I have to admit one of the most photogenic seasons in Japan has to be during the hanami, which the time when the cherry trees (sakura) are in blossom. Thousand of pink flowers surrounding ancient temples or flanking the canals in Kyoto is a sight to behold and provides a great setting for travel photography. The hanami (which means “watching the flowers”) attracts millions of travel photographers and tourists from all over the country and from abroad during a relatively short period. That time of the year also tends to coincide with the Golden Week, when four national holidays are spread over seven days, meaning all means of transportation, hotels, and sightseeing spots can become incredibly crowded.
Another great season to visit Japan, if you don’t mind the sometimes bitter cold, is winter. Japan gets a huge amount of snow during the late winter and this can make for a large number of landscape photography opportunities, especially on the Japanese Alps and in the northern island of Hokkaido.
However, fall happens to be my favorite time of the year to visit Japan to pursue travel photography.
Why visit Japan in Fall?
One of the reasons why is simply that the weather tends to be great, with balmy daily temperatures, cool nights, and mostly blue skies. Just make sure you go past the typhoon season, which in 2019 extended into the first half of October with typhoon Hagibis, one of the most violent in recent years.
The other reason is that, as the temperatures start getting colder, fall colors start to appear, first in the north, then progressively reaching south. The foliage also starts turning yellow and red earlier at higher altitudes than in the plains. This means you can be in Tokyo in mid-November, where everything is green, but take a short trip to the Five Fuji Lakes or Nikko and you’ll find those places are at full peak or even past it.
Different species of trees also start changing color at different times and can be as strikingly different as bright yellow gingkos and intensely red maples. All in all, this means that you can get many more opportunities to photograph fall foliage (or momiji in Japanese, meaning “read leaves”) than you can to photograph cherry blossoms. Crowds can also be thinner, even though the momiji season is very popular with the Japanese and the most popular and easily reachable spots can be very crowded.
When I was in Japan last November I was lucky to witness some amazing colors, even without trying very hard. Whereas we saw almost nothing in Tokyo and just a few sprinkles of color in Kyoto, Takayama and Shirakawago in the mountains were nothing short spectacular, while colors in Kawaguchi-ko–one of the prime momijigari (“the hunt for red leaves”) spots–were already beginning to fade.
The famous Kenrokuen garden in Kanazawa also let us take in the colors at night, as they light it up at that time of the year. My favorite location, however, was probably Nikko, a huge heritage site repleted with richly decorated shrines set amidst the forest. The combination of ancient architecture and colorful leaves was simply stunning.
Travel Photography Equipment to Carry
The ample variety of subjects that present themselves to the photographer traveling to Japan. That means there will be opportunities to use many kinds of focal lengths. So bring a wide array of camera lenses with you. Keep in mind that in November, when many of the travel photos in this article were taken, the sun will be low in the sky and hours of light will be fewer than in summer. Unless you are thinking of using a tripod everywhere, having some fast camera lenses is definitely recommended.
I recommend bringing a lightweight travel tripod anyway. I couldn’t have taken the night photo of the Kenrokuen above without one, but using a bulky, full-size tripod would have been problematic there. In some locations, using a tripod for travel photography is not allowed. However you may be able to get away with a short table-top tripod that does not attract attention.
As always, my recommendation is to travel light. You might have to do long hikes, as when climbing all the way up the Fushimi Inari Taisha sanctuary under its long series of red torii, and you don’t want to be bogged down by a heavy backpack.
As for clothing, the fall in Japan can be quite warm, compared to what you might be used to at similar latitudes in Europe and America. Unless you are going up the Japanese Alps, you won’t need very warm clothing. November in Tokyo and Kyoto can feel like September in Central Europe.
Travelling in Japan
We reached most of the locations mentioned in this article: Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Nikko, Kanazawa, and Takayama, by train. The Japanese rail network is capillary, efficient and proverbially on time. If you plan to do many train rides, consider getting a 7-day or a 14-day JR Pass. The Fuji Five Lakes area can also be reached by train or bus from Tokyo and other cities.
The only location we couldn’t get to by train is Shirakawago, in the Alps. The best way to get there is by bus from Takayama or Kanazawa.
Given the complexity of Japan’s public transportation network, navigating it can seem daunting at first. Don’t worry, though, because the Japanese clerks are always very helpful and even private citizens will always lend a hand to a tourist in difficulty, even if not all Japanese speak good English. Learning enough of the language to be able to say “please”, “thank you” and “how do I get to …?” will certainly be appreciated by the locals.
If you were thinking of doing some fall landscape and travel photography in Japan, I recommend you set your sights on November. There are many sites (like this one) that provide up-to-date forecasts on foliage development and that will allow you to plan your transfers accordingly.
Japan is not only a country that has an incredible number of stunning locations for travel photographers, but also a rich cultural heritage, while being modern and extremely safe. Finally, Japanese food is famed all over the world, and for good reason, but it is nowhere better sampled than in Japan.