Walk into any railway ticket office or travel agency in Japan these days, and there is a good chance it will be festooned with garlands of red paper leaves and plastered with enormous photographs of autumn landscapes, all exploding with color. Kouyou season is here.
Kouyou, which can be translated literally as "red leaves" or idiomatically as "changing colors," may be less well-known to international tourists, but it is as important to the Japanese as their fabled cherry blossom festival in the spring. It is a time of dazzling beauty, with streaks of red, orange, yellow and gold splashed across vast areas of the countryside. And it takes place during one of the best times to visit Japan, between the stifling humidity of the summer and the chill of winter.
"There are four distinct seasons in Japan," said Eiichi Ito, director of the Visit Japan Campaign secretariat, a tourism coordinating group. "We recommend spring and autumn, because the weather is very fine and the season is so beautiful."
The season is longer, too. Though cherry trees can bloom and then lose their blossoms within the span of a week or less in the spring, the changing of the colors in fall occurs over more than two months across Japan. The earliest changes take place in late September at high altitudes, where temperatures are lower, and on the northern island of Hokkaido. But the colors are still on show in the south and west of the country in late November.
The most intense colors come out in areas where the temperature drops most suddenly, said Jin Murata, a professor and curator of the botanical gardens at the University of Tokyo. "If the change is slow, the color is not so beautiful," he said.
The most famous kouyou trees are probably the Japanese maple, whose leaves turn bright red, and the ginkgo — a Chinese import, as Murata pointed out — whose leaves turn yellow. But plenty of others put in an appearance: beeches, lacquer trees, and even those cherry trees, whose leaves can take on a fiery golden color.
Murata added that the longer season and range of color were because of the variety of trees in Japan, since different species react to the climate changes with different timing.
The changes don't happen at the same time in the same place every year, though, said Hiroko Ueno, assistant manager of the Tourist Information Center of the Japan National Tourist Organization in Tokyo. Last year, for example, higher temperatures pushed the kouyou later into October and November. But this year, she said, "I feel a little bit cooler."
Color changes typically take several days for a given tree, Murata said. A Japanese maple can take at least two weeks. So there is some leeway in planning a kouyou trip. Indeed, it's a good idea to get a head start on your sightseeing because the crowds can be enormous. The area called Qurankei, in Aichi prefecture, for example, is always popular. At the peak of the season there, cars and buses streaming toward the prime viewing sites can cause gridlock, especially on weekends.
If you're already in Japan during kouyou season, chances are you'll be near a good place to see some spectacular foliage. Ueno recommended a number of kouyou locations, from the top to the bottom of the country. They include the slopes of the Daisetsu volcano group on Hokkaido, in the north, which give a colorful showing relatively early in the season; and Kankakei Gorge, a valley on Shodoshima Island in Japan's Inland Sea, which turns flaming red and is visible from the island's cable cars. Well-known tourist destinations like Kyoto, Kamakura, Nara and Hakone also offer great kouyou possibilities, Ueno said. But if you're stuck in Tokyo on business, you still have plenty of options.