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Japan in Autumn

Cherry blossom season might make all the headlines but Graham says that in autumn Japan glows with a gentle beauty.


They say the spring cherry blossom display in Japan is like the life of a Samurai, short and glorious. It is true: the flowering cherries are spectacular across the cities and the countryside, but don’t blink. In a good year the cherry blossom season can last six days, a bad year only three. In an exceptional year, as was 2008, the display had us gasping with delight for a full two weeks.



Chrysanthemum display at Kenrokuen, Kanazawa. Photo - cowardlion/


Autumn is a very different proposition, and the display lasts around a month, given good climatic conditions. With long, clear, blue-sky days and crisp, cold nights, the autumn colours magically change to every shade of gold, bronze, red, vermilion, yellow and apricot.

And there is bonus for the autumn visitor: the finest exhibition of chrysanthemums in the world. Outside shops, on railway station platforms and in castle gardens you’ll find chrysanthemums created with breathtaking horticultural precision and beauty. 

To capture the real autumn spirit you need to escape Tokyo for Nikko National Park, a few hours drive away. Here the scenery will have you grabbing for your camera! While sacred Mt Nantai (2,484m), a sleeping volcano in the Senjogahara Plateau, which overlooks the city of Nikko, is largely treeless, the surrounding ranges are covered with Japanese larch, oak, elm, crabapple, birch, rhododendron and maple species all changing into a myriad of leaf colour. Nothing can really prepare you for this explosion of autumn exuberance.

We spend several days in Nikko, at the magnificent Kanaya Hotel. This hotel, built in 1873, is Japan’s oldest and overlooks the Toshogu Shogun’s elaborate Cryptomeria- surrounded mausoleum. Also worth a visit is the Imperial Villa in the Nikko township. Here various historic Shogun and Emperors’ homes have been incorporated into one large complex surrounded by a magnificent garden that in autumn is truly beautiful.



Autumn foliage at Nikko. Photo - Sean Pavone/


Later we journey across the main Japanese island of Honshu to the coastal city of Kanazawa to visit Kenrokuen Garden, one of Japan’s top three landscapes and my personal favourite. Established by the powerful warlord Maeda family in 1676, it is very complex in its layout. The design includes the six traditional landscape attributes of spaciousness, seclusion, design, antiquity, water features and vistas. And as always in Japan the level of horticulture is impressive. In winter, for instance, the 12,000 mature pines are protected from the weight of winter snowfalls by ‘yukitsuri’. These ‘snow maypoles’ are both decorative and functional. Bamboo and ropes made from straw form a skirt that breaks up the heavy snow falls, and prevents the weight of accumulated snow from snapping off the branches. Armies of gardeners descend in November to first lash a bamboo pole along the tree trunk. Lengths of strong flexible rope are attached at the top of the bamboo, and are unfurled when the bamboo is in place then tied to the main branches, like a maypole. The sight of the snowcovered landscape and icy lakes surmounted by these fine skirts of rope is Kenrokuen’s most famous winter view.


Mature Japanese pines are protected from the heavy weight of snow with bamboo supports, at Kenrokuen Garden. Photo - Graham Ross


We then depart for the secluded UNESCO World Heritage- listed village of Shirakawago in rural Japan. The village is famous for its 250-year-old, thatch-roofed Gasshou farmhouses and the surrounding landscape is filled with maple trees of every hue.

Our final week is spent walking the famous gardens of the ancient capital Kyoto, including the Moss Garden of Saihoji, created in the 700s AD and restored 1339 and the Stone Garden of Ryoanji Temple, dating back to 1473. Also from the 15th century are the Gold and Silver Pavilions, Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji. We also visit Hakusa Sonso, a private garden owned by our friends the Hashimoto family, who have a magnificent collection of maples.



The Moss Garden. Photo - Graham Ross


A shinkansen bullet train ride brings us to Nagoya Castle, built in 1612. The castle itself is beautiful, and it hosts the country’s finest chrysanthemum exhibition. I was first amazed by this show in 1980 and now it is even bigger and better! Some plants are 3m across, with two flower colours grafted onto one bush. Other stunning sights include single plants with single, giant, dinner plate-sized blooms of immense beauty. In all, the display is over half a kilometre long with the castle towering in the background!

If you can’t make it to Nagoya then visit Tokyo’s huge Shinjuku Gyoen Garden’s Chrysanthemum Exhibition. It’s possible that here the quality of horticulture is even higher than that on display in Nagoya, but Nagoya wins points for its extraordinary location.  

I assure you that autumn in Japan is so lovely that you too will overuse both your camera and your range of superlatives!

Graham will be leading a tour to see Japan in Autumn this November. For a full itinerary and booking information visit click here 

Text: Graham Ross 

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Author: Graham Ross