The Japanese Art of Autumn Leaf ‘Hunting’
Written by Timothy Bunting
It may be hard to believe, but Japan is as obsessed with the seasons as it is with food. We’ve all heard of Hanami, the Japanese tradition of sitting under the cherry blossoms in spring. However, did you know there was an autumn equivalent? Momijigari, lit. ‘hunting’ the autumn leaves, is another seasonal pastime the Japanese absolutely adore. A blanket of deciduous trees such as maple, beech, or oak covers Japan, making it perfect for Autumn leaves. And, it just so happens the Dewa Sanzan is one of the best places to take it all in. What’s all the fuss about? See for yourself as we introduce the top spots for Momijigari Autumn Leaves on the Dewa Sanzan.
First up, what exactly is Momijigari? Autumn Leaf Hunting? Similar to Hanami in spring, Momijigari is the simple act of enjoying the presence of the changing autumn leaves. Basically, people go out to enjoy the autumn leaves, maybe take some photos, or collect a few leaves for keeping.
The word for autumn leaves, Momijigari, is made up of two words; Momiji, meaning the changing foliage, and kari, meaning to hunt. Technically, the Kanji for Momiji is ‘crimson leaves’, and is also pronounced ‘Koyo’. But, why use the term for ‘hunting’? Well, legend has it nobles from the past didn’t hunt animals, so they would ‘hunt’ for autumn leaves.
Momijigari developed amongst nobles in the Heian Period (794 to 1185) around the then capital, Nara. Then, in the 17th century commoners also began taking part, turning it into a national pastime. Once the Hassaku Festival and Akinomine Autumn Peark ritual is over, it’s officially autumn on the Dewa Sanzan. Each of the three Dewa Sanzan offers a different taste of the autumn leaves. Read more to find our favourite spots.
Although famous for its cedar forest, Mt. Haguro boasts hundreds and hundreds of deciduous trees. Maple is perhaps most well-known for its vibrant colours, but the yellow beech on Mt. Haguro truly stands out. Want to make the most of the autumn leaves on Mt. Haguro? We recommend starting at the bottom and slowly hiking up. Chances are you’ll want to spend most of your time at the top of Mt. Haguro. This is where the largest varieties of autumn leaves is, giving you ample opportunity to snap the perfect shot. You could even stay in Saikan to take advantage of the sunlight throughout the day. Mt. Haguro is open year-round, but for the best of the autumn leaves you’ll want to visit around October.
Mt. Yudono’s location in a small gorge gives 360 degree views of the autumn leaves. Not only that, the striking red of the giant Torii gates creates a beautiful background. To make the most of the location, walk the path from the carpark to the main shrine. This path takes you over bridges, past waterfalls and shrines, and is quite relaxing with the cool autumn breeze. Mt. Yudono shrine closes on the first weekend of November, so make sure to get a hike in before then.
What good would a list of places to see the autumn leaves on the Dewa Sanzan be without Mt. Gassan? Plus, there’s good news. For those who can, we’d recommend hiking from the 8th station to take in the autumn leaves in different situations. However, the ski-lift option on the Shizu-Onsen side is just as breathtaking. Also, the added height above the trees gives you unprecedented views out over the surrounding mountains.
However, for the real Mt. Gassan Autumn Leaves experience, you can’t go past Hijiori Onsen to the east. Hijiori Onsen is a caldera formed millions of years ago that is famous for having the heaviest snowfall in Japan. In other words, you’re going to want to get in there before the snow starts falling in earnest. When there, be sure to hit up Jizokura, a tiny hut on the side of a cliff with intense views. As with the main paths up Mt. Gassan, we’d recommend visiting Hijiori by the end of October at the latest.
For the ultimate in autumn leaf experience, look no further than the Mogami gorge. The Mogami River is famous as the longest contiguous river in one prefecture. It’s also famous for its role in the rice and safflower trade from the 1600s onwards. Not only that, Matsuo Basho rode the river while composing The Narrow Road to the Deep North. However, perhaps its best claim to fame is the pure beauty of its leaves in autumn. Those in the area will want to take advantage of the Mogami River Boat Cruise. Running daily, the cruise takes you straight through the heart of the autumn leaves, and isn’t too far from the Dewa Sanzan.
As the Dewa Sanzan lies north of the main centres, be aware that the season is earlier than other places in Japan. For the Dewa Sanzan, Autumn Leaf season begins around the middle of September, and generally concludes by December. By then, it’s not unusual to get a few feet of snow, so be sure to wrap up warm! If you’re there at that time of year, be sure to also check out the Five Story Pagoda Light Up. For information on getting around, see our access guide, or our guide to hiking the Dewa Sanzan. Otherwise, we hope you can get out into the Dewa Sanzan and hunt some of the awesome Autumn Leaves on display!
Tim Bunting is a Dewa Sanzan Shrine Yamabushi with over 10 years’ experience living beneath the three mystical peaks. He is a self-professed Dewa Sanzan nerd, and is currently working on the Yamabushido project and Dewa Sanzan Monzenmachi Project with Megurun Inc. His roles including assisting in Yamabushi trainings, translating, interpreting, and curating Dewasanzan.com.
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