As a teenager I thought that the best time to visit Japan was spring, doing hanami under the fully bloomed cherry trees. Then my friend Chiara told me that autumn is just as nice and beautiful. To this, I need to add that my journey of living in Japan started in autumn and yes, everything was magical and colorful (and thankfully not as cold as Northern Italy or Yorkshire).

I enjoyed the parks in Tokyo as the leaves changed color, but still was surprised that dawn happened so early, and around six o’clock in the morning the sky was already as bright as could be.

Koyo and Momijigari

As usual, the Japanese language has its own term for the changing of colors to yellow and red and that is 紅葉 (koyo).

Momijigari is instead the search for the most bright and colorful leaves of the season. Momijigari once meant hunting for boars and birds, but it seems that Japanese aristocrats loved “hunting” for autumn leaves as much as they enjoyed traditional hunting.

In fact, gari can be translated as hunt, for both animals and flowers, leaves or fruits. Momiji is the maple leaf, symbol of autumn.

The legend of momijigari

There appears to be a legend about momijigari which tells that on Mount Togakushi in Nagano once lived a woman demon whose name was Momiji. One day a deer hunter decided to climb the mountain and met a woman dressed in rich garments who invited him to drink sake.

She was indeed Momiji and those were her tricks to confuse and then kill travellers that ventured on her mountain. Before she could use her tricks, a god appeared in front of the hunter, warning him of the danger and giving him a sword so that he could kill the demon. So, after a long battle, Momiji was defeated and peace was restored on the mountain.

As with many traditional Japanese activities, momijigari dates as far as the Edo period, although poets have written about the beauty of autumn leaves before.

When to go to Japan to do momijigari

It happens with hanami and it happens with momijigari: TVs and radio channels love to make predictions about the start and duration of these events, so you can’t go wrong following their flow. Momijigari lasts longer than hanami, though.

Leaves start changing color in Hokkaido in September, while for Kyushu the date shifts to November. In Tokyo you can do momijigari from October to December. From experience, there’s no such thing as a leaf left on a tree in Tokyo and nearby in January. Ok, that may be extreme, but I definitely noticed the change from bright yellow and red leaves to… nothing.

That made me only appreciate winter more and sparked a longing for spring to come soon.

What to eat for momijigari

As usual the rule is seasonal foods: mushrooms, pumpkins, chestnuts and sweet potatoes. There’s people roaming Tokyo to sell roasted sweet potatoes – I used to see one going back home after a long day. Plus, it’s a cheap alternative to konbini and makes you feel full fast.

Yet you may find everything inside a konbini, but I love to spend the evening at food courts in malls in Ginza picking out dinner. Of course I’m all in for sweets and cakes, but some also have bento and you can assemble your box yourself.

Maple leaves are to be found not only on trees but also in your plate. You can find them in tempura, or you can try a momiji manju, small maple leaf shaped cakes filled with anko, custard, matcha cream or chocolate.