Lake Towada and Oirase Stream
Visiting Lake Towada has been on my list for some time as a fall outing but it was not until this year that I found the opportunity by timing it relatively right. Timing your trip for the peak fall colors is usually a difficult task. As also discussed in my first post about autumn in Japan (where I talk about my recent foliage trip to Nikko), there are many very useful fall foliage forecast sites but with so may moving parts and the need to plan a trip up to Tohoku at least a week in advance, there is never a guarantee that you will be on time for the best colors. I traveled to Lake Towada Area and Oirase Stream, one of the most famous spots for fall foliage in Tohoku and in Japan in general, on October 25th based on the forecasts and the average peak color times in the previous years. The colors were almost at their peak color when I was in the area and I was probably only few days earlier than the optimum time.
Towada area was the beginning leg of my week long trip to Tohoku (which will be covered in other posts) and I based myself for a one night and two days trip to the area in a hotel right by Lake Towada – a town that I found to be a very good base with surprisingly pleasing number of breakfast and lunch options, quite a rare find in rural Japan (I gave the links to some of those eateries within this post and at the end in the tips section).
Lake Towada and Tohoku with JR East Pass
As many foreign passport holders living in Japan, I benefited from the JR East Pass (it used to be a three days pass and now replaced by the longer 5 days Tohoku Pass) and took the first shinkansen out of Tokyo (6.30am) to get off at Hachione and then to take the JR Bus (for the bus schedule) to Lake Towada (costs 2,200 Yen one way). The bus is scheduled to accommodate the shinkansen passengers and departs 15 minutes after the trains arrival time (follow the west exit and turn right). You can the bus from Aomori as well if it works better with your itinerary. Advance reservations for the bus are not accepted but no need to worry as they arrange the number of buses in accordance with the number of passengers. The bus ride down to Lake Towada takes around 2 hours (3 hours if departing from Aomori) but you can get off early at Oirase trailhead and start your hike right away. I did not opt for that option due to the luggage related considerations (would need to hike back up to the trailhead to get my luggage). I left my luggage at my hotel and the kind owners offered to give me a ride to the trailhead. Towada Adventure Lodge is an old style establishment (similar to many other hotels in the area) with large rooms and reasonable pricing (around 4,000 Yen a night with the Go To Campaign discount) – no frills but decent enough to spend the night. There was a very nice cafe right across the hotel – Yamaju – which offers a good curry lunch/dinner with a coffee for 1,500 Yen in a very modern/sleek design.
As for transportation in the area, I found the bus network quite satisfactory in terms of the frequency and the various stops along the route in case you want to quickly move along the trail or re-visit some of the highlights. The bus follows the stream and offer very pleasant views all through the way making you want to jump off at various sections.
Oirase Stream is beautiful and definitely worth the hype. There is a 1.5 hours long hiking trail accompanying the stream, which is completely flat and takes you through numerous waterfalls. I am not very much into long exposure waterfall photographs but if you are, it probably does not get any better than Oirase Stream. Even if you do not, it is definitely one of the best easy hikes that I have done in Japan. If you are familiar with peak hikes in Japan, it almost feels like you get too much in return of the little foot work that it requires, a great effort/prize parity. I was in the area during the expected peak color times and there were some crowds along the trail (on Sunday particularly) but it was not at a discouraging level, mainly due to the special circumstances this year. In other years, I read that there can form long lines along the trail, it was not the case this year, at least not on my days.
Oirase Stream trail leads all the way down to Nenokuchi (where you can catch the JR bus back to Lake Towada) and follows the car road but the sound of the stream usually mutes the sound of the cars. There are very limited sections where you need to walk along the car road. Keep in mind that there are not any vending machines or restaurants along the way so you should pack your own water/drinks/food.
While the main attraction point in Towada Lake area is Oirase Stream, there is another feature, which equally deserves a trip on its own. I should have maybe started this post with the very unexpected highlight of my trip to Towada area, which was an actually afterthought for me: Towada Shrine (十和田神社). I was so focused on Oirase Stream that I went to Towada Shrine only because I had some time to kill before my bus to the trailhead of the stream but what a beautiful shrine it turned out to be! There are number of short trails leading to the shrine starting from the town center (one involving a very short but a steep hike leading the way up to the smaller shrine overlooking the Lake Towada) also connecting to the lake shore. The shrine is reported to be founded in 9th century and occupies an exceptionally beautiful place. Like much of the rest of Tohoku, it is in the bear territory as you are very frequently reminded of with the bear warning signs. I was alone but I tailed a father/son duo during the hike up to the more secluded parts of the complex.
If you spend the night in Lake Towada area, I also highly recommend that you visit Towadako Marine Blue, a cozy cabin style cafe located right by the lake. I had the classic breakfast toast with coffee but the place is actually famous for its pies. As for lunch, I tried Cafe Ikoi and was generally happy with my choice (had gyudon).
Following my report on foliage in Nikko and now Lake Towada and Oiase Stream (as part of autumn in Japan series), I will next write about my trip to Aoni Onsen in Aomori, to be followed by Nyuko Onsen and Dakigaeri Gorge and finally Yamadera. In the meantime, I try to post daily updates on my instagram account – https://instagram.com/bizarrejourneys
How to Get to Lake Towada and Oirase Stream
If you are departing from Tokyo or any other major city in Japan, you can take the shinkasen to either Aomori or Hachione and take the JR bus to Towada area. JR East Pass is now available (as of 1 April 2021) to non-Japanese passport holder Japan residents and is an amazing deal allowing you five consecutive days of rides in any JR train serving Tohoku for the price of a one way shinkansen ticket to Aomori from Tokyo (one person can buy more than one pass as I did).
For trips within the region,JR Bus Tohoku is an ideal option to travel within the are with frequent enough services (again in rural Japan standards). As always renting a car is the most ideal option with the freedom it allows you but I found the public transportation quite reliable not only in Lake Towada area but in general in Tohoku and I could easily visit every destination I wanted (even outside of urban areas) relying on regional or local transportation.
Where to Eat in Lake Towada
Full disclosure, definitely not a gourmet here. Atmosphere is usually more important for me than the taste of food. During my trip to Lake Towada, I really enjoyed the sleek design of Yamaju and my early dinner of Japanese style curry. As for lunch, I had gyudon at Cafe Ikoi run by two lovely ladies right by the lake. The highlight was my simple toast and coffee breakfast at Marine Blue though, a cozy cabin style cafe again sitting right by the lake.
Where to Stay in Lake Towada
Towada Adventure Lodge offered large rooms (in Japanese standards) overlooking the lake with old style decoration for reasonable prices (4,000 Yen a night with Go To Campaign discount). The owners were very kind and offered me a ride to the Oirase trailhead when I would have to wait for the next bus. The heating in the room was a bit noisy though making me to overdress and turn off the heater to be able to sleep.
Other Fall Destinations in Japan
You can read about my other fall outing suggestions including Nikko and Aoni Onsen. In terms of the cities, Kanazawa is also a wonderful fall destination with its various parks, museums and well preserved architecture.