Sapporo: The City of Spectacular Fall Leaves



 Sapporo is the largest city and the capital of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. The city sits on the Ishikari plain, on the alluvial fan of the Toyohira River that flows through the city. Sapporo is surrounded by the mountains in the south and west, which gives the city a variety of nature types and weather conditions: It might already be already snowing in the mountains but the lower parts of the city are still boasting the colorful fall foliage.

 Sapporo is known for its world-famous Sapporo beer and Sapporo miso ramen. In addition, when you hear the name ‘Sapporo’, besides beer and ramen, the image coming to your mind is probably Sapporo’s snowy winters and the Sapporo snow festival that fills the city with snow sculptures. But did you know that Sapporo is worth visiting during other seasons, too? During fall, the leaves of the trees all around the city turn to blazing red and bright yellow before falling down. Viewing the beautiful fall leaves is one of the most unforgettable activities you can do in Sapporo in the fall. There are several places in Sapporo city itself to view the foliage and if you venture a bit outside the city center, you have even more options.

 In this blog column, you can read all about the fall leaves in Hokkaido and the best spots to view fall foliage in Sapporo and its vicinities.

 If you want to know more about Sapporo, take a look at our earlier blog columns about the city here (we have many!): All Treasure Island Travel’s blog columns about Sapporo. 

The many falls of Hokkaido and Japan

 In places with four seasons, the fall is the time when nature gives its blessings in the form of harvest and then slowly starts to prepare itself for the long and cold winter. In Japan, fall is the season to enjoy cooling weather after the pressing heat of summer but also the season to prepare for the winter. This has created a culture of referring to different ‘falls of this-and-that’ (~ no aki / ~の秋), for example, ‘the fall of appetite’ (shokuyoku no aki / 食欲の秋), ‘the fall of harvest’ (shuukaku no aki / 収穫の秋), ‘the fall of reading’ (dokusho no aki / 読書の秋), and ‘the fall of sports’ (supootsu no aki / スポーツの秋).

 The fall of appetite and the fall of harvest both refer to preparing oneself for winter. Many animals eat as much as possible in fall to prepare for the long and cold winter and, for example in the case of bears, hibernation. We, humans, have a similar instinct, too: our appetite increases during the nice and cool fall days. Also, the fact that many seasonal delicacies are only available during fall adds to the increasing appetite. This brings us to the fall of harvest. Today we can eat any food during any season but before modern transportation and farming techniques were developed, only seasonal crops were available. Fall was the season with the most abundant crops, hence the name ‘the fall of harvest.’

 The fall of reading means that it’s easy to concentrate on reading after the summer heat is gone. It’s cozy to light up a lamp at night and read a book by an open window in a cooling breeze. Another quite recently emerged similar term is ‘the fall of arts’ (geijutsu no aki / 芸術の秋) meaning that it’s easy to appreciate all kinds of works of art when the weather cools down. The fall of sports means that fall is the perfect time for doing sports because there is no longer danger of heat stroke due to excessive heat like in the summer, and no risk of getting cold due to excessive coldness like in the winter. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October and for the celebration of the event, sports day on October 10th (the opening day of the Olympics) was established. That might also be one of the reasons for the concept of ‘the fall of sports.’

 Another delightful activity to enjoy during the cool fall days is to go on a stroll to view the colorful fall leaves in the parks and mountains. In contrast with the cherry blossom viewing in spring, the fall has a viewing of its own: fall leaves viewing. In Japanese, this is called momijigari (紅葉狩り) or ‘fall leaves hunting.’ Momijigari means simply going out into the fields and mountains to enjoy the splendid colors of the fall foliage. The habit of enjoying fall leaves viewing in Japan goes back all the way to the Kamakura period (1185–1333), so it really is a long tradition. And why not; fall leaves viewing is an excellent way to spend a nice fall day and appreciate the amazing colors of leaves. Note that the Japanese word 紅葉 can be read in two ways: koyo or momiji. The word momiji especially refers to Japanese maples that turn bright crimson.

Why do leaves change color in fall?

 So, why does the color change in leaves happen? This is a phenomenon that can be witnessed in the northern hemisphere. There are two types of trees: evergreen and deciduous. Both in the north and the south, most of the fir trees (conifers) are evergreen and don’t shed all their leaves all at once, but individual leaves stay attached to the tree for 2 to 4 years. In the north, however, most of the broad-leaved trees are deciduous, that is, they lose all their leaves in the fall.

 The leaves of the tree are small nutrient factories that feed the tree. The nutrients are made by the effect of sunlight in cells containing chlorophyll, which gives the leaves their green color. There are also orange and yellow pigments inside the leaves, too, but a great amount of chlorophyll covers the other colors in the summer.

 But in the fall, the days become shorter and colder, which makes the leaves on broad-leaved trees stop producing the nutrients and the chlorophyll breaks down. When the chlorophyll disappears, so does the green pigment. The yellow and the orange pigments become visible and depending on the type of the tree, some further chemical processes occur making red color pigments. The color the leaves take depends on the type of the tree: How much chlorophyll residue there is left in the leaves and what kind of other chemical processes happen in the leaves. For example, the leaves of Japanese momiji maples and nanakamado (Japanese rowans) become vibrant red, the leaves of cherry trees blazing orange and red, and the leaves of ginkgo trees bright yellow.

 Besides the chemicals in the leaves, the weather affects the colors. For example, the red colors become more intense in low temperatures above 0ºC (32ºF) but frost weakens the intensity. The colors become more intense if there are cloudy or rainy days. However, a perfect day to view and shoot some beautiful photos of fall foliage is a dry, cool, and clear day.

The stunning fall leaves of Hokkaido

 The season of fall leaves or fall foliage (or as the Brits call it, autumn leaves or autumn foliage) spans from September to November in Hokkaido. As you can see, the season is quite long in Hokkaido, so there are plenty of chances to see this amazing phenomenon throughout fall. The peak time for fall foliage differs from place to place and also between the types of trees. For example, the maples turn red somewhat earlier than the ginkgo trees turn yellow. The earliest colorful foliage can be seen in Hokkaido in September in the northern parts of the island and in the mountains. However, the peak of the fall foliage in most of the places in Hokkaido is in October and early November. When moving on further to November, the leaves start to fall but depending on the location and type of the trees, the peak foliage might fall even in the mid or late November (for example, the ginkgo trees at Hokkaido University campus in Sapporo), so there are still changes to see some great fall leaves in Hokkaido in November, too.

 In the spring, the Japanese weather forecast programs include ‘cherry blossom front’ tracking, that is, a forecast for the start of blooming and peak season for cherry blossoms all over the country. The cherry blossom front starts in the southern parts of Japan and slowly moves up to the north when the weather becomes warmer and the flowers start to bloom. Similarly, in fall, there is the ’fall foliage front’ to track the process of the leaves turning into their fall colors. This time the front runs from the cold north to the warmer south.

 The fall leaves in Japan start to get their colors first in Hokkaido. One of the places where you can see the first fall leaves in Japan and Hokkaido is Daisetsuzan National Park (Daisetsuzan kokuritsu koen / 大雪山国立公園) at the heart of Hokkaido. The park is home to the Daisetsuzan volcanic group with Asahidake (旭岳) (2,291 m / 7,510 ft)―Hokkaido’s highest peak―as its centerpiece. The volcanoes at Daisetsuzan, also known as “the roof of Hokkaido”, are a gently sloping mountain range each about 2,000 meters in height. At Mount Kurodake (黒岳) (1,984 m / 6509 ft)―one of the peaks in Daisetsuzan National Park―you can enjoy the earliest fall foliage in Japan. The leaves around Mt. Kurodake turn to bright red and brilliant yellow as early as the end of August at the top of the mountain, September and early October being the peak time to admire the autumn leaves in their best also in a bit lower altitudes at Sounkyo (層雲峡) gorge.

 Other great places for fall foliage viewing in Hokkaido are for example Onuma Quasi-national park in southern Hokkaido, Blue pond in Biei in central Hokkaido, and the five lakes of Shiretoko in eastern Hokkaido. Onuma Quasi-national park (Onuma kokutei koen / 大沼国定公園) close to Hakodate city is an excellent choice for the ones who want to enjoy the fall leaves while doing outdoor activities such as canoeing or hiking. The park has gained a lot of deserved attention for its breathtaking fall colors in the latest years. The visitors can enjoy the fall colors in Onuma from mid-October to the end of October.

 Blue pond (Aoike / 青池) in Biei village (美瑛) is one of the most scenic places in Hokkaido with its astonishing turquoise blue water colored by colloidal aluminum hydroxide released from underground in a volcanic eruption in 1988. The view at the pond is even more amazing in fall when the trees at the shores of the pond turn vivid yellow. Blue pond’s fall colors are at their best in early October. Another place where mother Nature offers its best is the area of Five lakes in Shiretoko (Shiretokogoko / 知床五湖). The blazing colors of red maples and Japanese rowans and yellow birch reflecting from the surface of the lakes are just mind-blowing. The best time to view fall foliage in Shiretoko is from late September to mid-October. 

The best spots to view the colorful fall foliage in Sapporo

 Sapporo is a metropolis with almost 2 million inhabitants. It might seem that in a huge city like Sapporo there are not that many opportunities to view the fall leaves but that is not the case! Here we introduce the best fall foliage viewing spots both within Sapporo city and in the suburbs of Sapporo city.

The best places to view the fall foliage in Sapporo city

 Sapporo has many parks and visiting one is an easy way to enjoy the fall leaves. Nakajima park (Nakajimakoen / 中島公園) (an outbound link) is one of the most loved spots to admire the colorful fall foliage in Sapporo. The park was established in 1930 and it covers an area of about 24 hectares.

 You can find several types of fir trees and broad-leaved trees in the park, for example, Sakhalin spruces and Japanese yews as well as maples, ginkgo, cherries, black locusts, and Japanese elms. The combination of different types of trees means a fall foliage of different colors. Besides the colorful leaves, the visitors to the park can enjoy its numerous sculptures and National Designated Cultural Properties, such as back then a hotel, now a civic center Hohei-kan (豊平館) from 1880, and the tea house Hasso-an (八窓庵) built in the Japanese garden of the park.

 Other good parks for fall leaves hunting is Maruyama park in western central Sapporo and Makomanai park in southern Sapporo. Maruyama park (円山公園) (an outbound link) at the foot of Mt. Maruyama (225 meters) covers an area of 70 hectares. The park was officially opened in 1957 but its history goes back to 1875 when 150 trees were planted to line the road leading to Hokkaido Shrine next to the current park. Maruyama park is famous as a cherry blossom viewing spot but the park is also spectacular during fall. A part of the park consists of a virgin forest that is home to numerous trees as well as animals. The trees in the park include Japanese hackberry, maple, cherry, katsura (Japanese Judas tree), and black locust, just to mention a few.

 Makomanai park (真駒内公園) is an 85-hectare park located in southern Sapporo. There are about 13,200 planted trees in the park of which 7,300 are broadleaf trees and on top of that about 50,000 trees grow naturally without human inference. This many trees means a stunning display of colors in fall! The visitors can see such trees as kashiwa (Japanese emperor oaks), Japanese rowans, and cherries. There is a virgin forest covering the southwestern hills of the park and some of the trees in the park are over 135 years old.

Hiraoka Tree Art Center or Hiraoka Greenery Center (Hiraoka jugei senta (midoriimu) / 平岡樹芸センター (みどりーむ)) (an outbound link) is located in Kiyota Ward of Sapporo and was opened in 1984. The park covering an area of 2.9 hectares displays both Japanese and western-style gardens. The trees in the park include yews, maples, and cherries. The rows of maples lining both sides of the walking path are especially worth seeing in the fall. Walking through the tunnel of fiery crimson maples is just an amazing experience you don’t want to miss during your Sapporo trip!

 Ginkgo Avenue at Hokkaido University (Hokkaido daigaku no ichou namiki / 北海道大学の銀杏並木) campus is one of the most famous sceneries in the whole Sapporo. The 380-meter-long avenue is lined with 70 ginkgo trees, which have reached an impressive size since 1938 when they were planted (before that, the street was lined with cherries and maples). The avenue is worth visiting both day and night and it’s easy to access from Sapporo station by foot. See more details about the location of the avenue in the Hokkaido University Campus Guide Map  (an outbound link).

 During the day, the golden leaves and the bright blue fall sky create amazing contrast and unforgettable beautiful scenery. At night, the street lamps reveal the yellow leaves in the pitch black night. The peak time for the Hokkaido University ginkgo trees is in mid-November. Around the 20th of November, there is also a festival called Golden Leaf Festival arranged at the campus to celebrate the beauty of the ginkgo trees. If you want to know more about Hokkaido University Golden Leaf Festival, see our earlier blog post about Sapporo festivals The passage about the Golden Leaf Festival is close to the end of the blog column.

 Mt. Moiwa (Moiwayama / 藻岩山) offers one of the best views over Sapporo city during any season and any time of the day. The view from Mt Moiwa has been selected as one of the ‘New Three Best Night Views in Japan.’ The mountain and the ropeway leading to the mountain are also one of the most popular fall foliage viewing spots in Sapporo. The trip to the mountaintop takes about 15 minutes by ropeway and mini cable car. The best time to do some fall leaves hunting at Mt. Moiwa is from mid-October to the end of October.

The best places to enjoy the fall leaves in the outskirts of Sapporo

 If you mention fall leaves in Hokkaido, one of the first places coming into your mind besides Daisetsuzan national park is Jozankei on the outskirts of Sapporo. Jozankei (定山渓) (an outbound link) with an onsen hot spring town in its center, is in the mountainous southwestern area of Sapporo and it is one of the five parts that make up Shikotsu-Toya national park (the other four parts being Lake Shikotsu, Lake Toya, Noboribetsu, and the area around Mt. Yotei

 During fall, the trees in the mountains surrounding the onsen town turn to blazing hues of red, orange, and yellow. A fun way to view the colors is to take a canoe and see the foliage from the river flowing through the ravine in the onsen town. If you like the idea of viewing the fall foliage from a body of water, you might also want to go a bit further over the mountains to the southeast until you arrive at Lake Shikotsu (Shikotsuko / 支笏湖). The lake alone is an extremely beautiful place and adding in the amazing array of fall colors, kayaking at Lake Shikotsu in fall is something that you don’t forget easily.

 The best time to view the fall foliage in Jozankei is around mid-October and at Lake Shikotsu from early October to mid-October. It takes about one hour from central Sapporo to reach Jozankei by car and an additional hour to Lake Shikotsu. It’s good to note that during the peak season the roads at Jozankei are very very crowded, especially during the weekends. To make visiting different famous fall leaves spots easier for yourself and others, too, you can take for example a bus tour during the Five Great Autumn Foliages at Jozankei event and tour easily the best viewing spots. You can read about the details of the Five Great Autumn Foliages at Jozankei event in our earlier blog column about Sapporo festivals The passage about the event is close to the end of the blog column.

 A place worth a special mention in the Jozankei area is Hoheikyo dam (豊平峡ダム). The dam controls the water flow of the Toyohira river—The large river that flows through Sapporo. Lake Jozan, the dam lake of Hoheikyo dam, has been selected as one of the ‘100 dam lake views’ of Japan. It is indeed a spectacular sight during the fall foliage season. The dam is one of the most popular places for fall leaves viewing, so it is often crowded when the foliage is at its best. So, if you don’t like crowds, this is not maybe the place to go for you. There are several kinds of trees at Hoheikyo dam: Katsuras (Japanese Judas trees), Japanese maples, Japanese rowans, mountain grapes, and cherries. The peak for the foliage viewing in Hoheikyo is from early October to mid-October.

 A different kind of place with a water element for fall leaves viewing is Takino Suzuran Hillside National Government Park (国営滝野すずらん丘陵公園) (an outbound link). The park is home to four waterfalls: Ashiribetsu falls (アシリベツの滝), Masumi falls (鱒見の滝), Shiraho falls (白帆の滝), and Furo falls (不老の滝). The best place to view the foliage changes daily during the peak season. The vast park has several different types of trees, for example, mountain maples and Japanese larches. Also, the large area planted with kochia (summer cypress, Mexican firebrush) is worth viewing. The best time to view the leaves in Takino Suzuran park is usually from mid-October to late October, when also a week-long Autumn Foliage Festival is held. The park is located in the mountains in southern Sapporo and it takes about 45 minutes to travel there from central Sapporo.

 One more great place to enjoy the foliage with waterfalls is Eniwa Valley (恵庭渓谷). The valley is not in Sapporo but in the neighboring city of Eniwa and it takes about an hour to drive there by car from central Sapporo. There are three waterfalls in the valley: Hakusen falls (白扇の滝), Rarumanai falls (ラルマナイの滝), and Sandan Falls (三段の滝). Viewing the waterfalls framed with colorful foliage is just a delight. The trees you can find here are among others ginkgos, Japanese elms, maples, mizunara oaks, and birches, so you can expect to see an assortment of red, orange, and yellow leaves. The peak time for fall leaves in Eniwa valley is around mid-October.

 Hopefully, you found some travel inspiration from the introductions above. For some more inspiration, take a look at our sample itinerary Cultural Getaway to South Hokkaido in the Peak of Autumn

Fall is the best season to go sightseeing in Hokkaido

 Why is fall the best season to go sightseeing in Hokkaido? Well, while the summer weather in Hokkaido is not as sultry hot as on the main island of Japan, the weather can become uncomfortably hot during July and August. When entering September, the temperature goes down to a more comfortable and refreshing level. The island also tends to be less crowded in fall than during the peak tourist months of summer. And of course, in the fall the sceneries of Hokkaido get their fall colors, which you can’t view during any other season.

 The weather in Hokkaido in September is still quite mild, so it’s a good time to visit Hokkaido if you want to enjoy outdoor activities, such as cycling, hiking, and kayaking. However, it can already be quite cold in the mornings and the evenings, so it’s best to prepare by wearing several layers of clothes. Then you can always adjust your clothing depending on the temperature. Also, in September, there might be quite a few rainy days. September also marks the start of the fall leaves season in northern Hokkaido as well as in the mountains, for example in the Daisetsuzan National Park. 

 The weather gets gradually colder in Hokkaido in October. There are still some days with mild temperatures but it can also become very cold. On the other hand, it’s less rainy than in September. The peak fall leaves season in Sapporo is in October, so it’s an optimal time to visit Sapporo. The fall leaves can still be enjoyed in many places in Hokkaido in November, too. The weather becomes even colder in November, so if you are not used to coldness, do take a lot of warm clothes with you.

 Fall also is the season of harvest and appetite. It’s the time when Hokkaido offers the best of its seasonal produce, such as salmon and salmon roe, and other seafood. In addition to that, fall is the season for different agricultural products, for example, potatoes and all kinds of fruit. There are several orchids in Hokkaido where the visitors can even take part in the harvesting and do some fruit picking themselves. The visitors to Sapporo can enjoy the full range of seasonal Hokkaido products and gourmet food at Sapporo Autumn Fest. You can read more about Sapporo Autumn Fest in our earlier blog column about Sapporo festivals The passage about the Sapporo Autumn Fest can be found almost at the end of the page.

 Hokkaido and Sapporo have something delightful to offer during every season. In fall you can enjoy the breathtaking fall foliage in the parks in Sapporo city and the mountains around the city as well as savor the delicious seasonal foods of Hokkaido. Contact us to reserve your fall leaves viewing trip to Sapporo and Hokkaido!