Koyo, Autumn Leaves in Japan 紅葉
The leaves of the Japanese maple go to yellow to orange to red flamboyant during Koyo ("red leaves") autumn.
The momijigari, or "hunt autumn leaves" practiced by the Japanese since the Heian period.
Print of Kawase Hasui: autumn leaves in the grooves of Unleavened (1947).
Gradient of fall leaves in Matsumoto (Nagano Prefecture).
Viewing the Autumn Foliage
In autumn, Japan participates in the "hunt" for autumn leaves, offering sumptuous ephemeral landscapes.
This natural phenomenon, called Koyo ("red leaf"), is very special to Japan, a moment of contemplation that refers as much to Buddhist spirituality (as the glow of the leaves reminds us that life is ephemeral) as to beliefs of Shintoism (for which nature is inhabited by divine forces that manifest themselves to men).
It is from the Heian period (794-1195, marked by the appointment of Kyoto as imperial capital) that the Japanese aristocracy is taken by Koyo. Contemplating autumn colors then becomes a popular leisure, and even a quest: one begins to talk about momijigari, literally "hunting red leaves", to describe this time of year, when trips are organised in the forest in search of the famous foliage, embellished with chic picnics and poetry.
Gold, ambre or vermillon
The momijigari has survived the centuries, and today it is a moment awaited by many Japanese, held spellbound by weather programs that indicate to the day the best time to contemplate the autumn leaves by region. Koyo season begins on the island of Hokkaido (Sapporo) in mid-September and gradually descends to the south of the archipelago, ending its race on the island of Kyushu (Fukuoka, Kagoshima) in December.
Embroidered patterns on a kimono, painted on screens or lacquer objects, accompanying dishes placed on a plate or giving shape to cakes: in autumn the red and gold leaves are everywhere. And the Japanese generally take several days or even more, with family or friends, to perpetrate this "hunt" for the beautiful and fleeting leaves. Some areas, like the temples and gardens of Kyoto (Kodaiji, Chion-in, Arashiyama) and around Tokyo are particularly popular. But many fans jealously guard their best spots.
For in the Japanese calendar, this colorful autumn is as important as the celebration of hanami in spring, the contemplation of cherry blossoms. But the star is not the cherry blossom: it is mainly gingko and maple. The former (also symbol of Tokyo) offers leaves of flaming yellow, while those in the latter pass from yellow to orange and then to red. But the supporting cast also have their place: rowan, larch, beech or birch themselves also participate in the autumn magic.