Autumn is a magical time in Japan. Summer's humid heat has finally abated. Days are bright and nights are cool. The rice harvest is in full swing and celebrated with festivals. But above all, it's koyo time. In Japan, koyo — the spectacular colours of autumn leaves — inspires a reverence that borders on the spiritual. For a few brief weeks, momiji-gari (maple viewing) becomes the national obsession. None can resist this annual call of the wild. By early October, signs of koyo fever are everywhere. Shops are festooned with fake maple branches, TV weather forecasts give daily updates on the leaves' colour, and the mighty Kirin brewery brings out its "Specially Limited Autumn Brew" beer in cans emblazoned with — what else? — maple leaves. So put on your walking shoes and read on for our guide to the best places ito marvel at the maples. MIYAJIMA ISLAND Just a 10-minute ferry ride across the bay from Hiroshima, Miyajima is renowned for its great vermillion tori gateway rising out of the sea. It's one of the "Three Views of Japan", and home to the magical Itsukushima Shrine, which appears to be floating on the tide. Come autumn, Miyajima's Momijidani Park — a maple woodland cultivated during the Edo period at the foot of forest-shrouded Mount Misen — bursts into colour with over 200 maple trees. No matter how crowded it gets, its crystalline streams spanned by delicate orange bridges make it an idyllic spot. Local specialities are oysters and momiji manju: maple leaf-shaped cakes filled with bean paste, chocolate or custard. Look out for the deer — they love to snatch tourists' food. Getting there: take a train or streetcar from Hiroshima Station to Miyamajima Guchi, then a ferry. TOKYO: RIKUGI-EN PARK AND GINKGO AVENUE Rikugi-en Park is one of the best for viewing autumn leaves, especially at night when they are illuminated. Dating from 1700, Rikugi-en means "six poems gardens" and it recreates 88 scenes from famous poems. Rikugi-en is a typical Japanese strolling park with a large central pond surrounded by hills and forests for you to wander at will. While maples are the stars of the autumn show, golden ginkgo trees are gorgeous too, and it's Tokyo's official tree. Don't miss the famous Icho Namiki (Ginkgo Avenue) in Meiji-jingu Gaien Park — a broad boulevard lined with 100-year-old ginkgos. Getting there: Rikugi-en is a 10-minute walk south of Komagome Station on the JR Yamanote Line or Namboku Subway Line. SANDANKYO GORGE One of the five most famous ravines in Japan, Sandankyo, 70km northwest of Hiroshima, is an outstanding scenic spot. Autumn colours run riot in the rugged landscape riven with waterfalls. Crimson maples and yellow ginkgos contrast with emerald pines and cedars. Sandankyo remained undiscovered until 1910 because of its inaccessibility. Now, every autumn, the narrow footpath through the 16km ravine becomes a human conveyor belt: sprightly seventy-somethings with bells and walking sticks; salarymen in designer sportswear; young girls in mini-skirts, high heels and Vuitton backpacks. Alternatively, relax on a riverboat tour of the ravine. At one point, the passage between the moss-covered canyon walls is just two metres wide. Getting there: best by car, but buses run from Hiroshima Bus Centre, Platform 7. HIROSHIMA: MITAKI TEMPLE Can't get out to the mountains? Koyo can also be enjoyed in city parks, gardens and temples. Mitaki combines temple, forest and mountain in one visit, just two stops from Hiroshima Station. The temple, located near the summit of Mount Mitaki, dates from 809. Hundreds of statues adorn the path up to the temple: larger-than-life bodhisattvas, many-armed, elephant-headed Buddhas, cute red-hatted jizo. In autumn, 500 maples cast a glow over the forest, filtering the sunlight like stained glass windows. Stop at the Kutenan teahouse at the bottom of the hill for some frothy macha tea and warabi mochi (jelly-like confectionery made with bracken starch). Getting there: take the Kabe line to Mitaki from Hiroshima Station, then walk up the hill. KYOTO As befits the erstwhile capital of Japan, renowned for its splendid temples and gardens, Kyoto is simply sublime at koyo time. Popular spots include the Heian Shrine, Kyoto Imperial Park and Nijo Castle. But for an experience bordering on the mystical, the real must-see is Kiyomizudera Temple. Built in 780 on the site of a waterfall amid the wooded hills east of Kyoto, this wondrous temple complex is famous for the broad wooden platform that juts out from the Main Hall, enabling you to gaze down on the flame-red forest that cloaks the hillside 13 metres below. At night, temple and trees are illuminated, to spectacular effect. Getting there: buses 100 or 206 run from Kyoto Station. Get off at Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi, then walk up the hill. Or, take the Keihan Railway Line to Kiyomizu-Gojo Station. When to go The colour change starts in the cold northern mountains of Hokkaido in September. The koyo front then inches into western Japan from late October, transforming all before it into a blazing wonderland of red and gold. The exact timing varies, depending on the temperatures and locality, but the koyo season generally lasts through November. Unlike the ephemeral cherry blossoms, the colours stay at their best for a couple of weeks. What to expect Expect crowds at all the main viewing areas. Momiji-gari has been popular in Japan for centuries. Mass pilgrimages to the country to observe the changing foliage were a way of communing with the deities who were believed to dwell in sacred mountains and forests. Today, maple viewing remains a collective activity and the atmosphere is laid-back and friendly.