Hacking Leaf Season: How to beat the crowds, duck the peak prices, and still see beautiful fall leaves in Japan

Thinking about taking an autumn trip to Japan? Dreaming of strolling through divine gardens bursting with red maples, and serene temples robed in fall leaves? I’m with you: it’s totally my favorite time to be here – not beastly hot nor shiveringly cold, with plenty of upworthy photo ops everywhere  – but you may be dismayed to discover that everyone and their cousin seems to have the same idea. In fact, Leaf Season is a close second to those pesky cherry blossoms when it comes to drawing crowds and wilting credit cards.

But all is not lost! You don’t have to crane your neck around the jostling throngs or pay peak season prices to see all the yellow and red. Here’s how:

Hack #1: Ditch the big cities

You don’t have to be in Tokyo or Kyoto for that crowded two-week window from mid-to-late November, when leaf viewing is at its best. Here’s the 2019 map predicting when peak season is going to hit other regions of Japan:

I’ve added English place names to this map from the helpful leaf-tracking site Koyo Walker. Cities are in red, regions are in black

Note the range of dates: Peak leaf season happens two months earlier in Hokkaido than in Kyoto, widening the leaf-ogling window from mid-September to late November. As an added bonus, choice spots outside the major urban areas are much less expensive and less crowded than the brand name cities during peak season.

These photos, for example, were taken in Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture (a two-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo) in the first week of November. The Tokyo maples didn’t reach this level of brilliance until weeks later.

In Suwa City, we discovered this castle…
…with an eye-popping garden inside, that was not only delightfully deserted, it was FREE
No shirking on the leaf color at the Suwa Autumn Shrine in Nagano either

So…how do you find these far-flung gems of beauteousness, and how do you know when they’ll be at their best? You check the Japanese leaf-viewing websites, of course! Every year, KoyoWalker and others publish up-to-date predictions and user-uploaded photos showing how the leaves around Japan are looking each day, as The Season progresses.

Let’s look at the 2019 map again, with the dates you’re thinking of visiting in mind:

These dates will give you a general idea of when The Season will begin every year, for planning purposes.

Make a note of which regions will have great leaves while you’re there, then click on the KoyoWalker homepage, where you’ll see a master map that looks like this:

If you click on the region names (in bold) or specific sites (under each region), it’ll take you to pages devoted to that place. Leaf season 2019 is well underway as I write this, so the map colors are being updated daily. Light brown is for regions where the season is already over, dark brown means the leaves are falling, red is peak season, yellow means the leaves have started to turn, and green is where the season has yet to begin

The site is all in Japanese, but if you click on any of the locations listed under the boldface region names, and look to the right side of the page, you’ll find place names ranked with little gold, silver and bronze icons. Click on those, and they’ll deliver the name and a photo of one of the top three leaf-viewing sights in that area.

If you scroll down further, there are smaller maps where you can see the actual progress of the leaf turning as it happens, updated daily.

This is the daily map for October 24, 2019

My secret hack for discovering the most photogenic leaf spots in Japan: 1) go to Instagram* and 2) hashtag search the name of the prefecture or city plus the Japanese word for “autumn leaf season” (copy and paste this:#紅葉) Your search will, for example, look like this: #suwacity #紅葉 . It’ll pull up all the uploaded shots, and you’ll get a much better idea of what the place really looks like. You can also use Instagram to pinpoint the most gorgeous spots in every prefecture by searching #紅葉 plus the name of the prefecture (eg. #紅葉 #nagano), then checking your favorite search result photos’ other hashtags for the name of where exactly it was taken.

Hack #2: Push the UP button

Another way to expand your leaf season options is to get yourself some elevation. If you look at the 2019 map again, you can see that the leaves put on their fall costumes earlier in the mountains than in the cities and near the coast. There are some amazing displays just a day trip from Tokyo or Kyoto, starting in late October.

Live the leaf strolling dream in Tateshina (Nagano prefecture)
The leaves near Mt. Fuji’s five lakes (in Gifu prefecture) also change earlier than Tokyo. This was taken at Kawaguchi-ko, one of the easiest lakes to get to from Tokyo, in early November
Around the last week in October or the first week in November, Kawaguchi-ko is already at peak season

Hack #3: Get up early

The third way to enjoy leaf season without loads of people blocking your view (even in Tokyo and Kyoto) is to get up early. Many shrines, temples and public parks are open 24/7, and you can enjoy the leaves all by your lonesome if you get there early in the morning.

At the Nezu Shrine, the Japanese maples turn brilliant red and the gingko trees become towers of gold.
And if you’re standing outside a gated garden like Koraku-en with your admission price in hand when they open the gates at 9:00, you’ll have at least half an hour to catch even the most popular places before the breeze starts up and spoils the reflection and the tour groups block your view

Hack #4: Go after dark

If you can’t escape the big cities, you can still see the leaves without feeling like you’re at Grand Central, if you wait until dark. A few choice gardens are lit up at night during leaf season, and even though it’s crowded, you won’t mind because even when you’re surrounded by people, you’ll a) be looking up and b) you’ll have eyes for nothing but the glowing trees.

Rikugi-en garden in Komagome keeps its gates open until 9:00 p.m. during leaf season, and there were gazillions of people there on the night I took this photo, but you can’t see them because: dark
And if you’ve made it all the way out to Kawaguchiko, you ‘ll miss the best part if you don’t stay until after the sun goes down

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