Fall at Nara Deer Park

Through my early teens, I grew up consuming detective tales from the likes of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. These classics have led me into believing the concept of criminals eventually going back to their place of crime. My crime is that I fell in love with the heritage city of Nara. Since knowing it from the Fall season of 2015, I have tried my best to visit the city that has somehow stopped in time, to breathe in its pure air and enjoy its hospitality.

Nara was the first capital of Japan and has a rich history that has kept me captivated since I first set my foot here in the fall of 2015. Nara Park is the central attraction of the ancient city and also one of the most amazing places to enjoy the fall season in the Kansai region. The lavish park contains hundreds of Momiji (Japanese maple) trees that turn red, brown, and yellow imparting a vivid range of colors to the area. The wandering herds of deer adds a touch of fantasy to the already beautiful canvas created by nature.

Fall in Nara

In Japan, the fall season or Koyo starts towards the middle of September, just like in most countries in the upper reaches of the northern hemisphere. The Japanese maple or Momiji is native to Japan, Korea, China, and eastern Mongolia, and southeast Russia. The northern-most island of Hokkaido is the first to experience the fall season and the leaves already start turning red towards the middle of September.

This phenomenon gradually spreads towards the south of the Japanese archipelago until the middle of November when it reaches the southernmost areas. Late November to early December marks the beginning of fall colors in western Japan, and even though Kyoto is where the real magic plays out, Nara is not bad either.

I and my wife, Mani were staying at the Piazza Hotel in Nara. It is kind of a lavish place to stay but it is also kind of difficult to find lodgings in Nara with most hotels booked almost 6 months beforehand. We woke up at dawn, freshened up, and after a hot cup of coffee walked down to Nara Park. The hotel is located adjacent to the JR Nara Station and it is at least a 20-minute walk to Nara Park. I was back after almost a year and the old memories of Sanjo-dori came flooding back as I made my way along the narrow road which had been a big part of my life when I used to live in Nara. On the way, we grabbed a couple of onigiris for breakfast from a convenience store.

Ukimido Pavilion

Our first stop was one of the hidden treasures of Nara Park – the Ukimido Pavilion, located in the middle of the Sagi-ike Pond. I call this place hidden because most of the tourists remain concentrated near the Todai-ji, Kasuga-taisha, and Kofuku-ji areas. Very few of them have the energy for the walk to this little place located in a corner of Nara Park.

The beautiful wooden pavilion looks as if it is floating on the pond’s water and is a tranquil place to visit. The early morning mist makes it all the more irresistible. The pavilion is usually lit up every night, which is when I love it the most. If you are in Nara in mid-August, do not miss out on the Nara Tokae Lantern Festival when you can indulge in the visual pleasure of a hundred lanterns lighting up the pavilion. That sight is guaranteed to take your breath away.

After capturing the pavilion, we hung around the place wandering about the Sagi-ike Pond since our next stop was Todai-ji and it doesn’t open before 8 am. Most of the trees surrounding the pond had lost a good part of their leaves during this time. Some of the trees that had started later were still hanging on to their colorful leaves.

Specifically, the word “oyo” refers to yellow leaves, and the word “katsuyo” refers to brown leaves.

The species of maple generally determine the color the leaves will change to red, yellow, or brown. Here in Japan, people refer to this phenomenon as Koyo. Although the word Koyo literally means “red leaves,” it is colloquially used to refer to the phenomenon of changing autumn colors, mainly when it occurs to the leaves of deciduous broad-leaf trees before they fall to the ground.

No visit to Nara Park is fulfilled without a visit to Todai-ji. We were the first couple to enter as the admissions booth opened. The temple attendants were still getting everything ready inside the temple grounds. It was pretty cold so we skipped the purifying ritual at the Chozuya and went directly towards the Great Buddha hall also known as Daibutsu-den.

Before entering we grabbed some incense sticks and lit them up at the altar in front of the Daibutsu-den gate. It is not required but recommended that you donate some Yen here before you take the incense sticks. The scent emanating from the incense slowly surrounds you driving your mind and soul away from worldly distractions. Please note that this is not how Todai-ji will be if you visit a little later in the day. The place is literally crawling with tourists as the day moved towards the after.

While climbing down the steps of Todai-ji, I clicked this shot of the Nakamon Gate with the Octagonal lantern in front. The lantern is as old as the temple itself. In fact, the wooden temple was recreated many times but the lantern has remained as is throughout the history of Todai-ji. I have written a detailed article on the history of Todai-ji, if you are interested to know more.

After paying respects at Todai-ji, we walked towards the back of the temple where I knew there was an interestingly shaped Momiji looking all beautiful in shades of red and yellow colors. The Momiji trees around Nara Park are kind of spread out, so you need to know from before the spots where they are the most alluring.

We gradually walked towards the front of Todai-ji, where near the Kagami-ike Pond, you can also find some lovely Momiji trees. Of all its close kin, this Japanese red maple is not only a sensation because of its brilliant fall color, but also because of the hues of red, it lends to the landscape throughout the winter.

The history of Momijigari

From Todai-ji we slowly moved towards a wooded area of Nara Park. This area is full of Momiji trees. Even though some of the trees had already become bare it was still a lovely sight to behold.

When autumn deepens and the leaves begin to turn color in the fields and mountains, hunting for autumn foliage is a popular pastime in Japan. Over the years it has become like a ritual with its own name called Momijigari – the Japanese tradition of visiting areas where leaves have turned red in the autumn.

This tradition of Momijigari was born during the Heian Era (794 – 1185) among the aristocrats of Kyoto. The word comes from the two Japanese words Momiji and Kari. Momiji means red leaves. Kari originally used to refer to the act of hunting wild beasts, but over the years it came to be used as a word for catching animals and harvesting crops. You can find its use in Japanese words like “kudamono gari” (fruit hunting) and “shiohigari” (clam hunting).

Such alluring was the beauty of the fall foliage that the Japanese nobility became great admirers of this nature’s beauty. They borrowed the words Momiji and Kari and combined them to create Momijigari to mean “red leaves viewing”. Trees were planted specifically in continued rows for this autumn hobby of the era’s elite.

Poetry about Momiji

In Japan, the maple is said to possess a poetic, rather than visual, quality although I would beg to differ. Cherry trees are generally depicted in Japanese painting, but the maple is best described in waka – Japanese songs, and haiku – Japanese poetry.

As more and more trees were planted across each prefecture in Japan, it lent a fantastical beauty to the temples in the region. The ancient collection of Manyoshu poetry compiled in the eighth century includes numerous stories involving Momijigari.

If you have read the classical Heian Period novel “The Tale of the Genji,” the hunting for fall leaves also finds a mention here. A large section of the Kokin Wakashu poetry collection, compiled around the beginning of the same period, is dedicated almost entirely to autumn leaves.

Varying in size from large shrub to small tree, the Japanese maple is a species with many variations. You can enjoy the spectacular fall colors at the many historic shrines and temples at Nara Park. During Nara’s autumn foliage season, many places have various events, special viewing admissions, and scenic night lightings. As we kept walking we went past the wooded area into the wide-open spaces at the base of Wakakusayama with herds of deer grazing around.

The deer are generally gathered around this area because the tourists feed them the local Shika senbei. They love it! We also bought 5 packets, each costing 200 yen.

Be prepared! even as you open the packets, they will come charging at you sniffing the subtle smell of the pancakes from long away.

After feeding the deer, we walked to the base of Mt. Wakakusa where lay a couple of Ginko trees. Among the beautiful Momiji trees, the Gingko is another group of trees that make autumn brilliant with its color. Also called “ichō” in Japanese, they are completely different from Momiji as they are not red but bright yellow and do not have the same shape. Unlike the Momiji trees, the Gingko trees grow to long heights.

Ginkgo is an ancient species, so old that it is said to have flourished during the age of the dinosaurs. Around 1 million years ago, though, the population began to fall and it only narrowly avoided extinction. Until a few hundred years ago it grew almost exclusively in northwest Asia, but global cultivation efforts have brought numbers to such a level that the ginkgo was removed from the endangered species list.

The Ginkgo is a relative newcomer to Japan, having arrived from China around 1,000 years ago. It has thrived over the centuries to become a familiar aspect of Japanese life. The area takes on the appearance of being carpeted in gold – there’s something truly magical about it. The smell of the senbei quickly gathered a couple of deer to us.

Nearby you can find a wooden pavilion. We kept our bags on the benches and had a lovely time feeding the deer.

After an entertaining morning in Nara Park, we went back to get some lunch at Kasuga Chaya. Its located near all the souvenir shops before you reach the Nandaimon Gate of Todai-ji. It’s a cute ticket restaurant where you need to buy your meal tickets from a vending-type machine before you take a seat. I had a big bowl of Udon. The warm soup sure made me feel good after the early morning wandering in a cold and cloudy Nara Park.

In the evening we came back to the Park to catch a beautiful sunset at Nigatsu-do. Once the sun had set behind the mountains, we wandered about the grounds catching a few of the Momiji trees in the street lights

You can find this tree near the Kagami-ike Pond. It was getting pretty cold by then, so after we got a couple of shots, we started on our way back to the hotel.

Thanks for reading! One of the best aspects of travel in Japan is enjoying the natural beauty of the four seasons. Fall is known for its especially nice weather and is a season when one can taste many delicious foods, making it a great time for sightseeing. Just like with the sakura, this season holds a very special place in Japanese people’s hearts as it reminds everyone that everything is ephemeral and that we need to enjoy what is given to us before it vanishes.

The autumn foliage of Nara Park is exceptionally impressive. You can see beautiful autumn leaves in every part of the expansive grounds. The ability to enjoy seeing deer and maple trees while you gaze at the temples through the trees is unique to the park. I hope you liked my story. Please leave your comments or questions using the comments form below. I would love to know about your experiences at the park. You can also connect with me on Instagram.

What are the other places to enjoy the Fall season in Nara?

Apart from Nara Park, you can also visit these recommended spots:
1. Isui-en Garden
2. Hasedera Temple
3. Mt. Yoshino

What is the best time to enjoy Momiji in Nara?

Nara has a scattered fall where some of the trees begin to go red with the onset of November and some of them stay red till early December. It is always smart to come with a couple of days in hand because you will run into grey days with extreme cloud cover and intermittent rainfall.

Fall leaves at Yamadera Temple

This journal is mostly about my Fall experience in Yamadera (山寺), a scenic temple located in the mountains northeast of Yamagata City.

When autumn deepens and the leaves begin to change color in the the fall months, hunting for autumn foliage has become a popular pastime in Japan. Watching my friends post the mesmerizing beauty of Autumn forced me to also schedule my tour to Japan during this time of the year.

Mind you, this need to visit far off places to appreciate the beauty of autumn has been a custom since ancient time as depicted in “The Tale of the Genji.” Even in the eighth century we have scenes that talk about how people used to search for beautiful autumn colors in the Heian Period. Yamadera is one such place to experience the vivid colors of Autumn as the surrounding slopes are enveloped in red & yellow foliage as far as the eyes can see.

This was my second visit to the lovely mountain temple. I have written in detail about the various structures inside the temple grounds when I went on a hike to Yamadera a couple of years before.

Colors begin turning in late September around Yamagata and usually peak in mid October. The weather had been lovely in the recent past as we traveled from Kansai towards the Tohoku region. Unfortunately the weather deteriorated rapidly as we reached moved north of Fukushima, .

On the day of our Yamadera visit, we woke up to see early morning showers. I was a bit perturbed by the thought of hiking up Yamadera in wet conditions, but the weather cleared up quickly.

After a hearty breakfast, we walked down to Yamagata Station. The roads were still wet but the skies were beautiful blue.

There are regular trains to Yamadera and it takes less than 20 minutes to reach. We had some time in our hands, so we went around the back of the station to find some lovely Momiji trees.

We caught the 9:45 am local going to Sendai on the JR Sanzen line. The ride from Yamagata to Yamadera is covered by the JR Pass. The Fall experience started early on the train on the train itself, as it chugged alongside some lovely mountains.

We reached Yamadera at around 10 am. The weather had again turned cloudy, but the fall foliage around the Yamadera mountains kept my excitement alive.

After wandering around the base of the mountain for some time, we made our way across the Tachiya River towards Yamadera.

A brief history of Yamadera

It was during the early Heian Period (794-1185) when Emperor Seiwa sent Monk Ennin to the Tohoku Region. The monk, who is better known in Japan by his posthumous name, Jikaku Daishi is credited with founding Yamadera, in the current Yamagata prefecture. In those times this area used to be part of the Dewa province.

Even though in the Japanese Feudal Period (1450-1600) the temples were destroyed by the wars and temporary fell into decline, during the next Edo Period (1615-1868), Yamadera recieved a lot of recognitions by the shogun (military government) and regained its prosperity.

Konpon Chu-do

The first temple we visited was the Konpon Chu-do (Hall). The Konpon Chu-do is the Main Hall of the temple and its oldest structure. Made of beech wood, this building is said to be the oldest in the complex.

The eternal flame of Konpon Chu-do

According to my research prior to visiting the temple, the Konpon Chu-do hall holds an eternal flame that Jigaku Daishi brought from Enryaku-ji. This flame has been burning for more than 1100 years. It will appear silly and let me tell you it was not for lack of effort but I could not to figure out where this flame is placed.

According to legend, the monk Dengyo Daishi (767 – 822), the founder of both the Tendai sect and Enryaku-ji temple in Kyoto brought this flame from a pilgrimage to China in 804 / 805 A.D. to Japan. Interestingly, the original flame at Enryaku-ji was extinguished when Oda Nobunaga destroyed the Enryaku-ji complex in 1571. When Enryaku-ji was rebuilt, the flame was brought back to Kyoto from Yamadera.

Statue of Nadebotoke at Konpon Chu-do

In front of Kunpon Chu-do Hall, there is Nadebotoke, a statue representing Buddha. Nadebotoke refers to a Pindola, the highest order of Buddhist acolyte who has attained satori. It is said that if you touch this idol in the same place that you have an injury, and then touch the place where you are injured. Some of the Chinese tourists in front of us just wouldn’t leave. They kept touching the statue like forever. Eventually when they left, we offered prayers at the holy shrine here before beginning our ascent towards the higher reaches.

A few paces to the left, you can find the Sammon Gate. Here you can buy the admission tickets to the temple grounds. They cost ¥ 300 per head for adults. It was a Tuesday and there were very few visitors. We gradually made our way up the stairs towards the summit.

Midway on the trail, you can see some beautifully weathered rock faces on the side of the mountain. There are many other interesting structures on the way but I have discussed about them in my previous journal.

At the end of the stairs, you’ll find Niomon Gate. It was built in 19th century and it’s actually one of the newest building in Yamadera complex.

Nokyodo & Kaisando

As we passed the Niomon Gate, we found ourselves in front of a rocky outcropping on which lies the most-photographed wooden structure of Yamadera: the small Sutra Repository Tower known as Nokyodo.

Just beside the Nokyodo you can find the Kaisando or the Founder’s Hall. Kasaido Hall is dedicated to the founder of the temples, Jikaku Daishi (monk Ennin) while the Nokyodo Hall was used as a room where sutra were copied.


The stairs going up on the right take you to Godaido Hall, an observatory deck, built in the early 1700. This hall is placed in such a way it provides glorious views on the valley.

Yamadera during Autumn

The maple tree is the indisputable king of autumn colors. As a matter of fact, the word “autumn colors” 紅葉 (pronounced: koyo) is written with the same kanji characters as the word “maple tree” (pronounced: momiji). Koyo refers to the phenomenon of changing autumn colors, mainly when it occurs to the leaves of deciduous broad-leaf trees before the leaves fall to the ground.

At some point in time, the word momiji became synonymous with the maple tree (kaede) and now people just use it to refer to the maple trees.

Maple trees are native to Japan and can be seen in their wild form in forests. I used my 80-400mm to get a few close-up shots of the mountain tops.

More closeup shots of Fall trees around Yamadera.

After capturing several shots of the mountain range, we climbed down the stairs back to the Kaisando. From here a narrow path leads up the mountain. Along the path are two Momiji trees perfectly placed to capture the most beautiful structure of Yamadera.

Even though the red leaves are more popular, I love the yellow Momiji leaves. Even in the dull weather, they were shining with joy. The species of maple generally determines the color the leaves will change to – red, yellow or brown. Although the word koyo literally means “red leaves, ” it is used to refer to all the colors of autumn leaves. The word oyo refers to yellow leaves, and the word katsuyo refers to brown leaves specifically.

Maple leaves are sometimes eaten as tempura. Fresh leaves are salted or sugared and then fried in tempura batter, for a delicious treat.

Took some photos with the Momiji Trees

Okunoin Hall

During the Kamakura Period (1185-1382), Yamadera became the center of the Tohoku’s Buddhist culture. During those times over 300 monks along with thousands of devouts lived in the upper and lower part of the mountain.

A small path goes to Okunoin hall, where Daibutsuden is located. Inside, a Buddha Amida statue is in place, and visitors can admire it from outside the building. Photography is prohibited in this area.

Okunoin hall

View of the mountains from the top

On the left, you can find a small building almost hidden from view.

Walking down Yamadera

The artificial lights had started to take effect along the mountain side.

In the failing light we made our way to the base of the mountain where the Risshaku-ji sat in the dusk.

Lights were turned on while we waited at the Yamadera Station fror our train.

Thanks for reading. Photographs can never tell the emotions I felt standing on the cliffs edge at Godaido as I witnessed the beautiful fall trees of Yamadera. But I hope they can inspire some of you to reach out and witness what I have. If you have the chance to tour Yamagata, do not miss this unique experience.

I look forward to your reviews and questions. If you are looking to explore more of the Tohoku region, follow my story as I move further north to the beautiful city of Aomori.

Can I carry my luggage to the Temple?

Yes, Coin lockers are available at Yamadera Station where you can store your belongings for the time you are here.

What are the visiting hours?

April to November: 9.30am to 4pm
December to March: 10am to 3pm
Closed on Wednesdays

Is there an Official website?

Yes, please follow this link: http://www.yamaderakankou.com/

What is the best time to view fall foliage in Yamadera?

From the end of October to the beginning of November