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Tokyo's best spots for autumn leaves (kōyō)

It's November, and that means Tokyo is about to explode in gold and red. Autumn leaves are referred to as kōyō (黄葉, yellow leaves) or momiji (紅葉, crimson leaves). Just to confuse things – this is Japanese we’re talking about, after all – momiji can either refer to all autumn leaves in general or to the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) specifically.

Autumn leaves are pursued as diligently as cherry blossoms in spring. This pursuit is called momijigari (紅葉狩) or "autumn leaves hunting/gathering".

Here's my list of the best spots in Tokyo to go momijigari-ing. I'll start with well-known places; then I'll recommend places you might not have considered yet; and then I'll share my secret ginkgo-ogling spot with you. The best time to go is usually the last week in November and the first week in December, but it changes from year to year. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Well-known place 1: Shinjuku Gyoen

It was very difficult to choose a top spot, but I settled for 
Shinjuku Gyoen (新宿御苑) thanks to its diversity, spaciousness and easy access. So many different trees, so many different colours, so much space that even at its busiest you never get claustrophobic. (The fact that it doesn't feel crowded even when it is crowded is what made it triumph over Koishikawa Kōrakuen.) You can enjoy everything from a formal Japanese garden to a natural forest.

Disadvantage: You need at least two hours to really appreciate its full offering. Don't go there when you're in a rush.

Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen

Well-known place 2: Koishikawa Kōrakuen

Koishikawa Kōrakuen (小石川後楽園) is a delight in all seasons, but its Japanese maples are spectacular in autumn. The trees are planted next to ponds, which means you can enjoy their mirror image. The garden also has ginkgo trees. Close to several train stations including Iidabashi JR Station.

Disadvantage: Crowded. If you're a photographer, you'll have to cope with old guys who park their tripods and zoom lenses in the best spots for hours. (Why do they use these massive zoom lenses that are actually designed for bird photography if they're just shooting a stationary leaf barely three meters in front of them? Phallic compensation?)

Tip: Go very early on a weekday morning. Be there by 9 am, get out by 10 am. The early-morning sunlight also ensures good shots. The trees are covered in shadows by late afternoon.

Koishikawa Kōrakuen

Well-known place 3: Rikugien

(六義園) just might have the biggest Japanese maple forest in Tokyo. It's a breathtaking sight. There are several footpaths that meander through the forest, or you can sit at the teahouse and stare across the big pond. The maple trees are lit up at night, usually from mid November till early December. The park opens its side gate closest to Komagome Station and extends its openings hours till 9 pm during this period. (Last admission at 8:30 pm.)

Disadvantage: Even more crowded than Koishikawa Kōrakuen. It's so packed that artists are requested not to use easels during this period, because it obstructs the paths. That should give you a good idea how busy it gets. If the trees weren't so incredibly beautiful I'd say it ain't worth it … but … it is.


Well-known and unknown: Tonogayato Teien

Tonogayato Teien (殿ヶ谷戸庭園) is well-known to garden lovers, but not familiar to the general public. It's located on the Kokubunji cliff, and it has a natural fresh-water spring that's surrounded by Japanese maples. It's been designated as a Place of Scenic Beauty (名勝 meishō) by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. It's less than 5 minutes on foot from Kokubunji Station, and definitely worth it.

Disadvantage: Crowded with old-timers and stiletto-heeled damsels who get stuck on the steep paths that lead to the pond.

Tonogayato Teien

Surprise 1: Gotokuji

Gotokuji (
豪徳寺) is a temple in Setagaya, best known as the origin of the famous manekineko ("beckoning cat") statues. However, it also has brilliant autumn foliage. That means it's a double delight: you get to see lots of cute cats as well as Japanese maples.

Disadvantage: It's slightly off the beaten track, but that could very well count as a plus point. The easiest way to get there is on the Setagaya Tram Line. Get off at Miyanosaka Station. The temple is a 5-minute walk from the station.

PS: I'll write a complete post about the temple and the cat. Eventually.



Surprise 2: Kitanomaru Kōen 

When people think of Kitanomaru Kōen (北の丸公園), especially Chidorigafuchi, they think of cherry blossoms. Yes, correct, the latter is probably the most impressive cherry blossom spectacle in all of Tokyo, but it's also a lovely, surprisingly tranquil place to visit in autumn. If you prefer a natural, somewhat unkempt look rather than the very organised beauty of a formal Japanese garden, this is the place to go. It's free! It's also close to Jinbōcho's bookstores. Grin.

Kitanomaru Kōen

Kitanomaru Kōen

My secret ginkgo-ogling spot

My secret ginkgo-ogling spot is the Hongō campus of the University of Tokyo. It has dozens, if not hundreds, of magnificent ginkgo trees, especially near the law faculty and Yasuda Auditorium. The only disadvantage is that you don't see any obvious tourists on the campus, so you might stand out like a … well … tourist if you do go. Security is remarkably relaxed, though, so you should be able to get in without any problem. Best time for best sunlight angle: early morning.


Follow the leaves' progress

These websites are all in Japanese, but …
Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association

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