The expression 紅葉 – literally red leaves – can denote two things: the Japanese maple tree and tinted autumn leaves.
Autumn in Japan comes late, brings clear blue days and is pleasantly mild (in fact, November went from being my least favorite month to one of those I like best). But its greatest attraction are its spectacular tinted leaves. Depending on the geography, the leaves are turning between mid-November and early December. Even though this seasonal occurrence does not quite carry the importance of cherry blossoms season (sakura), it comes right after.
Weather websites have tinted leaf forecasts, and on sightseeing maps, little leaf symbols mark the best places for maple viewing.
In Kyoto, temples and gardens with especially beautiful maples put up impressive light installations and are open in the evening for this period. Imagine the hills being virtually aflame with red maple trees spectacularly lit from below! It’s an event that is advertised already two months in advance.
Even though most deciduous trees do turn colors, here, the spotlight is definitely on the Japanese maple (acer palmatum). No surprise. Its delicately cut lacework of leaves is already a joy to look at in spring, but in fall it comes in all hues from green to yellow, orange, red and almost purple, even though red is definitely the dominating color. (To be fair I should say that also the Ginko tree whose foliage turns a bright yellow receives quite some attention.) Personally, I am a big fan of tinted leaves. If I get close to an autumnal maple tree and happen to carry a camera, it’s hard to get me away from it again.
I have visited Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion with its lovely garden, in April and August before, but seeing it in autumn colors is even more special. I wish I could have spent more time in Kyoto this autumn and seen the lit gardens at night. But I guess I have to leave something for next year.