Does a trip to Japan have to be in spring?
Cherry blossom season might make all the news headlines but Graham says that in autumn Japan glows with a gentle beauty he prefers.
They say the spring cherry blossom display in Japan is like the life of a Samurai, short and glorious. It is true: the flowering cherries are spectacular across the cities and the countryside, but don’t blink. In a good year the cherry blossom season can last six days, a bad year only three. In an exceptional year, the display had us gasping with delight for a full two weeks.
Lake Chūzenji in Nikkō National Park near the city of Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan. Photo: Sean Pavone
Autumn is a very different proposition, and the display lasts around a month, given good climatic conditions. With long, clear, blue-sky days and crisp, cold nights, the autumn colours magically change to every shade of gold, bronze, red, vermilion, yellow and apricot.
The star of the show takes centre stage. The regal chrysanthemum. Photo: Cowardlion/Shutterstock.com
And there is bonus for the autumn visitor: the finest exhibition of chrysanthemums in the world. Outside shops, on railway station platforms and in castle gardens you’ll find chrysanthemums created with breathtaking horticultural precision and beauty. Whether it’s Nagoya, Tokyo or in Kenrokuen – their imperial loveliness – never fails to convert new fans.
The incredible Kegon Falls, Lake Chūzenji in Nikkō National Park. Photo: Sean Pavone
To capture the real autumn spirit you need to escape Tokyo for Nikko National Park, a few hours drive away. Here the scenery will have you grabbing for your camera! First up is this incredible waterfall at scenic stop at Kegon Falls, located at Lake Chūzenji in Nikkō National Park near the city of Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan. The falls were formed when the Daiya River was rerouted by lava flows – this is magnificent no matter the season. While sacred Mt Nantai (2,484m), a sleeping volcano in the Senjogahara Plateau, which overlooks the city of Nikko, is largely treeless, the surrounding ranges are covered with Japanese larch, oak, elm, crabapple, birch, rhododendron and maple species all changing into a myriad of leaf colour. Nothing can really prepare you for this explosion of autumn.
Quintessentially Japan, the Sacred bridge in Nikko. Photo: Sean Pavone
We spend several days in Nikko, at the magnificent Kanaya Hotel. This hotel, built in 1873, is Japan’s oldest and overlooks the Toshogu Shogun’s elaborate Cryptomeria- surrounded mausoleum and the glorious-recently-restored-red Sacred Bridge. The Kanaya Hotel was conceived when Zenichiro Kanaya, bard at the Toshogu Shrine, opened his home to a foreigner looking for accommodation. The foreigner turned out to be missionary James Hepburn, creator of the Hepburn system of Romanisation for the Japanese language. We love their French restaurant, fusion interior, and Scotch whisky den with roaring fire.
Kenrokuen Garden is the best-known and most-visited garden in Japan, it’s definitely not to be missed in any season! Photo: Cowardlion/shutterstock.com
Later we journey across the main Japanese island of Honshu to the coastal city of Kanazawa to visit Kenrokuen Garden, one of Japan’s top three landscapes and my personal favourite. Established by the powerful warlord Maeda family in 1676, it is very complex in its layout. The design includes the six traditional landscape attributes of spaciousness, seclusion, design, antiquity, water features and vistas.
Bamboo and rope ‘snow maypoles’ protect the conifer collection from the weight of snowfall
And as always in Japan the level of horticulture is impressive. In winter, for instance, the 12,000 mature pines are protected from the weight of winter snowfalls by ‘yukitsuri’. These ‘snow maypoles’ are both decorative and functional. Bamboo and ropes made from straw form a skirt that breaks up the heavy snow falls, and prevents the weight of accumulated snow from snapping off the branches. Armies of gardeners descend in November to first lash a bamboo pole along the tree trunk. Lengths of strong flexible rope are attached at the top of the bamboo, and are unfurled when the bamboo is in place then tied to the main branches, like a maypole. The sight of the snow-covered landscape and icy lakes surmounted by these fine skirts of rope is Kenrokuen’s most famous winter view.
A shinkansen bullet train ride brings us to Nagoya Castle (leading photo), built in 1612. The castle itself is beautiful, and it hosts the country’s finest chrysanthemum exhibition. I was first amazed by this show in 1980 and now it is even bigger and better! Some plants are three meters across, with two flower colours grafted onto one bush. Other stunning sights include single plants with single, giant, dinner plate-sized blooms of immense beauty. In all, the display is over half a kilometre long with the castle towering in the background!
I assure you that autumn in Japan is so lovely that you too will overuse both your camera and your range of superlatives!