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Article: Autumn in Kyoto

Autumn in Kyoto

By Danielle Demetriou

Sunlit scarlets. Vivid oranges. Luminescent yellows. The poetry of Japan is written into its trees every autumn – each one telling a different story through a spectrum of fiery shades and shapes.

Nature appreciation in Japan isn’t just about sakura cherry blossoms in springtime – the art form is elevated to new heights every autumn. At this time of year – known as koyo (leaf watching season) – the archipelago is slowly seeped in an impressionistic wash of seasonal colours, from its mountains, forests and ancient temples to inner city streets and parks.

Among many highlights, there are towering sunlight-yellow icho gingko trees with their elegantly regal fan-shaped leaves; the slowly gradated sunset spectrum of shades of keyaki zelkovas; and perhaps most iconic of all, the fiery red glow of momiji Japanese maples.

No doubt about it, Japan is a country where seasonal sensitivity is impossible to resist. From the fruits displayed in supermarkets to the cuisine served up in restaurants and the artful flower displays in homes, daily life often offers countless signs of the precise time of year – at times, right down to the week (Japan’s traditional calendar has an impressive 72 micro-seasons in a year).

Autumn has long been my favourite time of year since moving from London to Japan 15 years ago. It’s not hard to see why: after the heavy summer humidity dissipates, at this time of year, there are often long days of high blue skies, sunshine and mild temperatures – all perfectly complemented by the annual autumn leaf show.

Having recently relocated to Kyoto from Tokyo, we are currently enjoying our first autumn season living in the ancient capital – and I can testify (as reflected in my Instagram tree spam) that it is officially koyo heaven here.

With its bold spectrum of natural colours, the city is perhaps at its most beautiful at this time of year, with leaf-lovers spoilt for choice. There are the haiku-inspiringly perfect temples, with painterly glimpses of vivid maples through sliding screens; the sunlight-catching bursts of golden gingko glimpsed while cycling down the street; and even the hypnotic reddening of the leaves of small but perfectly formed maple trees in our Japanese garden.

Perhaps most importantly of all, autumn leaf appreciation is not only a practice that dates back centuries in Japan, it’s deeply steeped in its multi-layered spiritual heritage: a longstanding sensitivity to the fleeting transience of the beauty of nature is embedded in the nation’s DNA – and it is as timeless as tea ceremony.