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Autumn in Tokyo: a photo essay

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This article is part of a guide to Tokyo from FT Globetrotter

For the final part of our photography series highlighting the unfolding of autumn across FT Globetrotter cities, we commissioned photographer Sybilla Patrizia to capture the height of the season in Tokyo, which is due to hit its peak over the next few days. With an introduction by Leo Lewis

Autumn leaves, in all their deciduous delicacy, are in a small, exquisite circle of phenomena with which Japan loves to define its national relationship with nature and time.

Their cultural credentials, glorified in everything from ukiyo-e prints and kimono obi (sashes) to the anime Your Name and the Ghost of Tsushima video game, are impeccable. While it is hardly an exclusive club, being something that the poet Basho has used as the centrepiece of an impossibly beautiful haiku immediately puts you near the heart of the Japanese national soul.

Being something you can arrange on a lacquerware dish and serve food on for aesthetic perfection gets you a step or two closer. Being something for which octogenarians will board a train, travel for hours and queue in the November rain to “ooh” at in the Emperor’s garden is pretty much the bullseye.

Guidebooks, social historians, wizened tea-ceremony masters, variety-show hosts and anyone else with a view on Japan will remind you, again and again, how uniquely important seasonality is to the island nation. And even if that is a bit of a confection, it’s a harmless one with plenty of truth in it. The often short passage from the stifling, unbearable muggy heat of Japan’s long summers to the brisk chill of autumn is very much a cause for celebration — a stint of comfort and physical beauty before the real bite of winter digs in.

Japan’s four distinct seasons (however indistinct and unevenly allocated these days) are not just handy conversational tools (though they absolutely are that), an excuse for eating and drinking (though they are absolutely that too — bring me a chestnut Mont Blanc cake now) or a marketing device to flog the same product as four separate entities (I’ll have a can of cherry blossom Super Dry, please). They also provide an ongoing public narrative about the passage of time: a quartet of set-piece moments to punctuate the year that, often mawkishly and sometimes almost subliminally, demand secular but devoted observance.

The mighty cherry blossom commands its too-obvious cult of rebirth, fecundity, ephemerality and getting plastered in the sunshine. The autumn leaf, visually gorgeous but irredeemably coloured with the palette of death, asks for a more reflective piety. Just as people sometimes travel over long distances to enjoy cherry blossoms, so too do autumn leaves draw their aficionados. This is a time, as with cherry blossoms, for intensive photography and the capturing of tableaux.

There are, needless to say, any number of places where this worship of the colours, of their sudden contrast with the evergreen cedars and cypresses that abound across Japan and of their briefness as a phenomenon may be carried out.

Across rural Japan, depending on the precise time of year, entire hillsides and valleys become magnificent sweeps of crimson maple tridents and the pale yellow fans of the ginkgo. The Todoroki Valley offers just such a sight while remaining (miraculously) well within the urban sprawl of Tokyo. The more adventurous might seek their leaves in the Nagano prefecture segments of the famous Nakasendo hiking trail to the north-west of the capital.

In towns and cities, the parks and avenues suddenly take on the role of spectacle they last performed during cherry blossom season six months earlier. In Tokyo, Ueno Park is a favourite, and the meadow behind the Meiji Shrine is also quietly stunning. A number of places (see below) make a specific attraction of their autumn leaves. The quirky Hamarikyu Gardens tucked along the bay from the site of Tokyo’s old Tsukiji fish market uses floodlights to create an evening spectacle — a trick also played to glorious effect in several gardens of Kyoto and Nara. Many temples, shrines and historic houses have grounds that offer the leaf-chaser small-scale glimpses of perfection.

But the real prize, in the nation’s capital, remains the Imperial Palace, the vast bucolic anomaly in the city’s centre whose 115 hectares are home to thousands of trees and a distinct microclimate. Twice a year, during spring and autumn, parts of the palace gardens are opened to the public for a couple of weeks so that its flora worship may be expressed in the most hallowed venue of the lot. It is an invitation that, on the most crowded days, can draw over 80,000 visitors, but was stopped during the pandemic. The reopening this year, while cautiously attended, marked a critical psychological turning point: the leaves were dying, but Tokyo was reborn.

This park in Tokyo’s Bunkyo district is one of the best places in the city to see the autumn foliage
Completed in 1702, the gardens were built over seven years . . . 
…and their design was inspired by classical poetry 
In autumn (as well as in spring), the gardens are illuminated in the evening

A small lake lies in the centre of the park

Red maple leaves in

This traditional early-20th-century house in the trendy Daikanyama district . . . 
. . . has an elegant 5,500-square-metre garden . . . 
. . . that is particularly popular with visitors in the autumn

Maple leaves in the garden

Shadows of maple leaves on one of the house’s wooden walls

Sun shining through a darkened room in the Kyu Asakura House

One of the house’s rooms as seen from the garden

According to legend, the valley was discovered by a Buddhist monk after a deity revealed it to him in a dream
The valley leads to Todoroki Fudoson, a Buddhist temple

A single ginkgo biloba leaf

Branches of a ginkgo biloba tree, with a temple behind them

Where do you like to see the autumn leaves in Tokyo? Tell us in the comments

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