If you’re eager for a real autumn adventure, Tohoku’s oh-so poetic landscape is exactly where you’ll find one.
It’s a journey in itself to get to the remote and rugged northern region of Tohoku, but the quest is full of rewards in the form of atmospheric hot spring resorts, samurai villages, and sky-high temples to name a few.
The region’s prefectures of Akita, Aomori, Iwate, Yamagata, Miyagi, and Fukushima together make up one-fifth of Japan’s total area—one that’s blanketed in a swathe of yellows, burnt oranges, and deep reds from mid-October to mid-November. Since the koyo (autumn leaves) arrived late this year, there are still chances to experience some of Tohoku’s stunning seasonal beauty.
Seek and ye shall find.
Bask in the glory of koyo with your bae in this secluded onsen town where men and women can bathe together. You’ll find Kuroyu Onsen tucked in the expansive Towada Hachimantai National Park which encompasses parts of Aomori, Akita, and Iwate prefectures. The steamy baths are actually one of seven hot springs of Nyuto Onsen, which is a major attraction in Akita. Perfect for a romantic day trip, and a good choice for all the single ladies (and gentlemen) too.
One of Japan’s most well-preserved examples of a samurai village, Kakunodate is a chance to step back in time to the feudal era and imagine how the Shogun might have lived. In autumn, the place looks more like a movie set than ever. A guided walking tour of the district’s streets is a great way to learn about the fascinating history of the area and take in the cinematic fall foliage at the same time.
Bright orange and yellow trees reflecting on the surface of Lake Towada give us all the warmth of autumn that we yearn for. Take a boat ride across the spectacularly-blue lake which is the largest crater lake, meaning it was formed in a volcanic caldera, in Japan. Biking along the lakeside is another way to take in all the sights and sounds of the peaceful area. Highly recommended.
Flowing from nearby Lake Towada, Oirase Stream has nearly 30 waterfalls for you to feast your eyes on. The path along the 14-kilometer long mountain stream is almost entirely flat, making it an easy hike. Start from Nenoguchi, a small town near Lake Towada, and end at Yakeyama, a hot spring village where you can rest your tired feet. Pack your bento and enjoy a quiet lunch on one of the trail’s benches as autumn leaves fall gently into the roaring streams beside you. Hiking the whole trail takes four to five hours, but you can dip out at any point. There are multiple bus stops to take you back to Nenoguchi along the way.
Tohoku’s most loved spot for cherry blossoms is perfect for koyo season too. Hirosaki Castle’s huge spacious ground offers several ways to take in the crisp autumn air—view the colors framing the castle’s white tiers, cruise on the Autumn Foliage Sightseeing Boat along the castle moat, or enjoy the nightly light-up.
A network of foliage-covered paths surrounds Iwate’s most famous temple in the historical town of Hiraizumi, a place chock full of architectural treasures. Konjikido, the main hall, is covered completely in gold and draws visitors year-round but in autumn the golden and red leaves outside truly steal the show.
This is the perfect place to capture gorge-ous shots of Tohoku’s epic mountainous landscape. Hike the walking path along the two-kilometer long canyon, crossing bridges over the marble-blue Iwai River below. At the beginning of the path, you’ll see a rope and a basket. The long rope is connected to a dango shop called Kakkoya located on the other side of the gorge and you can have the sticky Japanese dessert delivered to you via the basket for ¥400!
Yamadera provides a leisurely hike for beginners. Stroll slowly through the town, stopping to sample the area’s famous cherry soft cream before making your way up the mountain to the temple. The view over quiet houses and hills from the top of Yamadera is spectacular in any season, but especially in autumn when it’s painted in red and orange. One thousand steps to the top may seem like a lot, but taking your time to check out each small shrine along the way will keep you from feeling fatigued.
One of Japan’s most popular hot spring resorts is also a beloved koyo spot. Since Zao is so well developed, you can combine fall foliage viewing with hopping between hot springs, cafes/restaurants, and local gift shops. The speedy Zao Ropeway also offers another view of the leaves from high above.
Naruko Onsen in Osaki boasts an abundance of hot springs—almost 400 different sources—along with hotels, gift shops, and restaurants dotted along quaint streets. Adventurers should take the hike along Naruko Gorge and follow in the footsteps of Japan’s national poet Basho who composed several haiku inspired by the region’s beauty.
Hike around Fukushima’s dramatic peak before winter sets in and transforms the slops into a popular ski resort. Here you’ll be able to drink in the beauty of autumn at Inawashiro lake, nicknamed the “heavenly mirror lake” thanks to a glassy blue surface that attracts photographers from far and wide.
Goshikinuma, or the “Five Colored Lakes” as they’re called in English, is a collection of rusty red, bright green, and cobalt blue lakes in the Bandai-Asahi National Park, easily accessible with a brisk one-hour hike. With the vividly-colored waters against the backdrop of autumn leaves, and Mt. Bandai soaring in the distance, this is a picture-perfect koyo spot.
If you travel to one of these spots, use #GaijinPotTravel on your Instagram photos for a chance to be featured in our Top 10 Reader’s Photos of the Month!