Even though we do not have to choose, I will get this out of the way right away. I would in any given year happily give up sakura season for an extended fall in Japan. Sakura is lovely, heart warming and very pinkish. I love watching the excitement of Tokyo residents during the sakura season, families enjoying the season in one of the many beautiful parks of Tokyo including my neighborhood park Mizumoto Park, possibly the dad and mom taking off a day from work, packing a picnic basket with enough food for the whole day, bikes parked nearby…and the list goes on. The atmosphere excites me more than the flowers. But when it comes to fall foliage or koyo (紅葉), I get close to losing my mind. The color variety, the rapid transformation of the color palette each day, the beauty of a clear sunny day and the beauty of the rainy/foggy day offering a parade of beautiful umbrellas. I start planning for fall season well in advance, I try to get as much work as possible done during the painfully hot and humid summer months of August, and September so that I will have some buffer during the fall season, which usually starts in Kanto region towards the end of October (much earlier in Hokkaido and then down in Aomori). Last year, my fall foliage outings were pretty much limited to Tokyo (and the previous year to Kanazawa), with a very late short trip to Nagano. This year, I will chase the best locations for fall colors within Japan and intend to cover a wider area thanks to the Go Travel Campaign and the new rail pass launched by JR East (named JR East Welcome Rail Pass 2020), which can be purchased by resident non-Japanese passport holders and covers Aomori, Nagano, Niigata among other prefectures with departure from Tokyo. I also, like many here, feel gratitude for the relatively low Covid-19 spread in Japan.
My first fall outing this year was to Nikko again benefiting from Nikko All Area Pass available to non-Japanese passport holders and was lucky to have a one sunny and one rainy/foggy/moody/beautiful day in Okunikko region. I intend to update this post through the fall season in Japan and hopefully putting together a useful fall foliage guide by the end of the season (early December). I will start with Nikko but before that, let me summarize some of the best fall forecast sources on the web with some sites offering periodical updates with photos.
Fall in Japan – Forecasting Sources
Always reliable and helpful Japan Guide offers a periodical field reports covering the most famous fall foliage spots across the country. This year, they reduced the number of reports but still helpful both to pick locations and find out the best time to catch the peak colors. Kishou website on the other hand focuses on annual forecasts and covers an extensive area divided by prefectures. Weather News Japan website is also often recommended for forecasting purposes. I usually switch between these three website to plan my fall outings. Tenki, the Japanese weather forecast site also have a special koyo section.
Nikko Fall Colors – October 16-17, 2020
Nikko seems to be rainy almost all the time. I have been watching the forecast closely with only one or two days a week with a promise of partial sunshine. Knowing that the Okunikko (inner-Nikko) was at the peak colors phase including spots like Ryuzu Waterfall, Yuna Lake, Yutaki Waterfall and beautiful marshland of Senjogahara, I took a leap of fate and only deciding the night before, I took the first express train out of Asakusa, Tokyo at 6.30 am, which took me to Nikko town in less than two hours. While Nikko can be perfectly done as a day trip as I had also done before, I had online meetings in the evening and also to better increase my chances for ideal weather conditions, I decided to spend the night in Nikko town at cozy Stay Nikko Guesthouse positioned by the river. If you want to travel to Okunikko region to cover Kegon and Ryuzu Waterfalls, the two marshlands including Senjogahara and Yunoko Onsen area, keep in mind that it will take another hour of bus ride from Tobu Nikko station. I highly recommend that you use the Nikko All Area Pass or get the bus pass from Tobu Nikko Visitor Center as, without the pass, one way trip to Yumoto Onsen costs around 1,700 Yen.
Hike from Senjogahara to Odashirogahara Marshlands
My first day, despite the forecast, was a fully sunny day. Just mildly crispy to give you a nice hike with only a long sleeve hiking shirt and to see the various waterfalls at their glory. I took the bus up to Ryuzu Waterfall. The crowd situation was not bad at all as it was Friday but mostly due to Covid-19 related international travel restrictions. After photographing the waterfall, I took the very easy, flat, but bear territory hike to Akanuma region walking through the autumn wonderland. From Akanuma, I took the side trail to Odashirogahara marshland. The marshland was not very color rich but the trail leading to the marshland is always, in every season and particularly in autumn, worth a hike (again very flat, very easy but bear territory). I then hiked back to Akanuma to catch the bus to Yunoko Onsen and started my walk at the footsteps o amazing Yutaki Waterfall (湯滝). The view of Yutaki Waterfall with the clouds slowly moving in a perfectly blue sky was breathtaking (short video at Bizarre Journeys instagram account). This was followed by a walk around Yuno Lake, which takes around 30 minutes one way. It was a day full of colors, photography and amazement. I made my down to Nikko town around 4pm where I got a quick sushi dinner (at a very nice and reasonably priced local joint – Komekichi Kouzushi 米吉 晃寿司) to make it to my guesthouse on time for 5.30 pm online meeting. Stay Nikko Guesthouse is run by friendly hosts and offers comfortable rooms, which is heated for you before you arrive. I had a very comfortable nights sleep and the wifi connection was reliable enough for 3 hours of online meetings.
Yunoko Onsen – Okunikko
The next day was fully rainy, foggy but in the most beautiful way. The inner regions including the forest hikes was not foggy enough for moody photography but both Yuno Lake and the vast Lake Chuzenji was nearly fully covered by fog. On my second half day, I took a short walk through the forest, re-visited Yunoko Onsen area and re-did the around the lake hike (the colors were more vivid under the freshness brought by the rain) and returned to Lake Chuzenji to grab a quick lunch at a coffee shop located right by the lake featuring giant windows for the best views. After 1,5 days in beautiful Nikko, I caught the 2.30 express train back to Asakusa with a memory card full of photos and gratitude for my 10 years old Canon camera (that I started re-using after recently selling my entire Fuji equipment for the reasons I summarized in my post Farewell to Fuji – Back to Canon). As I noted in the introduction, I plan to update this post with through the fall season in Japan and you can subscribe to my RSS feed and/or instagram account, which will be updated all through the season as well.