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Where are the best spots to experience Japan in autumn?
Good question. Everyone swoons when autumn in Japan explodes and its leaves burst into their fierce reds and golds – that’s a given. With a country so vast and diverse however, how are you supposed to choose where you want to experience it? Japan is so huge that autumn even begins at different times across the country. To help you surmount this agonising conundrum and make the most of the season, we’ve shaken down our travel experts for their finest titbits of autumnal wisdom.
Hit the North
Tohoku, the northern region of Japan’s main island, holds some of the country’s most enchanting attractions: mountaintop temple communities, rugged national parks, and charming hot spring villages. The area is so beautiful, in fact, that it inspired the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho to write his acclaimed 17th century book ‘Oku No Hosomichi’, or ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. We recommend a read, actually – the writings are still very relevant today (apart from the feudal lords, samurai and bandits).
Autumn’s handsome colours hit the region a bit earlier than the rest of Japan, usually around late October to mid November. With vast gorges and national parks all lit up fleetingly in fierce shades of red and orange, you’d need a stony heart to remain unmoved. Because tourists rarely head north of Tokyo, you can expect it to be extraordinarily peaceful as well. The area remains happily free of western fancies; this truly is a side of Japan that few visitors to the country will see.
A particular highlight is Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture. In the 12th century Hiraizumi was a buzzing cultural centre to rival the then-capital city of Kyoto; today it is a sleepy town with five stunning temples and gardens listed by UNESCO. On one memorable tour we ran to Hiraizumi, our travellers ended up singing karaoke in the hotel in with local monks. The monks sang their hearts out and later blessed the evening with a prayer over the mic. Very surreal. Very Tohoku.
Walk the pilgrimage paths of the Kumano Kodo
The Kumano Kodo is the planet’s oldest existing pilgrimage route. In a world that’s teeming with ever-faster solutions to everyday tasks, there’s something truly spiritual – whether you’re religious or not – about leaving everything behind and partaking in a tradition that has existed for over a thousand years. The world may be a very different place today to what it was back then, but on the Kumano Kodo, you won’t notice.
The network of ancient trails provides access to the three sacred Kumano Sanzan shrines of the beautiful Kii Peninsula: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha. Used for over a millennium, the well-marked paths offer various half- or full-day treks through lush forest, paddy fields, rivers and hot springs, all with shrines a-plenty.
Along the trail you can to stay at a mountaintop temple with the monks of the sacred Mt Koya, admire the tallest waterfall in Japan, soak in some of the country’s finest natural hot springs and walk a section of the gorgeous Daimonzaka cobblestone stairway.
Forest-bathe on the quiet Shin-Etsu trail
Forest-bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is a simple practise originating in Japan, involving immersing oneself in nature. Commonly used as preventative health care in Japan, researchers have discovered a link between spending time in the forest and observing nature in a relaxed, thoughtful manner, and reduced stress, improved mood, increased energy, and improved sleep.
Now – whereas the Kumano Kodo attracts large numbers of hikers, the Shin Etsu trail – following the Sekida Mountains that form the border between two prefectures – is lesser known and incredibly quiet. It may be because there is no pilgrimage associated with the trail, and thus less mythology – it is, quite simply, just a lovely place to hike, inhale, ponder and brood, all against the backdrop of lush forest and sweeping vistas.
Hiking the Shin-Etsu trail means choosing the path less travelled through verdant beech forests and along mountain ridgelines. At times, you’ll be high up watching clouds bank through the forests dropping away below you and others you’ll walk the forest floor, dwarfed by giant magnolia trees and beeches shaped and angled by the weight of the winter snow. Best of all, after a long days hiking, trekkers can spend their evenings bathing in onsen (hot spring baths) and dining at traditional ryokan inns, feeling all of life’s stresses melt away.
Contrast city life and rural majesty
Take a broad, crystalline river, flanked by snow-capped mountains. Dust the valley with a healthy covering of Japanese elm and maple trees. Mix in a handful of quaint shrines and traditional bridges. Season with macaques, mandarin ducks, thunder birds, and mountain goats, and you’ve got Kamikochi.
As part of the greater Chubu Sangaku National Park, Kamikochi park offers numerous walks which range from easy rambles along the valley floor to more serious hikes to the tops of the nearest peaks. Private cars are (rightly!) banned from the park, in order to preserve the stunning and unspoiled environment here.
Kamikochi is only accessible from mid-April to mid-November, and autumn in Japan is particularly beautiful here. Due to its high elevation, the leaves look their best in October. Whatever time of year you visit, bear in mind that Kamikochi is much colder than Tokyo and Kyoto so you’ll want to bring appropriate clothing. It’s pretty difficult to get here, as it’s a bus ride or two no matter where you set out from – but hey, that’s what we’re here for!