For as long as there have been seasons in Japan, the stunning transformation of yellow, orange and red leaves have been a symbol of autumn, just as the cherry blossom is a symbol of spring. Hunting for autumn foliage, known as koyo in Japanese, has been and remains a popular activity in Japan.
Since my last post, I have moved to Tokyo and have been busy #chasingautumn around Japan. While Tokyo and Kyoto attract lots of visitors for their famous koyo viewing spots, Yamagata and Miyagi are two prefectures north of Tokyo which are less frequented and underrated but (as I discovered) have some truly stunning scenery which can be experienced while hiking on mountaintops or soaking in onsens (Japanese hot springs).
The region is large and sights are spread out so a car is recommended. It also means that you can make impromptu stops (trust me, you will want to!) as this road trip was one where the journey was as wonderful as the destinations themselves.
This post will have more words than my previous posts as I go into some detail and explanation of our itinerary but there are still plenty of photos :) Here are my top 5 things to see/do from our two day road trip:
1. Mount Zao (蔵王)
Our road trip began in Yamagata City which is 2.5 hours by Shinkansen from Tokyo and has car hires next to the station. From Yamagata station, we drove to Zao Onsen, a popular onsen town and ski resort in winter and where we stayed overnight. As we winded our way up the mountainside, we got our first taste of autumn scenery.
As the weather was clear, we took the ropeway up to the peak of one of the mountains for a great vista of the surrounding area. This was also the start of some great hiking trails which we would have done if we had more time. Our original plan also included a drive to the Okama Crater (a volcanic crater with a beautiful blue lake) but unfortunately the Echo Line road was closed due to snowfall - something for next time!
2. Yamadera (山寺)
Yamadera (which means "mountain temple" in Japanese) is one of the most striking temples in Japan. It is located in the mountains northeast of Yamagata City and it takes about 1000 steps to get to the top. At the top, you will be rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the valley - which had vivid splashes of yellow, orange and green at the height of autumn colours. There is no need to rush to the top though as there are lots of rest/photo stops, sculptures and red leaves to look out for along the way.
Yamadera is also well-known for being the site where the master haiku poet Matsuo Basho composed some of his most famous work. A statue of Basho and a rock inscription of his famous poem can be found in the lower area of the temple grounds.
Interestingly it's not the Okunoin main hall at the top that's the biggest draw. The two most iconic buildings at Yamadera are: Kaisando Hall and the small red Nokyodo building next to it, which seems to cling to the cliffs and overlooks the valley below.
The temple is easily accessible by train as it is next to Yamadera station.
3. Zao Dai-Rotenburo (蔵王大露天風呂)
The main reason we chose to stay overnight in Zao Onsen was well, the onsens, of course! Zao Onsen is the source of strong acidic sulphur springs, known as the "Springs of Beauty" for their rejuvenating and skin beautifying properties. We enjoyed the onsens at our ryokan on our first night but had to try the famous Dai-Rotenburo (literally means "large outdoor baths", admission fee is 600 yen) the next morning.
We got there at the opening time of 6:30 am along with other locals - I would also come here to start my day too if I lived in the town! We visited at the perfect koyo viewing time and as You walk down a corridor surrounded by beautiful autumn colours and along a milky blue stream before you get to the baths (separate for men and women). It was one of the most poetic, peaceful and relaxing mornings I have ever experienced - breathing in the crisp morning air, soaking in thermal (and beauty) waters, surrounded by red and gold colours and watching the leaves fall. This was a real highlight of my Japan travels to date and these iPhone photos truly don't do it justice and I hope you will get to experience this first hand one day.
4. Naruko Gorge (鳴子峡)
Naruko Gorge in Miyagi prefecture is one of Japan's most scenic gorges and famous koyo viewing spots. The colours were just past peak in the gorge itself when we visited but we nevertheless found some amazing autumn colours en route and nearby and a beautiful waterfall at the bottom of the gorge. A bonus was the fact that we could walk all the way down to the. bottom of the gorge!
5. Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉)
Ginzan Onsen is another secluded secluded onsen town nestled in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture. It is best known as a historic and pretty onsen town (especially at night when lit up and during winter when covered in snow) that evokes the nostalgic feeling of a bygone era. Its main street is pedestrians-only and has historic ryokan lined up along the river with guests strolling around in traditional yukata. This place would also make a great overnight stay but we had to content ourselves with a short foot onsen on this visit.
We based our trip around this itinerary but had to cut out some stops along the way due to limited time/daylight.
Japan-guide.com does regular autumn colour reports from September to December every year and is an invaluable resource for checking best viewing spots and time.
For step by step guide to onsens and the surrounding etiquettes, please see this article.