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Japan in Autumn, 2013
When I was doing my postgraduate research, I found that Canberra in Australia — where I have lived most and reside now — has four seasons of almost exactly three months each. This may be changing with climate change. When the rains come at the right times, spring and autumn in Canberra can be spectacular. The blossoms from fruit and artificial fruit trees and the autumn leaves are everywhere, because Canberra is an artificial city (sheep paddocks in 1927) it is full of exotic northern hemisphere vegetation. Canberra as the capital of Australia was built as a compromise to assuage Sydney and Melbourne rivalry and positioned inland enough to be out of the range of naval guns (didn’t last).
Yet, an article in The National Geographic of the ten top autumn locations in the world doesn’t mention Canberra.
Bavaria in northern Germany is mentioned. We lived in Lower Saxony in spring last year — the neighbours’ gardens were spectacular — and I can imagine that the autumn in the nearby forests would be lovely. I was in Bavaria in autumn once and it is very special.
The National Geographic article also mentions Kyoto in Japan and if you only have time for one place to visit in autumn Kyoto is the place. However, autumn is spectacular all over Japan and the Japanese treat it as special. Not quite as special as cherry blossom season, which is more transitory, but special nevertheless.
Literally translated as ‘red leaves,’ kōyō is to autumn what cherry blossoms are to spring in Japan. Both natural events bring the Japanese out en masse to celebrate the changing seasons, with hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties in the springtime and momiji-gari (maple leaf viewing) in the fall. …
But autumn’s kōyō is just as visually stunning and feels less fraught with urgency, as the turning leaves remain on the trees much longer than fluttering cherry blossoms. It also allows more variety in the experience … Shades of red, vermilion and gold light up forested hillsides, shrine and temple grounds, public gardens and city avenues all over the country.
Though bright-red Japanese maples are most recognisable, many other showy trees burst into colour, like the deep golden ginkgo and burnt-orange zelkova trees. Kōyō sets wild hillsides aflame with variegated hues of scarlet while city streets are enlivened by pops of shocking orange. (Lonely Planet)
At the moment in Canberra, we are in late spring. We have been living in our own house here for ten months. It doesn’t seem long ago that the large ornamental nashi pear tree was covered in the most beautiful blossoms and then as if overnight the blossoms were gone and it was covered in green leaves. Just a week ago our wisteria was covered in white blossoms and then boom green leaves. I’m waxing lyrical, because we’re new owners of our first home and the previous owner created a lovely garden.
In Japan it is full autumn in the mountains, but the best of the autumn in Kyoto is about three weeks away.
The Japanese aesthetic
As I mentioned in my last post, on sumo wrestling, Japan is a strange culture and very difficult for an outsider to interpret. In Australia, we are rather blasé about spring and autumn. Sure we’ll admire a good autumn and maybe even take some photographs, but we don’t get overexcited. In Japan people will travel long distances and revere autumn, particularly in acknowledged beauty spots.
The Japanese also go to great trouble to make their temples, shrines and parks beautiful. They have often spent centuries making these gardens. Despite the bombing of the lowlands of Honshu during the war, they have painfully reconstructed ancient parks and gardens from scratch. They give them attention to detail that is beyond us in Australia.
Hills and mountains cover 70% of the land in Japan. Anyone flying over Japan is surprised at how much forest there is. Japan is heavily industrialized and one of the most densely populated countries in the world, but even so, 67% of the land is covered in forest.
One can be cynical about this, of course. In its post-war reconstruction funded by the Marshall Plan, Japan was short of timber and wood for pulping into paper. Japan and the US were the greatest users of wood in the world, but Japan had little of its own left to use. Japan became the greatest exploiter of timber around the world from the 1960s to the present. Japanese wood companies were very unpopular in Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s (obtaining wood pulp from native forests still continues in Australia). The Japanese exploited tropical hardwoods in Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia causing immense problems. They also obtain much of their timber from Canada (causing similar issues to Australia and New Zealand) and the US; and also have significant timber interests in Russia and the old soviet republics.
40% of Japanese forests are plantations (showing that the insatiable demand must be met) and much of the rest of Japanese forests are disturbed, natural forest occurs only on very steep slopes and in very isolated terrain. However, forest is essential to Japan because of its wet climate. The threat of soil erosion is ever present. Forests help to prevent devastating landslides and mudslides from heavy rain, typhoons and earthquakes.
Autumn in the Japanese forests is a delight.
As mentioned, autumn begins early in the mountains and in Hokkaido in the north and moves slowly south into the lowlands of Honshu and beyond.
Early autumn in Kyoto, Miyajima Island & the Iya Valley, Shikoku
We spent our first two weeks in Japan travelling on our own before joining Shuji Yamazaki’s Autumn Tour. We weren’t seeking autumn in this period, but it is a good starting point to compare. We began in Kyoto where we spent six days from 20 to 26 October, autumn was only just starting but I’ve included two photos in the album (at the end of the article) to compare with the wonders of autumn in Kyoto later on. We then went to Hiroshima for two days and spent a day on Miyajima Island on 27 October. Miyajima Island is fabulous. It was a wonderful place to visit on a long day of fascination. I’ve included the famous floating Torii at dusk as my feature photograph, but full-autumn was about a month off.
We stayed in Takayama on the Island of Shikoku for several days. Shikoku with Honshu forms the inland sea of Japan between them. Our main reason for going to Takayama was to spend some days travelling to islands on the inland sea to view the Setouchi Triennale International Art Festival (which I’ll cover another time). One reason for the Setouchi is to bring people back to the islands, which have tended to become depopulated. One day as a break from art we took a train and a bus tour into the centre of Shikoku to visit the remote Iya Valley, which was showing signs of early autumn.
Shuji Yamazaki’s Autumn Tour
On 7 November, we travelled from Narita (where we’d spent the previous evening as a group) to Tokyo; and then took a Shikasen (bullet train) to near Hiraizumi (2h 10 min) and a branch line into the town (455km from Tokyo).
Japanese fast trains are amazingly efficient and you can travel huge distances in a day in great comfort and with little effort. This is hard to believe when one comes from a country, where the railway system has barely transcended the 19th century.
We drive cars long distances in Australia and take flights instead. Air travel is not a comfortable experience for domestic travel in the southeast of Australia from Brisbane to Adelaide. The difficulty of getting to airports, the whole airport experience and being packed into tight seats with inadequate service is not pleasant, particularly when the distance is one that would take you half-the-time on a Shikasen in Japan.
Australians often explain our woeful infrastructure with reference to low population and distance, but these are actually excuses for incompetence, lack of vision and the loss of any impetus to nation building.
Shuji’s notes on Hiraizumi say:
During the Heian Period (710-1185), the Fujiwara were the most powerful clan in Japan who [developed] Hiraizumi as the seat of the Northern branch of the Fujiwara family in 1105. The city steadily grew in cultural sophistication and political power, so that it even came to rival Kyoto, the national capital. In 1189, however, Hiraizumi was razed by Minamoto Yoritomo, the man who would soon after become Japan’s first shogun. Yoritomo was looking for his brother and rival Yoshitsune, who was being given refuge by the local Fujiwara leader. The city never recovered its former prominence, but it still features some of the Tohoku Region’s most precious historic and cultural properties. Hiraizumi has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011.
We stayed at the Musashibo Hotel, which is a hot springs hotel with a nice onsen and ryokan style food, in a modern relatively charmless building. The food was excellent and the accommodation comfortable. We walked through the cedar forest to the Chuson-ji Temple, which was founded in 850 by Jikaku Daishi, a high ranking priest of the Tendai Sect of Buddhism.
We then walked slowly through the woods, hitting wooden boards with hammers to warn off the bears. It was quite a long but pleasant walk to theMoetsu-ji Temple with its impressive garden. The garden is said to be the only remaining example of a Jodo Garden, which is supposed to represent gokuraku jodo, Amida Buddha`s Pure Land. It was our first sample of full-on over-the-top autumn beauty in Japan.
Walking the old Nakasendo Highway & Takayama
The next few days we walked on part of the old Nakasendo Highway completed in the Edo Period (1603-1610) as a trunk road connecting Kyoto and present day Tokyo (and a way of keeping the court nobles out of mischief). We stayed in two Ryokan here, one two hundred years old and basic, but rather wonderful, with excellent food cooked by the host from home grown ingredients, vegetables, rice, miso, fruit, eggs and fish.
And then, we moved on to Takayama, which is in the Japanese alps in central Honshu, with a town centre full of traditional architecture. We also visited the extensive Hida Folk Village, an open-air museum, which like the Cloppenberg open air museum in Lower Saxony (reported in Where we live) gives a fantastic insight into how Japanese people used to live.
For our two-day walk on the old Nakasendo Highway, we only carried the bare minimum and sent our luggage on to Takayama. We did this twice. You use a courier company, it is relatively cheap and another example of the amazing efficiency of Japan. Shuji mentioned, as a cautionary tale, that on a previous tour a couple left a hairdryer and some clothing that they didn’t need behind at a hotel and it pursued them for days from hotel to hotel.
Japan is a very safe country and theft is unusual.
Nara & Koyosan
From Takayama we went to Nara, 1300 years old in 2010, for a couple of days. In Nara we visited the Toda-ji Temple with its ancient wooden Great Buddha Hall and walked for 20km outside Nara along the old Yamanobe no-michi road.
We then took a local train to Mount Koya or Koyasan, at 900m (3,000 ft) added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2004. The journey was almost as good as the destination, though Koyasan on the Ise Peninsula is magnificent. The slow regional train traverses wild rural countryside and ends with a cable car up the mountain.
Mount Koya (Koyasan) is the centre of Shingon Buddhism an important Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), one of Japan’s most significant religious figures. Kobo Daishi began construction on the original Garan Temple complex in 826 after wandering the country for years in search of a suitable place to centre his religion. Since then over one hundred temples have sprung up along the streets of Koyasan. The most important among them are Kongobu-ji, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism, and Okunoin, the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. (Shuji’s Notes)
We stayed in one of the temples near the Oku-no-in (or huge cemetery) and did the usual things — the ghost tour at night and the shinto fire ceremony in the morning. The Oku-no-in has wonderful tombs. Those of very rich families and Japanese corporations in the modern era are sometimes rather weird.
Known not only for its size and significance, but for its unique headstones, Okunoin is filled with giant spaceships, cups, and other strange monuments erected for the former employees of astronautical and coffee companies. A special monument was built by a pesticide company to commemorate all of its insect victims. (Atlasobscura)
We also walked the ancient pilgrimage routes around the town and visited various temples, shrines and museums in the town centre. As one who avoids vegetarian food, I actually enjoyed the tatami room experience and the Vegan food, which was excellent. The staff and priests of the Temple we stayed in were helpful and very welcoming. Koyosan is a must do experience.
Kyoto is old Japan writ large: quiet temples, sublime gardens, colourful shrines and geisha scurrying to secret liaisons. (Lonely Planet)
Kyoto was founded in 794 as the capital of peace and tranquility. The city was modelled on the Tang city of Changan in China. It is bounded on three sides by mountains and bisected by the Kamo River flowing north to south. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the balance of power shifted to Tokyo (Edo). Kyoto eventually lost its status as the capital in 1869. Life in Kyoto is still tied to the rhythms of nature and to a style of culture and cuisine different to other Japanese cities.
The final part of our tour was three nights in Kyoto the autumn piece de resistance. We’d already spent six days in Kyoto before autumn took off, but it was no problem. One could spend weeks in Kyoto without effort. It is a wonderful heritage city and much of what we saw was new and different.
We did retrace our steps on the Philosopher’s Walk, but the first time we’d had bicycles and it had rained because of a typhoon. On this visit we only did the Philosopher’s Walk, whereas on the first visit we’d spent a long time moving from where we were staying through other temples and parks, which extend well beyond the Philospher’s Walk along the edge of the hills. We began this excursion at the park at Higashiyama (the large intersection of Gojo Dori and Higashioji Dori). The Silver Pavilion and the Nansen-Ji Temple were absolutely spectacular in their autumn finery at either end of the Philosopher’s Walk in mid-November.
We also visited the Yasaka Pagoda at night, the Tofuku-ji Temple and many other places.
We’ve seen much in Kyoto in two visits but have left many other things to see. I’ll talk about our cooking course in Kyoto and Kobe beef in another post.
Photo Album of Autumn in Japan
The photos are on Picasa albums to return use the back arrow on your browser. The slideshows can also be used as click through carousels. You can also navigate into a slideshow or carousel in Picasa. Top left or click on photo.
Photos of Autumn in Japan
For slides with captions see Slideshow of Autumn in Japan
Key words: Autumn in Japan, autumn leaves, colours, mountains, forests, Miyajima Island, Iya Valley, Shikoku, Hiraizumi, Chuson-Ji Temple complex, Motsu-ji Temple, Pure land or ‘Buddhist Paradise’ Garden, old Nakasendo Highway, Takayama, Kyoto, Silver Pavilion, Philosopher’s Walk, Nansen-Ji Temple, Yasaka Pagoda at night, Tofuku-ji Temple
Autumn Tour of Japan
Our visit to Japan was from 16 October to 25 November 2013. We were very happy with our tour with Shuji Yamazaki (email@example.com) from 6 to 20 November and would recommend him highly. He is based in Canberra and his textile business is called Wabi-Sabi Designs. He also sells textiles at the Canberra Bus Depot markets on Sundays. Though he mainly has Australians on his tours, there is no reason for anyone internationally not to use him, as the air-fares are not included.
The National Geographic of the top ten locations in the world to see autumn leaves, lists Kyoto as one of them
Lonely Planet first quotation
Shuji Yamazaki Travel notes, see Autumn Tour
Lonely Planet second quotation
The paragraph description of Kyoto follows DK Eyewitness Travel: Japan, 2013, which is the travel guide we took with us.
Autumn in Japan
A good backgrounder article is colourful autumn leaves and their importance to Japanese culture, with excellent photographs
Other good photographic articles
Japan’s forests from Save the World’s Forests
Photographs of autumn in Kyoto
Kyoto in autumn my favourite places, Earth in colours
A tiny description of the etymology of words Japanese use in relation to Autumn from Wikipedia and why.
Momijigari (紅葉狩), from the Japanese momiji (紅葉), “red leaves” or “maple tree” and kari (狩り), “hunting”, is the Japanese tradition of going to visit scenic areas where leaves have turned red in the autumn. Kōyō (紅葉). “Kōyō” is another pronunciation of the characters for “momiji” which means “fall colors” or “leaves changing colors.” It is also called kanpūkai (観楓会) in Hokkaidō which means “getting together to view the leaves.”
Many Japanese people take part in this, with the cities of Nikkō and Kyoto being particularly famous destinations. The tradition is said to have originated in the Heian era as a cultured pursuit, and is the reason why many deciduous trees can be found in the Kyoto area.
There is also a tradition of going to see areas where grasses change colour, such as on the Oze plain.