Our fall colors forecast for Japan offers peak viewing info & tips for popular autumn foliage spots, including Kyoto, Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Miyajima, Hiroshima, Himeji, and Nara. We’ll also share strategy for visiting the best temples, shrines, and evening illuminations. (Updated November 11, 2020.)
Autumn is one of the most stunning times of the year in Japan, and one of the most popular times to visit. If fall colors season is your first time visiting Japan, you’ll likely be surprised by a couple of things: crowds and colors. On busy days and for evening illuminations, there will be lines to enter popular temples. At train stations and on buses, there will likewise be lines and extra crowd control to handle the influx of visitors. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that it’s very much worth it. The vibrance of the fall colors throughout Japan (but especially Kyoto) is almost unbelievable. The resplendence of the Japanese maple trees and shades of crimson the leaves of these maple leaves take on is really something else. The abundant reds, yellows, and oranges juxtaposed against temples, shrines, and castles throughout Japan is stunning. It makes the otherwise unbearable crowds perfectly bearable…
The other good news is that you can largely avoid the peak crowds and still see great color. This blog primarily focuses on Kyoto and Tokyo, and crowds peak in both locations around Labor Thanksgiving Day. We offer strategy for this in our Tips for Surviving Crowds in Kyoto, Japan and When to Visit posts.
Due to Japan’s long north-south orientation, fall colors can be viewed somewhere in the country for three full months, with ‘peak colors’ spanning the entirety of October through December every single year. Fall colors start appearing in mid-September throughout the northern mountains of Hokkaido and Sapporo, and gradually spread to lower elevations and more southern areas, most notably Tokyo, followed by Kyoto & Osaka in late November and early December.
2020 Japan Fall Colors Forecast
Unfortunately, the Japan Meteorological Corporation has not released autumn foliage forecasts for November and December 2020. This is likely due to the ongoing travel ban, and likelihood that far less domestic tourism is occurring within Japan.
Given that this guide is in English, you’re most likely planning ahead to 2021 at this point. For starters, if you’re curious when you might be able to visit, see When Will Japan Reopen for Travel? guide. The good news is that we’re fairly confident travel will resume before the 2021 fall colors season in Japan.
Since there’s little variation from year to year in peak fall colors dates (and none in which locations are best), this guide should remain helpful even to those looking towards 2021. For starters, here are last year’s forecast peak dates versus historical averages in major cities throughout Japan…
As you can see, Sapporo peaks earliest, with the best comes coming in October during a normal year. Of major tourist destinations, Tokyo and Nagoya follow that. Kyoto, Osaka, and the rest of the Kansai region sees the best colors in late November through mid-December.
Now let’s cover the best fall colors locations throughout Japan, starting in Kyoto…
Kyoto’s Best Fall Colors Spots
Kyoto gets its own section because it’s the epicenter of Japan’s fall colors season. If you’re visiting Japan during autumn to see the colors, Kyoto is the essential city. Sure, there’s probably some remote mountainside that has quantifiably better autumn foliage, but Kyoto has what’s undeniably the best mix of natural and cultural beauty in Japan.
Rather than cobbling together your own fall colors itinerary for Kyoto, we’d recommend one of the following
- 1-Day Kyoto Fall Colors Highlights Itinerary
- 2-Day Kyoto Fall Colors Itinerary
- 3-Day Kyoto Fall Colors Itinerary
If you have 4-5 days in Kyoto, add on our 1-Day Kyoto, Kurama & Kibune Itinerary and/or our 1-Day Nara, Japan Itinerary, both of which are general itineraries that are also optimized for autumn. We are not particularly keen on Osaka during fall colors season–the city can have pretty colors, but their not all that photogenic.
By contrast, in Kyoto dozens of the city’s best and most important temples are set ablaze in glorious shades of crimson, yellow, and orange between late October and mid-December. It’s an absolutely stunning scene that feels like you’re stepping foot into a painting.
We’ve visited over 100 temples & shrines in Kyoto during fall colors season, and these are our favorites…
Bishamondo Temple – Located in Yamashina, a suburb of Kyoto, Bishamondo Temple is well worth the hike from Nanzenji Temple or the commute via train. The famous path of red Japanese maples that leads to the temple is the main draw here, but the inside of Bishamondo also is ablaze with fiery reds, punctuated by the occasional green.
Bishamondo is also beautiful and relatively serene, and draws fewer international tourists. We recommend Bishamondo if you have the time and can make it work with your itinerary, or want something a bit quieter.
Chionin Temple – Currently undergoing massive, multi-year construction ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Chionin Temple is a place about which I’m currently torn. On the one hand, it’s free and parts of it are stunning. On the other hand, construction spoils some of the atmosphere.
In terms of fall foliage, it’s not a must-do, but it’s still nice. If you do elect to visit Chionin Temple and venture to the back of its sprawling complex, you’ll be rewarded with some beautiful pockets of fall colors. There’s also an autumn nighttime illumination in the garden. Chionin Temple usually peaks around mid-November.
Eikando Temple – This is one of Kyoto’s most popular temples during fall colors season. To see its entire area, you need to drop 1,600 yen (1,000 for a daytime visit and 600 at night). Visiting twice might seem redundant, but the entire temple is not open at night, and it’s a must-do in the autumn for both.
Even on a normal day, we feel Eikando is an underrated temple deserving of more attention. In November and December, it receives that attention, and for good reason is known as “Eikando of Fall Colors.”
Enkoji Temple – One of the most underrated temples in all of Kyoto, perched atop an overlook at the base of the mountains. Paths at Enkoji Temple will take you higher, giving you a breathtaking view above the tree line. Enkoji also has great range thanks to its numerous buildings, serene gardens, small bamboo forest, fusuma art, and more.
Although it’s listed earlier in the day in our fall colors itineraries, we favor visiting Enkoji Temple just before closing to watch/photograph the sunset over the fiery red trees. It’s the perfect way to end a day in Kyoto. Enkoji Temple tends to peak earlier due to its elevation.
Fushimi Inari – This is our favorite shrine in Kyoto, and one you’ll seldom find listed as an autumn foliage location in Kyoto. This is sad and disappointing, as I found Fushimi Inari to be one of the better spots once you get up to the higher mountain loop.
The fact that the vast majority of visitors don’t get past the main loop probably explains why it’s not a recommended fall colors spot. However, if you’re willing to hike to the summit of Mt. Inari (and you absolutely should–it’s really not that bad of a hike), you’ll be rewarded with beautiful view, tranquility, and some vibrant color. I’d say this area of Fushimi Inari peaks in mid-to-late November.
Jojakkoji Temple – Within Arashiyama, there are several great fall colors spots: Iwatayama Monkey Park, Tenryuji Temple, Okochi Sanso Villa, and Nisonin Temple–just to name a few.
The standout of these is Jojakkoji Temple, which features a thick canopy of fall colors at the center of the temple, with a beautiful pagoda and sea of maple below as you climb higher along the hillside.
Kitano Tenmangu Shrine – Often overlooked despite being only about a 20 minute walk from Golden Pavilion (which is not a fall colors spot), Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is a great option for fall colors. Even if you linger at Golden Pavilion until it closes, you still should arrive here with enough time to experience sunset and the nighttime illumination in the Momiji-en (autumn maple garden) where you can see 350 maple trees.
While Kitano Tenmangu Shrine’s main areas are all free, they offer just a small scattering of autumn foliage as compared to the paid garden. We’d highly recommend doing that garden, and timing your visit to coincide with sunset and evening. Kitano Tenmangu Shrine tends to peak slightly later than the Kyoto average.
Kiyomizudera Temple – Another of our favorite temples in Japan, we’ve frequently done Kiyomizudera’s nighttime illuminations, during both cherry blossom and fall colors seasons. Unfortunately, its iconic main hall is completely enveloped in construction scrims, meaning the iconic scene of Kiyomizudera won’t be possible again until 2020.
Despite this, it’s still one of the busier spots in Kyoto during the fall (or anytime, really). With both of those things in mind, we’d still strongly encourage you to visit: Kiyomizudera is worth it. Due to its number and variety of trees, I’d say Kiyomizudera Temple peaks slightly later and stays vibrant slightly longer than other temples in Kyoto. Anytime from the second week of November until the first week of December likely falls within the ‘peak’ time during a normal year.
Kodaiji Temple – It’s really difficult to rank all of the autumn nighttime illuminations experiences we’ve had in Kyoto, but I’d be inclined to put Kodaiji Temple in the #1 slot. In large part, this is due to its diversity. There’s a placid reflecting pond lined with vibrant colors, beautiful rock and zen gardens, an illuminated bamboo grove…and a projection mapping show.
That last one might seem out of left field and is definitely not something you expect at a temple, but it’s surprisingly well-done. It makes good use of the environment and has some pretty visuals (AND DRAGONS!). The trees lining the hills at Kodaiji Temple are also stunning, making this a must-visit during the evening for any fall visitor to Kyoto. Kodaiji Temple has peak fall colors around mid-November.
Nanzenji Temple – The good news about Nanzenji Temple (one of our favorite temples in Kyoto) is that it has some of the best fall colors in Kyoto, much of the grounds where foliage is visible are free to explore, and it does a good job absorbing crowds.
The bad news is that Tenjuan Temple, the sub-temple where the autumn illumination occurs, is incredibly low capacity and draws lengthy lines even on weeknights. The foliage in Tenjuan Temple is beautiful and the lighting is careful, resulting in a wonderful experience–but the area is small. Nanzenji and Tenjuan Temples typically peak around late November.
Path of Philosophers – Whereas the Path of Philosophers draws hordes of tourists during cherry blossom season (and rightfully so), it flies under the radar in the autumn. This is unfortunate.
Path of Philosophers is a great walk any time of the year–plus it’s a good way to get between the various temples in this area–and it has patches of really vibrant reds and oranges, too. Path of Philosophers tends to peak slightly early, with vibrant colors in early to mid-November not being uncommon.
Shinnyodo Temple – This has all the makings of the type of temple we enjoy: free, tall pagoda, pretty, and did we mention free?! Despite being a short walk from Nanzenji, Shinnyodo is typically far less crowded.
Its fire-red and orange momiji maple and kaede maple, plus yellow ginkgo trees create such an oversaturated scene that almost looks surreal. Shinnyodo Temple is a definite sleeper pick for us, and we highly recommend it in the fall. This temple typically peaks in late November.
Shorein Temple – The main draw during the autumn evening illuminations at Shorein Temple is the 1,000 blue lights that illuminate the ground outside of the main hall. There’s also lit-up foliage and a bamboo grove, among other things, but what draws most people here is the ground.
It’s a neat effect, to be sure, but I felt a tad underwhelmed seeing this in person. (Perhaps photos do it a bit too much justice?) It also seems to have less in the way of actual fall colors and more in terms of ‘warm lighting on normal trees.’ In any case, Shorein Temple is still a compelling evening option that draws fewer crowds than the high-profile temples. We recommend it mainly because other temples that do nighttime illuminations are a short walk from here, making it easy to visit.
Tofukuji Temple – One of the most popular spots in autumn, Tofukuji is absolutely mobbed with people–a seemingly endless stream pouring off tour buses–throughout fall colors season. There’s a lot to see here, both free and paid. It’s also easily accessible via the train and from Fushimi Inari.
As such, it’s no surprise that Tofukuji enjoys such popularity, especially given the iconic Tsutenkyo Bridge and the colorful valley of trees. We’d recommend arriving as close to 8:30 a.m. as possible (advice we’ll be following ourselves when we revisit) to beat the crowds. Click here to see my fall colors photos of Tofukuji Temple, plus tips for visiting.
Yoshiminedera Temple – In our full post about Yoshiminedera Temple, we call it the southwestern version of Kiyomizudera or Kuramadera Temples. That’s high praise considering their quality, but Yoshiminedera is one of Kyoto’s crown jewels, which is also one of its best “hidden” gems.
As with any sprawling mountain temple in Kyoto, there are a lot of trees here and, consequently, a lot of pockets of color. Due to its elevation, Yoshiminedera Temple tends to be one of the first spots to change in Kyoto. It can be popular on weekends with Japanese visitors, but on weekdays it’s a pretty tranquil scene–you’ll seldom ever see a foreign tourist here.
Our Favorite Fall Foliage Viewing Spots Elsewhere in Japan
Hikone – This lakeside city can be visited as a day-trip from Kyoto, and is a smart option if the crowds are too heavy at Kyoto’s popular fall leaf viewing spots.
We recommend seeing Hikone Castle and Genkyuen Garden’s autumn illumination. This limited-time evening offering is beautiful and offered some incredibly photogenic scenes of Hikone’s peak autumn colors. Click here to see my autumn illumination photos from Hikone Castle & Genkyuen Garden.
Himeji – While nothing can top Himeji Castle during cherry blossom season, autumn in the area is beautiful. Around the castle, trees are brilliant shades of red and yellow. Same goes for Kokoen Garden, which has its waterfalls framed by crimson maple trees making for a scene that is almost too picture-perfect.
Engyoji Temple, the sprawling complex atop Mount Shosha, is an even better spot for fall colors in Himeji. These three spots form a perfect day-trip while in Kansai.
Hiroshima – Like Tokyo, Hiroshima is not typically viewed as a hotspot for fall colors.
However, there were pockets of beautiful trees (the one pictured above near the A-Bomb Dome was mesmerizing), especially around the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park and along the water. It’s recommended if you’re more casual about seeing fall colors, and want to see them in an urban setting.
Miyajima – The island of Miyajima is about an hour train and ferry ride from Hiroshima, and is one of our favorite places in Japan. Miyajima normally has a long fall colors timeline due to the elevation differences between the peak of Mount Misen and the lower elevations literally on the water.
The areas around Miyajima’s many temples and shrines look other-worldly when bursting with color. For those planning a future fall colors tour of Japan, Miyajima is a must-visit in our estimation.
Mount Fuji – Whether you’re heading to Fuji Five Lakes or Hakone, you won’t be disappointed with Mount Fuji in the autumn. Hakone is the more popular of the two, and where most tourists to Japan head due to ease.
We prefer the Lake Kawaguchiko area, which includes the famed Maple Corridor, Chureito Pagoda, and shoreline autumn illumination at Lake Yamanaka.
Nara – Pretty much the entirety of Nara is a treasure trove of fall colors beauty. Our 1-Day Nara, Japan Itinerary offers the perfect approach, and makes it easy to accomplish if you’re doing a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka.
In our experience, colors peak in Nara slightly before they do in Kyoto, and inexplicably linger for quite a while. Even after the leaves have fallen, it’s still a beautiful scene, as they form a beautiful blanket of color for the Devious Deer of Nara, Japan.
Tokyo – As Japan’s largest city and tourist destination, Tokyo is obviously a popular spot for fall colors viewing. Unfortunately, the urban environment doesn’t really lend itself to this.
You’ll want to seek our public parks and gardens if you’re looking for the best views of autumn foliage. Shinjuku Gyoen is the most popular spot; get there early to beat the crowds. We also like Rikugien Garden, which is great but quieter and more intimate.
That covers everything…for now. Despite visiting literally hundreds of fall colors locations throughout Japan, there are still spots we haven’t seen. This includes the Alpine Route, Daisetsuzan National Park, Nikko, Mount Hakkoda, and other mountainous hikes. Our goal is to continue exploring Japan’s beautiful fall colors spots, updating this as we go.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Japan in the autumn? Any nighttime illuminations you particularly enjoyed? Any temples, shrines, or other locations we should visit–especially hidden gems–during Japan’s fall colors season? Additional tips that we missed? Questions about any of these spots in Kyoto? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!