Saturday, November 15, 2008

Red leaves in Japan

Enjoying seasons is at the heart of Japanese life. Cherry blossoms in spring are the most famous sights but autumn can also be very pleasant : at the end of november, parks and forests are covered with beautiful bright colors. More than in Europe, there are glorious sunny days at that time of the year, the light going through the leaves with blue sky in background and the pure cold air is a wonderful sensation. This is certainly worth a trip, at least as much as the humid summer and its fireworks, or Sprint and its flowers.
The tradition of walks in the autumn forest goes back to the Heain era, where Momijigari (紅葉狩り), or « maple hunting » was a refined hobby for noblemen. Maples (紅葉Momiji), especially the Japanese species, take bright red colors in autumn. Most Japanese gardens and temples include, in addition to the sakura trees, a few maple trees that will delight the visitors in autumn. This is even more enjoyable as the colder weather makes it hard for Japanese party-goers to eat, get drunk and listen to a portable karaoke machine under the trees. The atmosphere is more contemplative, which is perfectly suited to the season.
The best places to enjoy autumn leaves are the famous gardens and temples: it may be a very good time for a trip to Nikko or Hakone, and probably the best time to visit Kyoto, even if most accommodation will be fully booked in that period. Temples of the quiet neighborhood of Arashiyama (嵐山), especially Joojakkooji (常寂光字) offer outstanding sights. One of the most beautiful spot is Tofukuji (東福寺) temple. Kyomizudera (京都), uphill from Kyoto, is as great for red leaves as for cherry blossoms. In Uji (宇治), Mimurodo temple (三室戸寺) garden also has a great garden. It is in a remote place, and not that crowded. In Kansai, the ancient city of Nara is also certainly worth a visit.
If you cannot arrange to visit the best sights, or if you prefer the more transient feelings of daily life, you may enjoy a simple walk in the suburbs of any major Japanese city. You will find there beautiful maple trees stuck between a wall, an electric and a phone line. The smallest neighborhood park, with its two old benches and its plastic children toys will take outstanding colors. Even this small garden stuck between two grey office buildings downtown is worth a visit. It is certainly less impressive than the temples mentioned in the guidebooks, but those small spots of wilderness in the ocean of concrete are more moving.
Autumn is also a great season for a walk in the Japanese forest. Ome valley (青梅), a few kilometers outside Tokyo is a wonderful place for some hiking. If you manage to get a room, a stay in a remote onsen will be a great experience. The cool autumn air makes even more pleasant the rotenburos (露天風呂, hot springs with an outside pool).
After those outings, you will get very hungry, so you may want to taste a few chestnuts, or a grilled sanma (焼き秋刀魚), the seasonal fish, or rice with Matsutake (松茸), one of the most delicious Japanese mushroom. The wintry weather may also be a good time to have the first nabe (鍋), of the year, a pot dish cooked on the table in front of the guest.
Informations pratiques

Hébergement: Hotel bookings: You may find hotels in Kyoto solidly booked in the « Koyo » season. It will however always be easy to find an hotel in Osaka, especially on week-ends. From there, you are only 40 minutes away from Tokyo and 30 minutes away from Nara by train. In case you cannot book a hotel in Nikko, you may give a try to the nearby Kinugawa onsen resort, which has a large room capacity.

Access to Ome valley: Chuo line (中央線) from Shinjuku (新宿) to Tachikawa(立川), then Ome line (青梅線), with a transfert at Ome (青梅) for the train bound for Oku-Tama (奥多摩). There are also direct trains from Shinjuku to Ome.

Access to Tofukuji temple: JR Nara line (JR奈良線), Tofukuji (東福寺駅) station from Kyoto station, or Keihan line (京阪線) Tofukuji station (東福寺駅) from Osaka yodoyabashi (淀屋橋) ou Kyoto Keihansanjo (京阪三条). Entrance fee: Y400 (around 3 Euros), address: 京都府京都市東山区本町15-778 Honcho tozan-Ku Kyoto-Shi Kyoto-Fu

Access to Joojakkooji temple:15 minutes walk from JR Saga-Arashiyama (嵯峨嵐山) l Sanyo Honsen line (JR山陰本線), (20 minutes from Kyoto, Y230). Access also possible from the terminal station (Arashiyama) of the streetcar KeifukiDenkiTetstudo (京福電気鉄道) gare de Arashiyama. The line starts on Shijo avenue in Kyoto center at Shijo Omiya station (四条大宮), 22 minutes trip from Shijo Omiya, Y200 (around 1.5 Euros).

Access Mimurodo-Ji temple : 京都府宇治市菟道滋賀谷21Todo, Uji-shi, Kyoto. Entrance fee Y500, 5 minutes walk from Mimurodo station on Keihan Uji line (京阪宇治線), with a transfer at Chushojima (中書島) from Kyoto or Osaka. From the station, take the road crossing the keihan line just in front of the station exit and heading for the mountains.

Japanese weather forecast sites propose a red leaf forecast service. Yahoo Japan’s site is : Similarly to cherry blossoms, the peak time moves from north to south. In northern Japan, the best colors can be seen from mid-october, while in Kyoto or Tokyo, the best time is at the end of November.

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