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Coming from Australia, a country that really doesn't have the colors of fall (i.e. most trees are evergreen), my first encounter with the hues of autumn leaves was in Japan. Although I have since had the pleasure of spending several seasons visiting the countryside of New England and seeing some beautiful displays of amber, gold and crimson, I am yet to come across that same feeling of sheer awe and inspiration that I experienced in Japan. Perhaps it is because the Japanese celebrate the season by painting exterior woodwork on bridges and buildings in bright red to complement the foliage or maybe it is traditional Japanese houses and temples set amidst a virtual flaming landscape. Either way, if you've not been to Japan before (or even if you have) and you think that Spring and the famous Cherry Blossom season is the best time to visit, try Autumn instead and avoid the huge crowds and infinitely more expensive tours and accommodation -- you will not be disappointed.
The Japanese are passionate about their fall season and even have a word -- Momiji-gari -- which refers to the custom of making an excursion with friends or family to see the leaves changing colors. The main island of Honshu is the best place to see the leaves and the weather in October and November (the peak foliage months) can be quite moderate and sunny with cool, bright days and crisp evenings. Seasonally known as kouyou, nowhere is the fall foliage visual as stunning as in the ancient former capital city of Nara located 30 miles from Kyoto.
Nara Park is famous for its thousands of roaming deer that make this park a peaceful and tranquil oasis after visiting 24/7 cities like Tokyo or Osaka. A beautifully landscaped area with ponds, bridges and a multitude of paths, the park is also home to the Nara National Museum and the 8th century Todaiji Temple, a UNESCO world heritage site and domicile of the world's largest Buddha. Mount Kasuga Forest is located just outside Nara and is a spiritual place for the Japanese, offering walks amongst acres of ancient trees with breathtaking views in any season. At the base of the mountain lies the 8th century Kasuga Taisha shrine, another world heritage site. Nara makes an exceptional day trip if you are based in either Osaka or Kyoto or a welcome retreat for those who choose to stay longer.
The hot springs resort town of Hakone, 134 miles from Tokyo is an ideal place to take in vistas of fall colors, especially from its Hakone Open-Air Museum (www.hakone-oam.or.jp/eng), located on a hillside and featuring 120 sculptures by renowned modern and contemporary international and Japanese artists. The museum also has various indoor galleries, including a major Picasso space and an area where children can interact with the art. The maple (momi) trees of Hakone shine in November each year, offering plethora of yellow, orange and red. Hakone has two aerial cable routes, called the Ropeway that use gondolas on suspension cables to travel between Sounzan and Owakudani, and from Owakudani to Togendai -- both offering 360-degree views of fall foliage. Take the Ropeway to the top of Mount Komagatake (Motohakone) for panoramic vistas of Mount Fuji and Lake Ashi.
Equally appealing is a stop at Owakudani valley, a volcanic crater featuring sulfur-infused vapor emissions spewing from the ground and pools of bubbling mud with Mt. Fuji as a scenic backdrop. The Hakone Free Pass (www.odakyu.jp/english/freepass/index.html) is a great investment if you plan to spend one to three days traveling in and around the Hakone area. The price includes a round-trip train ticket from Tokyo's Shinjuku Station to Hakone and then free transport for three days on seven different forms of transport in Hakone (trains, buses, a sightseeing cruise, the Ropeways and cable cars).
The city Kyoto comes alive with color in November. The former imperial capital features a selection of attractions that can be admired throughout the year, but in the autumn, the historical buildings and gardens take on an added ambience. The Imperial Palace (www.kyotogyoen.go.jp/english.html) and the gardens surrounding it is a spectacular place to admire the changing colors of thousands of native Ginkgo trees that turn a vibrant shade of yellow in the fall. Admission is free and it is only a short subway ride (10 minutes) from central Kyoto to Marutamachi Station. No trip to Kyoto is complete without a stroll along the Philosopher's Walk, a tranquil one mile path along a river canal through north-eastern Kyoto, along which Kitaro Nishida, a philosophy professor used to frequently walk. Despite its urban setting, the walk runs south from the 15th century Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji Temple) to Nyakuoji Shrine, passing by several temples and gardens en route, including the secluded Honen-in Temple. Both the Silver Pavilion and 14th century Golden Pavilion (Kiyomizu Temple) are a must to visit -- featuring picture-postcard perfect pagoda temples set amidst ponds and Zen gardens that are particularly striking in autumn.
Rather than staying at a standard western style hotel, experience traditional Japanese charm and hospitality by choosing to stay at a Ryokan or guesthouse. These are located throughout the country and many offer gardens, in-house bath houses and hot springs as add bonuses. Although the staff may not speak English, especially in more remote rural settings, the Ryokan is a uniquely Japanese accommodation option and a comfortable and generally affordable one. Check out websites like www.japaneseguesthouses.com, www.jpinn.com and www.ryokan.or.jp/index_en.html for information and online bookings for properties across the country. Ryokans range from the very rudimentary budget variety to ultra-luxurious ones, usually attached to hot springs. Budget accommodation options will often have shared bath facilities or will charge more for rooms with private bathrooms.
Located 15 minutes by express train from Nara or 30 minutes from Osaka is the town of Oji, home to a lovely traditional Japanese guesthouse, Yougendo (www.yougendo.com). A stay includes a home-cooked breakfast, Japanese Yukata style pajamas, free use of a bicycle, free national and international phone calls (Skype) and WiFi Internet access. Bathrooms are shared but the rooms themselves feature traditional straw mat tatami floors, futon mattresses, antique furniture and each overlooks a perfectly manicured enclosed Japanese garden. The staff is bilingual and for those who cannot live without it, there's even a large screen bilingual television with Nintendo Wii.
Kyoto-based Ryokans can be rather expensive but there are a handful of reasonable options. Ryokan Heianbo (www.kyo-yado.com/heianbo/english%20info.html) is a small family run authentic guesthouse located five minutes walk from the main train station. Hakone accommodation can also get rather pricey due to the resort nature of the town and the demand for hotels to accommodate hot springs visitors. Ryokan Ichinoyu (english.ichinoyu.co.jp/index.html) has rooms without baths, some with a panoramic bath and others with an open-air rock cut bath.
Once in Japan, if you plan to travel around, purchasing a Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrailpass.net) -- only available to foreign residents-- may be an economical option.