the autumn leaves in 2019?
The best time for Momijigari is of course during Autumn, which ranges from as early as September, but mostly late October to early December. Much like the Sakura season, the Autumn leaves peak time varies depending on where in Japan you are going, so they can be quite elusive. The general rule of thumb is that the leaves will start turning colors when the temperature drops below 8C.
To get an idea of the peak Autumn colors you can read this Autumn Color 2019 Report, which is updated annually with predictions for each areas in Japan.
The photos below were taken in Kyoto / Osaka from 26-28 November 2017, when the daily temperature at the time had dropped to around 8-10C. As it turned out, we really lucked out with our trip and came during peak Momijigari season. Had we come a week before, the leaf colors would not have been as vibrant. Conversely, if we came a week later, most of the red maple leaves would have fallen off.
Best Spots for Momijigari in Japan
1. Akame 48 Waterfalls (赤目四十八滝) in Mie
Akame 48 (pronounced Akame Shijuhachi Taki) is a beautiful waterfall trail about an hour out of Osaka. It’s an easy trail following the main river which forms many small and big waterfalls. There aren’t exactly 48 waterfalls on the trail, but “48 waterfalls” signifies endless waterfalls in the Japanese language.
Akame 48 is famous as the birthplace of Ninjas. It’s also known as home to giant Salamander. You’ll get to see some of the Salamander before you enter the waterfall area.
Getting to Akame 48 from Osaka is pretty straightforward – you take an express train to Akameguchi station which should take about an hour and costs 1,100 yen. From there, you can take a 10-min ride on the shuttle bus straight to the entrance of the waterfall (Akame no Taki stop). The train portion is easy and frequent, but the shuttle bus is very limited!
Please pay attention to the bus schedule from their official website – if you are visiting in the morning, make sure to get to Akameguchi station before 10:55AM, otherwise, the next bus to the waterfall entrance won’t depart again until 1:15 PM and you’d have to walk to the entrance, which is 5km and will take around an hour.. Make sure you also know the timing of the last bus going back to Akameguchi station, or you’d have to walk back – Kaitlin’s blog details the experience of missing the last bus, and served as a warning when I was planning my trip there (Thanks Kaitlin!!). For further information, you can visit the Akame 48 website which is entirely in English.
The trail itself is only about 3-4km, which should have been able to complete in under an hour one way, but we kept stopping, taking photos and walking at a very leisurely pace. We started shortly before noon and didn’t get back until about 3:15 PM – we didn’t even do the entire trail! We only got to Amefuri Falls (about 75% of the trail) before we had to turn back due to light rain and fear of missing the last bus back to the station. So if you want to do the entire trail, I suggest setting aside 4 hours for taking pictures and walking very slowly.
And now, please excuse the copious pictures I’m about to post – the walk was truly beautiful. I literally took hundreds of photos in the three hours that I was there. My google photo album for this place contains 360+ photos! So this is just a small subset of my favorite photos.
For the photos below, I used Wide Lens iPhone extension from Moment. This is my favorite new toy for iPhone photography – it really does make a difference to the framing of the photo!
At the entrance to the waterfall, you’ll pass by several snacks and souvenir shop. I recommend picking up some snacks to enjoy on the trail! My favorite pick is yakimochi (焼きもち) from one of the shops for 120 yen a piece. Yakimochi is grilled Japanese rice cake, which has a very sticky and soft texture when hot off the grill. That’s why it was wrapped in plastic – to keep its shape. It’s stuffed with sweet red bean paste inside, but it has a hint of saltiness on the outside – super delicious!
Trivia: In Japanese language, aside of “grilled rice cake”, yakimochi could also mean “to be jealous” depending on the context of the sentence.
2. Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto
Kiyomizu-dera is undoubtedly one of the most important temple in Japan and a very popular choice for Momijigari. If you ask me though, it wasn’t really my favorite because it’s very touristy… The temple was so crowded when we went in late November, with hordes and hordes of tourist seemingly coming in non-stop (including us). It was really hard to get a good picture without getting nudged or pushed around.
However, I can see why the temple is so popular. They do have the highest concentration of maple trees I’ve seen during the entire trip! Pretty much the entire temple ground was filled with dreamy vibrant red trees.
What is Girl Eat World without some snacks recommendation? Kat and I discovered Zarame Senbei (Japanese rice crackers) while walking around Kyoto, from a random snack stall along the street of Ninenzaka. Usually, Senbei tends to be savory with bits of seaweed, but this one is coated with Zarame (large crystal) sugar! So it is sweet but still retains a hint of soy saltiness similar to other Senbeis. And it’s very delicious, so much that we each got two more to go. 😂
3. Osaka Castle Park
While places like Kyoto and Akame 48 undoubtedly provide the best view of the autumn leaves, if you happen to be in a major city, you actually don’t have to go out far for Momijigari. Just head to the biggest park – all major Japanese cities seem to have at least one.
In Osaka, we visited the castle park near Osaka Castle. The park is really easy to get – just get off Morinomiya station on Chuo line for the closest station to the park and you’ll be greeted with colorful leaves soon after.
4. Kamikochi in Nagano
Kamikochi is written as 上高地 in Kanji, which gives an insight to its literal meaning “the place where gods descended”. It is a popular starting point for those who are looking to tackle the Japanese Alps, as well as day trippers who just want to see Kamikochi without proceeding further.
In Kamikochi, the peak time for Autumn Foliage is a little bit earlier, owing the its higher elevation. It usually peaks from mid to late October. For more information on how you can visit Kamikochi, please go to my Kamikochi Travel Guide post!