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International travelers often overlook the Tohoku region tucked between the populated Kanto area and the unpopulated but equally popular Hokkaido regions of Japan. Although it took me longer than it should have, my love for fall colors in Japan — also known as koyo — finally brought me to Tohoku during the autumn colors season in late October to discover the best Tohoku autumn foliage spots.

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Tohoku (東北 – meaning north-east) region is known for its scenic nature spots and dense forests, making it an ideal destination to visit during the autumn foliage season in Japan. There are six prefectures located in Tohoku — Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, and Yamagata — each hosting numerous spots to enjoy the koyo autumn leaves season. In addition, the area is also home to some of the most rustic onsen in Japan, often hidden in the forests. To experience both the hiking trails and onsen culture, I put together an itinerary for a week-long trip with a mix of easy hiking trails with magnificent autumn scenery and onsen stops to effortlessly enjoy the fall colors while relaxing in a rotenburo outdoor onsen.

fall colors in Tohoku along hiking trail in Japan
The dense forests of Tohoku allow one of the most engaging fall colors viewing experiences in Japan

Tohoku region occupies 67,000-kilometer squares, but thanks to the efficient rail network of Japan, I had no issues exploring the area, relying solely on public transportation. With some pre-trip research (helped by the content-rich Tohoku tourism website) and careful planning, I covered most of the best Tohoku autumn foliage spots during my week-long solo trip in late October, which is an ideal time to view the fall colors in Tohoku.

When is the Best Time to View the Fall Colors in Tohoku and Japan?

One of the greatest things about the fall colors in Japan is the length of the season. While the season lasts for around two to three weeks at each destination, the colors travel around the country for about four months, during which it is always possible to find a place within Japan colored with autumn leaves if you are willing to travel.

autumn leaves in Japan
Autumn foliage season in Japan is among the best seasons to visit Japan

The fall foliage viewing season in Tohoku starts a month earlier than Tokyo and Kyoto in late October (in the northern prefecture of Aomori) and ends at around mid-November in southern regions, which greet the autumn colors later in the season. I use a great website daily during the koyo season to follow the timing forecast for fall colors in Japan based on the prefecture.

Best Fall Colors Viewing Spots in Tohoku

I started my trip in Aomori’s Lake Towada and slowly made my way down to Yamadara Temple in Yamagata prefecture, covering many of the prime fall foliage viewing spots in Tohoku. Here are my favorite autumn leave viewing spots along the way:

Oirase Stream and Lake Towada in Aomori Prefecture: Hike in the Land of Waterfalls

Oirase Stream by Lake Towada is one of the prime spots to view the fall colors in Tohoku and all of Japan. I based myself in the lakeside Towada Town to explore the area for a one-night stay.

Oirase Stream is easily accessible by bus from Towada Town. The eight km long hiking trail along the stream allows visitors to enjoy arguably the best autumn foliage scenery in Japan with relatively little physical effort. The course takes around three hours one-way and connects Nenokuchi to Ishigedo by taking visitors next to numerous waterfalls accompanying the stream. Choshi-otaki waterfall is the most popular spot along the trail and often makes it into the list of best fall sceneries in Japan.

oirase stream and fall colors in  Tohoku, Japan
Oirase Stream is home to numerous waterfalls

As an early riser, I hiked along the Oirase Steam early in the morning when there were fewer crowds and mostly photographers eagerly waiting by one of the many waterfalls for the perfect moment to take the best fall foliage photo of the season. Although I used to get intimidated by the number of photography gear carried by very professional-looking photographers, I now truly enjoy the camaraderie easily formed between people passionate enough to get out of bed before the sunrise in search of the best shot. My experience in Oirase Stream was no exception, where I ran into a couple of photographers who were all more than willing me to show the best spots for the early morning shots.

hikers in Japanese mountain trail during autumn colors
Early risers will be rewarded with a more intimate fall colors experience along Oirase Stream

Even though the area is not yet on the radar of international tourism, Oirase Stream is a very popular fall color viewing destination for local tourists in Japan. As a result, it can get quite crowded, especially on weekends.

fall colors and leaves in Tohoku, Japan
The hiking trail running next to Oirase Stream is well marked and very flat, allowing hikers/walkers of every experience level to enjoy the beauty of the stream

Lake Towada with the nearby Towada Shrine is another spot that rewards visitors with beautiful fall colors. Towada Shrine requires a short hike deep into the forest. Like the rest of Tohoku, the region is not only home to humans but also a large population of bears, so caution is advised when hiking, especially early in the morning or late in the evening. I am grateful for the father and son duo who allowed me to tag along during the hike to manage the emotional stress of a potential bear encounter.

Joining a boat excursion is another popular option to explore Lake Towada and get closer to the surrounding fall colors. There are also numerous cafes and restaurants lined up next to the lake to spend leisure time. My favorite was Marine Blue Cafe, located by the lake, offering a cozy atmosphere and simple toast/coffee breakfast. Although I did not try it, the apple pie seemed to be the most popular option for the locals.

Best time to visit for fall colors: Late October
Transportation: JR Bus Tohoku connects Aomori City Shinkansen station and Hachione Shinkansen station to Lake Towada and Oirase Stream area. There are also numerous bus stops along the road following Oirase Stream if you are not up for hiking but still want to visit the prime spots.
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Nakano Momiji in Aomori Prefecture: Explore the Autumn in the Maple Mountain

After I visited Oirase Stream and Lake Towada, I had a one-night pit-stop at the modestly sized but lively Aomori City before moving to my next fall foliage destination – Nakano Momiji Mountain. Nakano Momiji is conveniently located between Kuroishi and Aoni Onsen, where I spent the night.

beautiful autumn leaves landscape in Japan
The scenery that greeted me at the entrance of Nakano Momiji Mountain is just one of the many wonderful koyo spots in Tohoku

Nakano Momiji Mountain is famous for its maple trees. The park entrance features Nakano Shrine, a picturesque red bridge, and a waterfall that feels like a small theme park combining the best of autumn foliage spots in Japan. Although it took me a while to compose myself after this initial picture-perfect scenery, I am glad that I still wanted to see more and pushed to explore the hiking trail leading deep into the forest.

komorebi and autumn leaves in Tohoku, Japan
I had the trail all to myself for a brief moment while hiking in Nakano Mamoji Mountain

The forest greeted me with a rainbow-like atmosphere and a magical komorebi (木漏れ日), meaning sunlight filtered through the trees, coming through the colorful foliage. Although the word mountain may be intimidating, the trail leading into the forest is relatively gentle and guarantees a more secluded fall color viewing experience than the more crowded but still picture-perfect entrance area.

Onsen bath with large windows and forests scenery
Combining a trip to Nakano Momiji Mountain with an overnight stay at Aoni Onsen is a popular option

I combined my visit to Nakano Momiji Mountain with an overnight stay in the nearby Aoni Onsen, which turned out to be not only of the most memorable onsen experience I’ve had in Japan but also fantastic fall colors viewing spot thanks to the surrounding forests.

Best time to visit for fall colors: Late October
Transportation: If you are traveling from Aomori city, you can take the JR Ou line to Hirosaki Station and then take the Konan line to reach Kuroishi via Konan line (30 min). From Kuroishi, you can take a bus (Nurugawa line) to reach Nakano Momiji Mountain.

Nyuto Onsen Area in Akita Prefecture: Lagoon-Like Onsen Surrounded by Autumn Colors

Another destination where I could combine a unique onsen experience with the fall colors viewing was the Nyuto Onsen area located in Semboku in Akita Prefecture. The area is home to seven onsen inns where you can either spend the night or visit as a day visitor. One of the most well-known onsens in the area is Tsurunoyu Onsen, reported being opened in the late 17th century.

blue green waters of nyuto onsen in Japan
The blue/green color of Nyuto Onsen reminded me of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland

The experience at Tsurunuyou Onsen — with its green/blue waters — reminded me of the famous Blue Lagoon in Iceland. But instead of the wild and treeless scenery of Iceland, I was surrounded by the mesmerizing forest and fall colors of northern Japan.

Although a bus stop serves each onsen entrance in Nyuto Onsen, I chose to travel between different onsen facilities on foot to better experience the misty atmosphere brought on by the light rain that fell on the surrounding forests. I have to admit that the eerie atmosphere brought on by the mist turned the entire area into a movie set in my eyes, possibly for a scary movie where hikers get lost in a haunted forest. I think I just described the Blair Witch Project. Nevertheless, with their unique atmosphere and the mixture of vivid and pastel-toned fall colors, the woods surrounding the Nyuto Onsen area were among the highlights of my best Tohoku autumn foliage trip.

Best time to visit for fall colors: Late October
Transportation: You can take the Nyuto bus line from JR Tazawako Station

Dakigaeri Gorge in Akita Prefecture: Easy Hike to a Splendid Waterfall

My next stop after Nyutou Onsen was Dakigaeri Gorge in Akita Prefecture. A narrow hiking trail follows the deep Dakigaeri Gorge and overlooks the Tama River, surrounded by autumn colors in late October.

According to the legend, the name of Dakigaeri Gorge is claimed to be a testament to the path’s narrowness that accompanies the gorge. In Japanese, dakigaeri (抱返り) means “hugging back,” and the rumor has it that it refers to the necessity to hug each other to cross this narrow path in the earlier times. There is no longer any need to worry, though. The existing trail is wide enough to allow at least two visitors to walk next to each other. Thus, I managed to finish the course by gently greeting but without hugging any strangers.

Japanese waterfall with autumn fall colors
Mikaeri Waterfall is the endpoint of the Dakigaeri Gorge trail

The trail, which takes around thirty minutes, starts at Dakigaeri Shrine and ends at Mikaeri Waterfall. Although it is a very scenic trail, it felt a little too short and made me wish for more.

Best time to visit for fall colors: Late October
Transportation: Accessible with a shuttle bus from Kakunodate Station or Tazawako Stations during the autumn foliage season

Yamadera Temple in Yamagata Prefecture: In the Footsteps of Poet Basho

My final destination during my Tohoku fall foliage trip was the nearly 1,200 years old Yamadera Temple officially called Risshakuji. Yamadera Temple is located in Yamagata prefecture and is easily accessible by train from Sendai.

All the photos of this mountain top temple I saw before my trip reminded me of the famous novel by Umberto Eco, which was made into a movie starring Christian Slater and Sean Connery called the Name of the Rose, focusing on murders at a mountain top temple located in Northern Italy. Although the sunny weather and heart-warming autumn colors turned my visit to Yamadera Temple into a much less spooky experience than the one in the book, I still let my imagination run wild, as I tend to do, while climbing up the infamous 1000 steps to Yamadera Temple.

The famous Japanese poet Matsuo Basho also visited Yamadera Temple in the 17th century during his trip to Northern Japan, who composed a haiku dedicated to the stillness of the area.

The hike up takes around thirty minutes and leads to Godaido Hall offering magnificent views of the surrounding area. Unfortunately, it turned out that I was around a week early (visited at the end of October) to see the fall colors in Yamadera at their peak color, but I still enjoyed the lush forest trail leading to the temple and the early koyo.

Best time to visit for fall colors: First week of November
Transportation: The temple is served by Yamadera Station served by JR Senzan line connecting Sendai to Yamadera in a little less than an hour

How to Get to Tohoku

Numerous airports serve Tohoku, but if you are departing from Tokyo as I did, Shinkansen is the most pleasant and comfortable way to access the region. It is currently also one of the most affordable options, thanks to the JR East Tohoku Pass, which is available to residents of Japan with a foreign passport. The pass costs 20,000 Yen and allows unlimited travel in Tohoku for five consecutive days.

The entire region is well served by Shinkansen, making it very easy to move between main destinations such as Aomori City, Hachinohe, Morioka, and Sendai, which are connected to the above-listed destinations either with local buses or trains. Furthermore, as a solo traveler with no access to a private car, I easily visited some of the best Tohoku autumn foliage spots relying solely on public transportation. JR East’s website features a map listing the Shinkansen stops in the Tohoku region.

I expect that the Tohoku area, which is already a prime fall foliage viewing destination for the residents of Japan, will also soon catch up with more famous regions in Japan in terms of popularity among international visitors. Although it took me a while to visit the area and discover the best Tohoku autumn foliage spots, the entire region is now on the top of my repeat list for fall foliage exploration trips.

Burcu Basar

Burcu Basar

I am Burcu. Originally from Istanbul, Turkey and a resident of Tokyo, Japan since 2019. I am currently doing my PhD in Japan in an area which miraculously combines my profession - law, with my passion - national parks. I can often be found in national parks all over Japan where I tend to take too many photos. The two things that I love the most about Japan are its nature and intriguingly dark literature.

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