Every spring, more than a million travelers descend upon Japan for sakura to enjoy the fiery blooms of the ephemeral cherry blossom. Few holiday makers, however, realize that autumn features an even more dazzling natural phenomenon: koyo, when the autumn leaves change color.
During the month of November, the island nation becomes awash in brilliant bursts of orange, yellow, and red as the steaming summer fades and winter draws near. Although it may seem logical to retreat to forests, koyo viewing is best experienced in the cities, where perfectly manicured gardens glitter like fireworks displays before their leaves tumble to the ground.
The best vantage point for leaf peepers in Tokyo is from one of the luxury hotels lofted atop the city’s skyscrapers. The freshly finished Andaz Tokyo (
) has unobstructed views of the entire city from its clutch of minimal, mahogany-swathed rooms. The on-site AO Spa takes the seasonal theme further with tailor-made treatments infused with autumnal produce and minerals.
The Andaz guest services can arrange exclusive visits to the neighboring Atago Shrine, where you can meditate under the watchful eye of stone-cut gods and shady conifers. Or set a picnic under a colorful canopy in Yoyogi Park, built for the 1964 Olympics, and compare the scarlet leaves to the fuchsia streaks in a Harajuku girl’s hair.
Just two short hours away by shinkansen (bullet train), Kyoto’s vaulted wooden temples and castles starkly contrast with Tokyo’s towers of metal and glass. Japan’s former capital, the city today feels rather calming, its town squares hemmed in by distant rolling mountains. And the koyo is even more dazzling here, as the fire-red trees emblazon lonely hollows and hidden shrines.
The city’s newest high-end sleep palace is the Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto (
), which stretches an entire city block along the shallow — almost thirsty — waters of the Kamogawa River. Picture windows offer unparalleled views of the changing colors on the bank-side promenade, and the kaiseki courses served at Mizuki, the in-house restaurant, reflect the autumn harvest: mushrooms, sweet potato, and chestnut.
Don’t miss Kyoto’s premier place of worship, Kiyomizu-dera, stacked on a hillside of maples atop pillars of ancient lumber. It’s here that you’ll truly appreciate the deep cultural connection between Japan and its changing leaves — the Japanese characters for the phrase “autumn colors” are written exactly the same way as the word “maple tree.”
“Walking down Aoyama-dori around the Gaien area, you will likely notice an elegant colonnade of ginkgo trees. The beautiful tree-lined road is referred to by locals as the ‘yellow carpet’ when the leaves fall right before winter.”