5 Ways to Enjoy Autumn in Japan


Carolyn Edelmuth

Many people flock to forests, gardens and famous temples to admire the signs of autumn in Japan. The main focus of this season is the momiji (紅葉), the Japanese maple with bright red leaves. Leisurely strolls under the momiji make for a perfect autumn outing, but that is just one option among many ways of celebrating fall like a local. Read on to find out which Japanese fall tradition best suits your style.  

  1. Fall Foliage

Whether you’re living in, or planning a trip to Japan, consider spending some time in mid-September to early December appreciating the changing of the leaves like a local. You might be familiar with the spring tradition of cherry blossom or plum blossom viewing  (hanami :花見)— if you’re lucky enough to be here for its short season (about three to seven days in April). There are similar traditions in autumn, including momijigari ( 紅葉がり: hunting leaves), which involves visiting scenic places to admire kouyo (紅葉), the changing of the leaves. Many temples have beautifully curated gardens, but there are also plenty of parks where you can admire the momiji . One of my favorites is Koishikawa-Kōrakuen (小石川後楽園) in Bunkyo, Tokyo.  

Leaves in Tokyo start to turn at the beginning of September.

If you’re in the Kansai area, you can also try Forest Bathing in the fall foliage.

Mochi are popular year-round. In autumn, dishes like zenzai are served warm.

2. Harvest Moon Delicacies

One of the clearest signs of autumn in Japan is the signage at shops and restaurants: limited edition fall themed food is everywhere! In Japanese folklore, the full moon is said to have the image of a rabbit making rice cakes (mochi: もち), and the harvest moon is the best time to see it. All at once you can find rabbit (usagi: ウサギ) shaped food, round and yellow foods reminiscent of the moon (tsuki :月) such as Japanese sweet potato (satsuma-imo: さつまいも), Japanese squash (kabocha:カボチャ), mochi rice cakes, Japanese persimmon (kaki: 柿) and chestnuts (kuri:くり). Traditionally, o-tsukimi (お月見) the Harvest Moon Festival, is celebrated by gathering together and eating these moon-like foods, including tsukimi dango (small balls of mochi).

3. Neighborhood Festivities

In Tokyo, many neighborhoods have festivals (omatsuri: お祭り) in the fall, which were originally celebrations of the harvest season. Neighborhoods prepare months in advance to carry the pagoda in a parade. On the big day, they get together and dress-up in traditional festival clothes. Unique to each neighborhood, there’s lively singing, dancing and cheering. Fall Omatsuri start in September and run until mid-November. Two of the biggest ones in Tokyo are the Kichijoji Autumn Festival (at the beginning of September) and the Shinagawa Shukuba Festival (at the end of September). If you’re wanting to immerse yourself in the local atmosphere, keep an eye out for posters in your neighborhood about upcoming omatsuri so you know all the details.

The main festival area with food and game stalls.

Wagashi are prepared with seasonal foods like kuri.

4. Autumnal Wagashi

You can have a first-hand experience with seasonal food by trying Japanese confectionary, wagashi, which, in the fall, come in shapes of an array of autumnal flowers or plants, or made with Japanese autumnal foods. From the end of September to the beginning of December, you can find wagashi in the shape of momiji, usagi, kaki, kuri and chrysanthemum (kiku: 菊). Recurring flavors for autumn in Japan are kuri, satsuma-imo and kabocha. Like the familiar red bean paste, present throughout the year in Japanese confectionery, some of the fall flavors may be unfamiliar tastes; for example, I was surprised to find wagashi made with kabocha, that was similar to pumpkin pie, but less sweet and spiced than North American versions.  

5. Stay Warm with Some Sake

If, on the other hand, you don’t have a sweet-tooth, a sake tasting could be the perfect way to appreciate the autumnal season. Because fall is the season for rice harvesting, this is a great opportunity to wholeheartedly enjoy sake with family and friends. If you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of sake, you can always take part in a guided sake tasting and learn about the brewing process through a guided brewery tour. Once you have the run-down, you can put your knowledge into practice and have your own o-tsukimi party, making sure to include rice and seasonal vegetables from the latest harvest, sake, and some autumn wagashi to finish things off.

Trying sake from a local brewery is a must-do.

Many aspects of Japanese traditional culture are influenced by the changing of the seasons: dishes and recipes reflect the available produce, different festivals are celebrated and seasonal motifs make their appearance in traditional art. In Japan, the beginnings and endings of each season are recognized and celebrated with good food and drink. You won’t want to miss out on traditions dedicated to autumn in Japan.