If there is one thing as good as the cherry blossoms in the Japanese Springtime, it is the opposite of that: the autumn leaves, when trees up and down the country flush a riot of reds, oranges and yellows.
There’s a plethora of places to experience ”Kouyou” (紅葉, autumn leaf viewing) in Japan, all excellent in their own way. But if you want to soak in the autumnal atmosphere in a unique way, why not head to Shinrin Koen, a vast wooded park, and soak up the autumnal delights both in the day and the night?
First things first: where is Shinrin Koen? It lies almost exactly in the center of Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo. The nearest train station is “Shinrin Koen” (森林公園), about 1 hour from Ikebukuro on the Tobu Tojo Line. From the train station’s north exit, there are regular buses that will take you to the gate of Shinrin Koen park within 10 minutes (210 yen one way), or if you’re feeling up for it you can walk there in 40 minutes. Entrance fee to the park is 450 yen for adults, while anyone aged 15 and under can enter free.
The park itself is worth giving a whole day to. It is a vast, 300 hectare reserve of varied nature, from carefully curated flower beds and herb gardens to the more wild and unkempt forest paths, and vast open fields - a precious rarity this close to Tokyo. It would be impossible to get around the whole park on foot, which is why there is a 17km network of cycling routes spread around the park - you can either rent a bicycle for 410 yen (260 yen for children) or bring your own into the park for free. It is both a great way to get around, as well as being great fun in of itself.
Shinrin Koen has multiple entrances, and the Central Gate (中央口) is where the main cluster of autumn leaf displays are. A short walk from here brings you to an area filled with Momiji trees, and from early November to early December these trees flush a vibrant array of yellows, oranges and greens. While there is an obvious main area where most of the autumn leaves are clustered, exploration is encouraged: for example, just behind the shop and restaurant, you can find a lush green slope lined with yet more momiji trees and Japanese “susuki” grass, another symbol of the Japanese autumn, often all to yourself to enjoy. If you have come during the day, a picnic surrounded by the leaves comes recommended: you can either bring your own food and drink into the park or buy it inside.
While waiting for the night to fall, you can either remain in the park or you can leave if you prefer to get dinner offsite, then return: you’ll be given a ticket or hand stamp to allow you same-day return to the park. Bear in mind that only the central gate will be open after sunset. And when you do return, it will feel like a completely different place: displays sparkle with multicolored fairy lights and carefully placed lamps light up select trees in suitably atmospheric ways.
Make your way back to the main momiji area and prepare to have your jaw drop to the floor. This is, in this writer’s humble opinion, the finest night display of autumn leaves in Japan. The reds and oranges illuminated against the night is stunning to behold, almost surreal, as if the trees are oil paintings. If you have a good camera, you will want to bring it. Surrounding the main area are a number of fairy-light structures to enjoy, including a lit-up tunnel especially popular with kids. For your own comfort, bring a warm jacket: what may have been a mild day can be a chilly night.
The Shinrin Koen autumn leaf light up may be a little out of the way if you’re in Tokyo, but that is what makes it so special. Surrounded by nature and with thinner crowds, it is a wonderful display - both day and night - that is absolutely worth it.