The Tohoku region is the perfect autumn holiday destination in Japan. And it’s not just because of its picturesque landscapes of bright hues of red, gold and orange. It’s because, in addition to these scenes of unmatched seasonal beauty, there are a plethora of activities ranging from hiking to the cable car and train rides, from outdoor hot springs to indoor observation decks. All of these give unique perspectives to the fall colors and offer authentic ways to enjoy the excitement of the season.
Though there are many locations to visit in Tohoku, today we will focus on one location in each of the seven prefectures of northeastern Japan. Offering such a wide variety of ways to spend autumn, there is sure to be something for anyone lucky enough to visit.
In Aomori, visiting the Hakkoda Ropeway is essential. Here, visitors can enjoy spectacular scenery throughout the year from the vantage of the elevated ropeway and its all-glass cabin. A brilliant mixture of autumn reds and yellows spread out like a blanket below the cable car, with evergreens accenting the landscape. Hakkoda Ropeway climbs Mt. Tamoyachi, which is a popular destination for skiers and admirers of frosty landscapes in the winter as well as hikers throughout the other seasons.
From the summit on a clear, crisp autumn day, climbers can enjoy a 360-degree panoramic view overlooking Aomori City, the nearby bay and peninsulas, and the Tohoku mountains. Lake Towada, a famous caldera lake in Aomori, can also be seen. Visitors can even take in the sight of the majestic Mt. Iwaki, which is the highest mountain in Aomori Prefecture and is also known as “Tsugaru Fuji” due to its resemblance to Mt. Fuji.
Autumn leaves are best seen from late September to mid-October.
The Hakkoda Ropeway operates throughout the year, whisking visitors to the top or bottom in about 10 minutes each way. Autumn is ideal for hiking any of the multiple routes, all of which are covered with alpine plants and flora, and range from easy walking courses taking around 30 minutes, to mountain climbing courses that take up to 4 hours.
Iwate Prefecture – Lighting Things Up!
Deep in the heart of Iwate Prefecture, Morioka City is home to Nanshōsō, a historic building with unparalleled beauty and charm. When autumn comes, the 50-odd maple and other deciduous trees burst out in bright reds and yellows in the daytime. Then in the evening, they are illuminated, shining brightly against the dark autumn night.
Located in Shimizucho, Morioka, Nanshōsō was built in 1855 and is one of few famous Meiji era residences with a beautiful garden. Of course, the exterior has lovely views, with the autumn colors decorating the carefully preserved cultural artefact, but the real wonder of beauty is found when looking at the outside from within the building. The shiny floors inside act as a mirror, creating a larger, panoramic view of the fall colours that are sure to make a strong impression on observers. It is a view that creates feelings of tranquillity and peace, despite the house’s location in the center of Morioka City.
Mid-November is the best time to visit Nanshōsō. Upon seeing the beauty for themselves, visitors are sure to understand why this location is also a popular spot used in movie scenes.
Just next to the prefectural border, Mt. Zao is home not only to strikingly beautiful displays of autumn colors, but also to an emerald-green crater lake near the summit.
This beautiful lake is surrounded by two opposing crescent-shaped formations which seem to cradle the lake as a result of previous eruptions from this still active volcano. The lake, known as Okama, resembles a traditional cooking pot and can be safely viewed in all seasons but winter.
Lake Okama is also uni because that it is a dual-temperature lake where the temperature surprisingly rises as the depth increases beyond a certain point. Descending from the surface, the temperature gradually decreases until reaching 2 degrees Celsius at a depth of around 10 meters or so. Beyond that, the temperature rises, making it a one-of-a-kind lake.
It is also known as the “Lake of Five Colors” because it changes colors depending on how the sun hits it. What color will it be when you visit?
Visitors can climb Mt. Zao, one of the highest in the Tohoku Region, via the Zao Ropeway, and enjoy amazing views along the climb and at the top. Easy hiking trails starting at the upper station and outdoor hot springs near the base station provide more ways to enjoy the fall colors.
Ieyasu Gorge is a deep, V-shaped valley in southern Akita, with natural, dynamic views. While walking along the river path is pleasant in spring and summer as well, autumn is particularly enjoyable with the colorful leaves surrounding you as you explore the many waterfalls. Watch in awe as steam and near-boiling waterspouts from day unto of natural geyser. The whooshing sound of the geyser echoes through the gorge, as does the roaring Minase River. The steam rises through the trees, creating an atmosphere of mystery and excitement.
With the 98-degree water spewing from the ground, it’s no wonder that Oyasu Gorge is also famous as a hot spring resort. Also, when conditions are just right, you can enjoy both autumn leaves and snowy scenery at the same time. After taking in the sights of the deep ravine, visitors can enjoy staying at a local inn, or just relaxing at one of the several foot baths or hot springs such as Isedotai Onsen Jomon-no-Yu. Famous for its continuous, smooth flow of water, there are both indoor and outdoor baths as well as a sauna using six different minerals, and is guaranteed to soothe the weary feet of any traveler.
Perhaps the best driving experience for enjoying endless scenes of beautiful autumn colors is the Zao Echo Line, a 26-kilometer-long road winding through the mountains which connect Miyagi and Yamagata Prefectures.
From late September to mid-October, autumn color enthusiasts can enjoy beech, maple and other trees in every shade of red, orange and yellow, all spread out like a luxurious carpet and filling the view along both sides of the road. The color scheme even changes as you climb higher up the mountains. The trees shorten, and more evergreens come into the mix. The beautiful scenery constantly shifts and winds before your eyes.
The Zao Echo Line is extremely popular during the autumn season, sometimes drawing large crowds. So if you leave early in the morning to avoid crowds, you can enjoy the views even more.
For some, the best way to enjoy the fall colors is from the comfort of a train as it glides through the countryside. On Fukushima’s scenic JR Tadami Line, you can do exactly that. Known for its beautiful panoramic views of idyllic rural Japan, the Tadami Line will take you from the middle of Fukushima 135 kilometers to Niigata, passing beautiful mountains, valleys, small towns, rivers, lakes and more.
Popular with railway fans as well as tourists and photo enthusiasts, the Tadami Line is home to the “Kazekko Tadami Line Autumn Leaf” train, an older style train renovated with large windows so travelers can enjoy the natural, rural landscape even more. Furthermore, passengers can get off the train at any of the 26 stations along the line and enjoy local sights and tastes, such as katsudon, deep-fried breaded pork cutlet on rice, or basashi, horse sashimi.
The Tadami Line is no doubt the best way to enjoy endless autumn scenes while relaxing, chatting with your fellow travelers and enjoying local refreshments.
The final suggestion for enjoying autumn scenery is in Niigata Prefecture. The terraced rice fields in Sado’s Iwakuni district spread out over the mountains some 350 meters above sea level, the individual fields cascading like steps leading down to the Sea of Japan.
In autumn, the over 460 rice fields turn golden brown and are surrounded by shades of red and gold leaves on all sides. From the observatory at the top, the view is stunning. Hills form colorful V-shapes with the deep blue of the sea in the background. From the bottom, the terraced fields are said to resemble a dragon rising into the sky.
Sado also has many places to enjoy the autumn leaves. Ocado Skyline, a popular diving spot, Mt. Donden, favoured for its trekking routes, and various temples and shrines all offer fun ways to enjoy the fall colors. In addition to autumn leaves, visitors can also enjoy traditional festivals in autumn.
With such a variety of ways to enjoy the fall colors, visitors can easily select destinations in Tohoku that match their interests and physical abilities, while delighting in the beautiful, seasonal scenery and authentic experiences. Savor the colorful autumn season in Tohoku!