Nikko: the Same Trees, Same Colors but Different Leaves

I will get this out of the way right away. I would happily give up sakura season for an extended fall in Japan in any given year.

Do not get me wrong. I love the sakura season and witnessing the excitement of locals during the season, families enjoying the season in one of the many beautiful parks of Tokyo, and possibly dad and mom taking off a day from work, packing a picnic basket with enough food for the whole day, bikes parked nearby. It is a lovely yet fleeting season.

Fall in Japan, by lake Yunoko in Nikko
Lake Yunoko in Okunikko, October 2021

However, nothing compares to the fall foliage – koyo (紅葉) – season for me. I structure my entire year around it. I try to get as much work as possible done during the painfully hot and humid summer months of August and September to have some buffer during the fall season, which usually starts in the Kanto region towards the end of October (the season begins as early as mid-September in Hokkaido). I often start my fall foliage viewing trips in mid-October in Oku-Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture. In November, I try to visit the Tohoku region, which offers one of the country’s most secluded autumn colors viewing experiences.

My first fall outing this year was to Nikko, once again benefiting from the Nikko All Area Pass available to non-Japanese passport holders.

Fall colors viewing outing to Nikko

I spend two to three days in the Oku-Nikko and Lake Yunoko area in Tochigi Prefecture in mid-October every year when the fall colors are usually at their peak. I find great joy but, more importantly, comfort in seasonal repeat travels/hikes.

I hike the same trails each year. There are always new things and sights that catch my attention. But I also enjoy the comfort of hiking in familiar surroundings. Even before the hike, I can picture every step and each awe-inspiring sight that lay ahead of me.

With a start at the Ryuzu Falls, twenty minutes into the hike, a tree trunk hosting a bush with red leaves will greet me. They will be guarded by two large trees, one featuring yellow leaves and the other still hanging on to the green leaves of the summer. This scenery will put the first big smile of the hike on my face, the joy of seeing the familiar “faces” and confirming that they are still in good shape. I will soon reach the first intersection, where the trail sign will inform me of several route options. After a brief (and honestly unnecessary) pause, I will, each year, decide to walk toward Odashirogahara Marshland and save Aka-Numa for the return hike.

“Golden Forest” on the way to Odashirogahara Marshland

I will soon arrive at the section with hundreds of maple trees on both sides, my favorite section of the trail. By this time of the year, the maple leaves will already be yellow and shine like gold on a sunny day. I will spend at least ten minutes photographing the golden forest (that I, very un-creatively, named as such) and regretfully think of my tripod sitting at home (knowing all too well that I will have the same regret next year).

Despite its popularity, the trails of Oku-Nikko never feel very crowded, October 2021

Within five minutes, I will arrive at a section where the trail will require a very short descent, and on the right side, there will be a tiny hill. Right before the hill, I will (a little anxiously) look up to confirm the well-being of the large tree branches, each featuring different leaf colors, red, yellow, and green, joining each other and forming a bridge. Against the backdrop of a forest where green is still the dominating color, the colorful scenery created with the collective efforts of a handful of tree branches will always feel like an oasis.

About an hour later, the sight of a giant cedar tree will be my cue for the trail’s end. The beautiful cedar will look its best on a rainy day when the moss covering its roots will feature shinier tone of green.

After a lengthy break by my favorite tree, I will soon reach the tiny beach by Lake Yunoko. I will salute the picnickers and the photographers (and their tripods) who often park there for long hours enjoying the reflection of the autumn colors on the blue lake.

I love Oku-Nikko. And I love the autumn season.

How to get to Nikko from Tokyo

Nikko All Area Pass is excellent for travelers departing from Tokyo. The pass is available to all non-Japanese passport holders, including residents of Japan. Nikko All Area Pass covers the round trip local train pass (you need to pay an extra 1000 Yen or more depending on the hour if you want to take a limited express train connecting Asakusa to Nikko in under 2 hours), and all the bus rides in Nikko in addition to Lake Chuzenji cruise. The pass pays for itself even for day trips to Nikko, but I highly recommend that you spend a night to get the best out of it and discover many different parts of Nikko and the national park. 

I often take the first express train out of Asakusa, departing at 6:30 a.m., which took me to Nikko town in less than two hours. While Nikko can be easily done as a day trip from Tokyo (as I had done this time around), it is a lovely and quiet place to spend the night.

One should also be mindful of the fact that the Oku-Nikko region extending from Lake Chuzenji to Yunoko Onsen and covers Kegon and Ryuzu Waterfalls, the Senjogahara marshland requires an hour of a bus ride from Tobu Nikko station. I recommend using the Nikko All Area Pass or getting the bus pass from Tobu Nikko Visitor Center as, without the pass, a one-way trip to Yumoto Onsen costs around 1,700 Yen.

Fall in Japan – forecasting resources.

Always reliable and helpful, Japan Guide offers a periodical field reports covering the most famous fall foliage spots across the country. 

 Kishou’s website, on the other hand, focuses on annual koyo forecasts and covers the entire country. You can search by prefecture as well as by famous spots. Weather News Japan website is also often recommended for forecasting purposes. I usually check all these three websites to plan my fall outings. Tenki, the Japanese weather forecast site, also has a special koyo section.