Turning Over An Old Leaf

5th November 2010

The classic time to visit Japan is in spring for the beautiful cherry blossom… but there’s a wonderful secondary season too: October and November, for the autumn colours.

Jill Glenn yearns to be back there…

You think the English are obsessed with the weather and the climate? Come autumn in Japan, the slow progression of the leaves from green to red – via coral and carmine, amber and gold – is the stuff of avid daily conversation; it’s printed in newspapers, it’s chalked up on boards in tourist offices and hotel lobbies and railway stations.

The obsession is hardly surprising. An awareness of the changing seasons is rooted (literally) in Japanese culture, and the colourful leaves – the ‘koyo’ – draw visitors in their hordes to celebrated viewpoints across the country… but whereas the cherry blossom season is joyous, widely and wildly celebrated, the autumn colours bring a quieter and more contemplative response.
Japan-guide.com (a useful if congested website) lists over two dozen locations, but nowhere (in my opinion) is more suitable to see the drama of autumn than in and around Kyoto. Bounded by mountains on three sides, this former seat of the Japanese Imperial Court has natural and cultural treasures in abundance, including 17 Unesco World Heritage sites – and rightly deserves, as the Lonely Planet says, to rank with Paris, London and Rome as one of those cities that everyone should see at least once in their lives.

Your first impressions may not be favourable. The area outside the station is grey, dull and overwhelmingly concrete, but take a trip straight up the Kyoto Tower (even if you’ve been up the one in Tokyo, and think you’ve ‘done’ towers…) and you’ll see the city’s riches spread out below you, with little pockets of green and gold spilling out between the buildings.

The Tofukuji Temple, a large complex some half hour from the centre of Kyoto has stunning autumnscapes, with a valley of lush maple trees that can be heart-stoppingly beautiful when the colours reach their peak, usually around mid to late November. (There’s still time…). The days are pleasant and slightly cool now, but the skies are generally blue. It’s a photographer’s paradise (as is the third floor of the 7-storey Bic Camera Store, just yards from Kyoto Station).

There is, of course, much that is beautiful and fascinating to see in Kyoto at any time of year. This city is a mad, exhilarating mix of ancient and modern… there are shrines and temples on every street corner (that’s only a slight exaggeration) plus Zen gardens and narrow walkways to pull you back to the past – and shopping opportunities by the thousand to bring you back to the present. Transport is easy, with well-integrated rail and bus systems, and plenty of willing passers-by to assist with directions.

Don’t miss the Philosopher’s Walk; don’t miss the Fushimi Shrine, with its dramatic avenue of orange torii gates winding through the forest; don’t miss the Gion district, the former home of the Geishas… and yes, you can still see them, slipping away into hidden doorways.

You could even conceivably spend an entire evening in Kyoto Station. Indeed, I have. Opened in 1997, it has a vast concourse with a futuristic exposed steel beamed roof and suspended glass corridor (the Skyway: views fabulous, vertigo optional), wide open-air steps where you can sit and watch the thousands pass by, and dozens of restaurants and shops, even a ten-storey department store. If you’ve come to Kyoto in search of old Japan then this ambitious modern environment will confound all your expectations… but, with traditional districts just a stone’s throw from its Bullet Train tracks it’s a perfect example of how old and new can co-exist in this perplexing, bewitching country. It might frustrate you, but it will never fail to engage you.

Go now, or go in the spring for the cherry blossom. But go.

Find Your Local