My Faves: Top fall foliage spots in Japan

Photo by Miyuki Takiguchi
Photo by Miyuki Takiguchi

My Faves: Top fall foliage spots in Japan

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

Now that we’ve passed Higan, the observance of the autumnal equinox, Japan’s scenery is starting to transform. Soon, the forests and mountains will burst into colors of gold, fiery crimson and yellow calling us to visit and enjoy their splendor. It’s time for Momiji-gari, or fall foliage hunting.

Autumn leaves are called “Momiji” in Japanese. The tradition of Momiji-gari is believed to have begun in the Heian Period (794-1185). Since then, countless deciduous broad-leaf trees have been planted in the gardens of Kyoto, Kamakura and other old cities to facilitate this seasonal pastime.

As the name Momiji-gari, or fall foliage hunting, suggests, originally people enjoyed “koyo,” the reddening or coloring of leaves, by searching out the perfect specimen and collecting a sprig to admire its beauty up close.

There are many beautiful locations around the country to enjoy Momiji, from Kyoto’s Arashiyama and Kamakura’s Hase Temple, to the mountains in Hakone and the banks of Lake Chuzenjiko in Nikko. The list is endless!

Here are some of my favorite Momiji-gari attractions. Why not drop by one (or some) to enjoy Japan’s gorgeous autumn colors in pleasant cooler air?

- Oirase Mountain Stream (Aomori Pref. / 1 hr. drive from Misawa AB)

Photo by Yoshihito Morita

With superb scenic views consisting of a pristine forest in autumn colors and crystal-clear waters, the Oirase Mountain Stream is known as one of the most beautiful areas in Japan. It is especially famous for its brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange around late October through early November.

You’ll find this picture-perfect fall location in the central mountainous region of Aomori Pref., about a one-hour drive from Misawa AB.
Although the Towada Tourist’s Bureau suggests taking on a 4 to 5 hour hike along the 8-mile gorge to get the best views of the stream, you can also enjoy it with a drive (which is also easier on the knees!). If you do choose to hike along the stream, there are buses that run alongside that are available should the weather turn.

Despite its location in the pristine forest of white cedar, beech and maple trees, well-paved roads run along the stream. The smooth ride went along well with the picturesque mountain stream of greenish water and white splashing in the forest of gorgeous autumn colors.
Getting out to enjoy the change of the seasons and the relaxing sounds of the water is a great way to spend a nice fall day.

Oirase Mountain Stream
Location: 1-12 Tochikubo, Oirase, Towada City, Aomori Pref.
Tel: 0176-74-1121 (Oirase Tourist Center)

- Goshikinuma ponds in Aizu region (Fukushima Pref. / 4 hrs. from Yokota AB)

Photo by Takahiro Takiguchi

Fukushima Prefecture’s Aizu region boasts rich cultural heritage, samurai tradition and superb natural beauty.

Mt. Bandai in Aizu’s north is the area’s signature mountain. Goshikinuma, which literally translates to five-color ponds, is home to over 30 ponds and marshes. Both of these sites are home to superb fall foliage viewing. At Goshikinuma, the volcanic substance in the water makes the ponds change colors depending on the season, weather, temperature and time of day, which gives an impressive effect to the surrounding autumn mountains.

Stroll around the Bentennuma Pond, the largest pond in Goshikinuma, so can enjoy the fantastic landscape and view of Mt. Bandai in gorgeous autumn colors. If you’re lucky, like me, you might spot a large white carp in the water with a red heart-shaped mark on its scales. Locals believe spotting this particular carp will bring you happiness.

Goshikinuma Ponds
Location: 1093 Kengamine, Hibara, Kitashiobara-mura, Yama-gun, Fukushima Pref.
Tel: 0241-32-2850

- Lake Miyagase (Kanagawa Pref. / About 1 hr. from Camp Zama and NAF Atsugi)

Photo by Takahiro Takiguchi

Nestled within the Tanzawa mountain range, you’ll find Miyagase Lakeside Park, a popular spot for autumn leaf viewing near Camp Zama.

The man-made lake is only a 40-minute drive from Camp Zama and has a trail great for a brisk walk or run. This lake serves as a reservoir which provides drinking water to Tokyo and Yokohama City. Dogs on leashes are allowed to visit this park as well, so don’t forget to bring your furry friend.

Visit in late November, for a look at peak autumn leaves while enjoying the spacious park and suspension bridge.

Miyagase Lakeside Park
Location: 940-4 Miyagase, Kiyokawa Village, Aiko-gun, Kanagawa Pref.
URL: Website
Tel: 046-288-3600


- Lake Kawaguchiko (Yamanashi Pref. / A 30-minute drive from Camp Fuji)

Photo by Miyuki Takiguchi

Yamanashi Prefecture’s Fuji Five Lakes are home to impressive landscapes including a great view of Mount Fuji. The area is also famous in the fall for the Momiji-gari.

Among the five lakes, Kawaguchiko is the most popular and busiest. The lake is surrounded by many hotels and activities for visitors, including hosting an annual Momiji Matsuri autumn festival in November. Momiji Kairo, or autumn foliage promenade, is illuminated every night during the period, allowing for great night views of Mt. Fuji and the colors of the season.

During the festival, with astonishing views of lake and Mt. Fuji in autumn colors, you can enjoy dozens of food and game booths selling local produce and other products while live entertainment on stages set the celebratory mood.

While you’re there, don’t forget to sample the local dish, Hotou. This miso-based broth soup features flat and thick noodles, a variety of meat options, and chunks of hearty local vegetables like pumpkin, green onions and mushrooms. This delicious and warm noodle soup will energize you after all the walking you’ll do in the area.

Lake Kawaguchiko
Location: 1093 Kengamine, Hibara, Kitashiobara-mura, Yama-gun, Fukushima Pref.
Tel: 0241-32-2850

- Shuzenji (Shizuoka Pref. / 2-3 hrs. from most of U.S. military bases in Kanto Plain)

Photo by Takahiro Takiguchi

You’ll find Shuzenji Town at the hilly center of Izu Peninsula. Here hot spring resorts, open-air baths and old Japanese charm abound. The classic architecture of the area’s inns, shrines, temples, bridges and roads attract domestic and international tourists every year.

This is my family’s favorite place to visit in late November for the gorgeous autumn colors.

All the hot water in town comes from a hot spring in the middle of the river. Even the fountain water in public gardens, parks and hand-washing shacks of temples are all warm. For 350 yen ($3), you can take a soak into a hot spring at a public bath. There are also a couple of free 24/7 foot spas, called Tokko-no-yu and Kawara-yu, located in the center of town.

Shuzenji Temple features the classical architecture and an impressive bell tower. Here, the green bamboo forest surrounds gold and red maple trees and makes for a great fall season photo.

When you visit Shuzenji, don’t miss a leisure park called Niji-no-Sato (home of rainbow). The vast maple forest, made up of over 1,000 trees, is a great spot to enjoy the breathtaking autumn colors from late November to the beginning of December. During the season, lights illuminate the forest in the evenings so visitors can enjoy the colors and the park longer.

Shuzenji Town
Location: Shuzenji, Izu City, Shizuoka Pref. (A 2-3 hour drive from most of U.S. military installations in Kanto Plain)
Tel: 0558-72-2501 (Izu City Tourist Association, Shuzenji Branch) 

- Miyajima (Hiroshima Pref. / A 1.5-hour drive from MCAS Iwakuni)

File photo

This famous island off the coast of Hiroshima Prefecture is home to the iconic torii gate you see in postcards and travel books. But did you know that Miyajima Island is also a popular autumn leaf-viewing spot?

Momijidani Park at the foot of the island’s Mount Misen is home to a traditional Japanese garden and 700 maple trees. The Momijigawa River flows along the edge of the park and the Momijibashi Bridge provides a great photo op for visitors.

Make the trek up to Mt. Misen’s summit for a great view of the island and surrounding water. There is a ropeway at the park if you don’t want to hike.

Miyajima Island
Location: Hatsukaichi City, Hiroshima Pref. (40-minute drive from MCAS Iwakuni)
Tel: 0829-44-2011 (Miyajima Tourist Association)

- Lake Kinrinko (Oita Pref. / 2.5 hrs. from Sasebo NB)

File photo

Yufuin is a popular hot spring resort town where you’ll find various museums, shops, restaurants and inns. Within the town, Lake Kinrinko is a popular autumn leaf spot and a misty wonder. The mixing of hot and cold springs creates a mesmerizing morning mist on its surface. In early November, the maple trees that surround the lake turn into golden colors, and that makes the mysterious lake even more fantastic.

Take an early morning stroll around the lake to enjoy the autumn leaves and mysterious fog. Or, if you’re not a morning person, the late afternoon is a great time to enjoy the glow of the setting sun and autumn leaves.

The street from JR Yufuin Station to the lake has many great souvenir and food shops you’ll want to make time for.

Lake Kinrinko
Location: 1561-1 Kawakami, Yufuin Town, Yufu City, Oita Pref.
Tel: 097-582-1111 (Yufu City Chamber of Commerce and Industry)

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