Autumn Weekend Getaways from Tokyo

Stepping out of summer and into autumn is one of the most exciting times of the year!

It’s inspiring to be outdoors surrounded by vibrant splashes of colour as the momiji turn from green into the most surreal shades of yellow, orange and red. I am constantly in awe of Mother Nature and the things she’s capable of.

In Japan, the leaves change colours in September in the colder regions. The red wave slowly washes over the country blending with winter, till it disappears mid December. We get quite a decent amount of time to experience this change of seasons – you just have to be willing to travel around the country.

During October and November, I went on a few trips out of Tokyo with some fellow nature and photography enthusiasts. We tackled muddy forests, juggled umbrellas and cameras, were met with a bit too much fog than we wanted… the weather wasn’t always on our side, but it’s hard to complain when you have a front row seat to such an amazing natural phenomenon. Thankfully, the sun did pop out on a few occasions!

There are many places to choose from to catch the changing foliage, but here are three of my favourites near Tokyo – one to the north, one to the west and one to the south. They can all be done as a (rather long) day trip, but I would definitely recommend staying overnight if possible just so you don’t have to rush and you can enjoy the place without the day-tripping crowds.


Mid October in Oku-Nikko, Tochigi

Drawcard: Mountains, Onsens, Waterfalls
From Tokyo: 2 hour 15 min train + 45 minute bus 

This was my second time to visit Oku-Nikko, the region beyond the World Heritage shrines and temples of Nikko. Last time, the entire place was covered head to toe in lush, green foliage. It was a gorgeous place to be in the middle of summer, and turned out to be just as beautiful in autumn. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Ryuzu Falls, one of the most famous autumn leaves spots in Japan.

Oku Nikko

A few days before the trip, we found out that a typhoon was on its way. Most typhoons blast the country in August and September, so it was unusual to have such intense weather in October. Needless to say, it was a very wet weekend spent entirely in my rain boots. On the bright side, I think the rain deterred a lot of people and the roads weren’t as packed as I’d feared.

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It was also my first time to stay in the Oku-Nikko region. There aren’t that many hotels to choose from, but I managed to get the last room available that looked out over Lake Chuzenji. Being able to wake up to a view like this was one of the best parts of the trip.

A weekend in Oku-Nikko was a great start to the momiji-hunting season!


Late October in Karuizawa, Nagano

Drawcard: Mountain resort, Western-style holiday houses
From Tokyo: 1 hour 15 min shinkansen

In Japan, there’s a word to describe someone who brings the rain: ame-otoko for men and ame-onna for women. Whenever it rains during an event, we jokingly say “It must be because so-and-so is here.”

I couldn’t believe it when I checked the weather forecast and saw yet another typhoon was on its way. This was actually the third time this year a typhoon hit on a weekend I had a trip planned. I guess I have to accept that maybe I am something much worse than an ame-onna… I’m a typhoon-onna!

Karuizawa

This was my third time to visit to Karuizawa; my second time in autumn. I’m still obsessed with it so much! It’s such a charming town with surprisingly a lot to do – exploring historical sites, nature trails, envying holiday houses, eating at restaurants and cafes, outlet shopping, skiing, and lots more. It would be a dream to rent out one of the gorgeous houses in the summer — I’ll be dreaming for a while I think.

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One of the coolest places we visited was an old, discontinued train line outside of Karuizawa that goes to Yokokawa in Gunma. The most popular section of the line is a bridge called Megane Bashi made of four towering brick arches. At 30m high, it’s the biggest arch bridge in Japan. It is quite the sight to come across deep in the mountains, and looks like something you’d find in England rather than Japan!

The railway follows the old Nakasendo highway that linked Edo with Kyoto. This road started out as a mere path in the 8th century, and became one of five national highways in the Edo Period. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but I’ve visited other sections of this 534km highway, like the preserved post towns of Magome and Tsumago. It’s so cool to discover connections between different places like that. I feel like I’m just walking my way through a history book!

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Mid November in Kawaguchiko, Yamanashi

Drawcard: Lake, Mt Fuji
From Tokyo: 2 hour 40 min train + 15 min bus

Sunshine, finally!

I’d had my fingers crossed the tightest for good weather at Kawaguchiko. Not only did the sun come out, but just a couple of days before we went, Mt Fuji was crowned with her permanent white cap for the season. Hooray!

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My heart was full of joy seeing the red momiji framing a snow-capped Fujisan and blue sky. We visited the Momiji Tunnel on the west side of the lake, and the Momiji Corridor on the north shore.

The “corridor” has a small festival with food stalls and the trees are lit up at night, so the majority of visitors go there. But, continuing further to the “tunnel”, we had some parts entirely to ourselves. It was fun trying to find that perfect momiji-Fuji view, and I think it’s safe to say we did!

After this trip to Kawaguchiko, the autumn leaves arrived in Tokyo. Riding my bike to and from work down golden, ginkgo-lined streets and past little shrines filled with bright red momiji has made me smile every day.  And now, it’s time to step out of autumn and into winter!

Kawaguchiko

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Spectacular Colours in Kyoto

Kyoto is incredible any time of the year. No two visits are ever the same, and there are endless places to explore. With its World Heritage temples and shrines, geisha district, traditional foods and ancient history, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular cities in the world. Even for Japanese people, no place rivals this city. Just about every school in the country organizes an annual school trip to Kyoto, usually combined with neighbouring Nara. I asked my students who went here recently what their favourite part of the trip was — a) going to Kiyomizudera and b) eating yatsuhashi sweets!

Last month, my brother was in the country and we travelled down to Kyoto for a weekend trip. Though it was only the beginning of autumn, there were already some beautiful colours here and there. It got me reminiscing about my very first autumn leaves experience (in my life!) in Kyoto a number of years ago, before I started this blog. The crowds were insane, traffic was slow going, and queues were long, but I didn’t care! I’d never seen anything like it and couldn’t get enough.

There are still many more places I’d love to go to, but here are 4 of my favourite Kyoto autumn spots so far.

1. Tofuku-ji

Located just south of Kyoto Station, near the world-famous Fushimi Inari Shrine, Tofukuji is surprisingly one of the lesser known temples. I imagine people who have spent a lot of time in Kyoto are familiar with this place, but many Japanese people I’ve mentioned Tofukuji to either don’t know much about it or have never even heard of it.  It really is their loss, as it has got to be the most spectacular displays of autumn foliage I’ve seen. The main vantage point is from the old wooden footbridge, looking out over a sea of red leaves. Go too early, and there’ll be too much of a green tinge from leaves that haven’t turned yet; likewise, go too late and it’ll look more brown than red.

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Tofukuji

2. Eikan-do Zenrin-ji

Eikando is most famous for its pond and the reflection you see of the garden around it, especially at nighttime. The temple itself is a wonderful place to explore. It’s one of those places in which you need to take your shoes off, and admittedly, it does feel a little strange walking around in socks! Admiring the gorgeous leaves while hearing the monks chanting prayers inside is a calming and spiritual experience. Once you’ve put your shoes back on, you can follow the path up to the pagoda that sits on the hill above the temple. From there, you get a beautiful view over Kyoto city. And if you’re lucky, you can watch the sun set over the distant mountains.

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3. Ginkaku-ji

This temple has always been one of my favourite places in Kyoto, since my first visit to Japan many, many years ago. I love the moss hillside at the back, but the autumn leaves are also another great reason to come here. The vibrant momiji look stunning against the dark wooden temple building and pale-coloured stone garden. Gingakuji has THE perfect Japanese garden, in my opinion!

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4. Arashiyama

A classic autumn spot, as you’ll quickly discover after browsing a few tourism websites or magazines. Arashiyama is situated at the mountains to the west of Kyoto. No doubt every one who has even the slightest interest in Japan has seen pictures of the bamboo grove here, but did you know there’s a monkey park in the mountains, too? You can go hang out with these cute animals for 500 yen or so, and get an impressive view over the city as well.

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Have you ever been to Kyoto? What did you enjoy the most there?

Momiji Hunting in Gunma

November in Japan is such a great time to be outdoors. Crisp mornings and clear skies, golden afternoon light and intense sunsets, and the best part… explosions of autumn colour around every corner!

A few friends and I hit the road mid-November to go momiji hunting through central Gunma. Despite being so close to Tokyo, Gunma is a prefecture I’ve not spent much time in. It’s one of just a handful of prefectures in Japan without a coastline, and is known mainly for its mountainous landscapes, good for skiing, and onsen towns, the most famous being Kusatsu Onsen (which I’m still yet to visit!).

We couldn’t have asked for a nicer day. The sun was shining, our spirits were high and we were in for many gorgeous sights!

Fukiware Falls
Known to some as a ‘mini Niagara Falls’, Fukiware Falls flows over an elongated horseshoe-shaped, 7m high split in the granite riverbed. The rocks are pretty slippery, so they’ve built a walkway that takes you along the length of the waterfall, across a bridge, then up through the forested mountainside from where you can see the falls from above. The river was surrounded either side by flaming yellow and deep orange leaves. It was stunning! The short hike through the forest was relaxing and I loved breathing in the fresh autumn air. Considering the amazing colours everywhere, I would say autumn is the best time to visit this waterfall.

Ikaho Onsen
Though small in size, the hot springs town of Ikaho has an extremely long history – it was mentioned in a collection of poems called Manyoshu which were written sometime during the Nara Period (710-794 AD) and still exist today!

Present-day Ikaho is a charming little place centred around a flight of 365 stone steps. It’s located on the side of a dormant volcano and is known for its rustic-coloured ‘golden water’, that you can easily see all throughout the town in water features and free foot baths. It’s also famous as being the birthplace of onsen manju (soft, red bean buns), so of course we picked up a few of those delicious snacks!

But the main reason we were in Ikaho was neither for the onsens nor the manju… we were there to see a bridge! The Kajika-bashi.

This bright red bridge was built near the hot spring source. During autumn, it’s surrounded by bright red momiji, and in the evenings is lit up from all sides for the annual autumn leaves festival. The bridge, the leaves, the light up: this whole scene was so ‘Japan’ to me.

Gunma is full of little gems like these two places and really doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. In winter, many of the mountains turn into ski resorts, so maybe I’ll be back very soon!

Relaxing Lakeside

Nothing says ‘relaxing’ to me more than being around water. When I’m hiking in the mountains, I love following streams and coming across waterfalls. When I’m at the beach, I love sunbaking on the sand and hearing the waves crash. When I’m in the sea, I love snorkeling among the fish and coral. And when I’m at a lake, I love getting on a boat or paddling around in a canoe. Water is just calming and blissful.

Two weekends ago, I took a day trip to Kawaguchiko, the biggest of the five lakes at the base of Mt Fuji. I’ve been to 2 or 3 of the other lakes before, but it was my first time to Lake Kawaguchi. It’s the most popular lake because it’s the most easily accessible by train. So as expected, there were quite a few tourists. Maybe more so because it was peak season for the autumn leaves.

After walking through the sleepy township from the train station, the lake suddenly came into view. It was much bigger than I thought it would be. To kind of see a snapshot of the whole lake, I went on a cruise boat that took us to the west end and back. I don’t think people swim in the lake – or at least it’s too cold to anytime outside of summer – but there were plenty of people fishing and chilling along the shores. On the north side, there were lots of lake houses. It would be amazing to rent a house and spend a weekend here! Their views of Mt Fuji early in the morning and at sunset must be amazing! On the south-east side, a cable car takes you up to a lookout point. You can also rent swan boats and go for a paddle. Or, there are even jet boat rides for thrill seekers.

I was happy just to relax lakeside and soak up those beautiful autumn colours.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Relax

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Vibrant

It’s mid winter here in Tokyo and the days of late have been sun-less, rainy and dreary. Some people thrive in cold weather. The idea of cozy fireplaces, Ugg boots, snow angels and mulled wine sounds like the perfect dream. But in reality it’s more like struggling to get out of bed when it’s so cold you can see your breath, finishing work when it’s already dark out, and trying not to get sick as you go between overheated rooms and freezing outside temps all day. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say winter isn’t my favourite season!

This week’s photo challenge, Vibrant, came at a great time. I miss the colours of spring, summer and, more recently, autumn. In December, I went to Koishikawa Korakuen to catch the autumn foliage at their peak. I wanted to post about this city garden last month, but didn’t get the chance – so I’m hitting two birds with one stone today:)

Koishikawa Korakuen

Koishikawa Korakuen was created over 380 years ago, making it one of the oldest gardens in Tokyo. It’s one of 7 places in the country to have been designated both a ‘special place of scenic beauty’ and a ‘special historic site’, and is famous for its sakura in spring and momiji in autumn, as well as its bridges and water features. I’ve been at least half a dozen times since I moved to Tokyo, but nothing prepared me for the brilliance I saw this time!

 

Chasing Colours in Central Japan (part 3)

You can’t go to Gifu without trying the local specialty, Hida beef. This premium, marbled steak, similar to the famous Kobe beef, is tender, juicy and oh so tasty. Seriously, I’m drooling just thinking about it.

While we were in Takayama, we chose a Hida-gyu specialty restaurant, called Suzuya, and ordered the most popular dishes on the menu – miso steak cooked on a magnolia leaf and shabu shabu. I loved the idea of cooking on leaves, which are collected from the neighbouring mountains. All of the vegetables – mushrooms, cabbage, onions, peppers, carrots, spring onions – are locally grown, too. It was delicious and hit the spot. Though, I have to say, nothing compares to a simple Hida beef yakitori seasoned with a bit of salt and pepper.

The red beef was almost the same colour as the red leaves outside! Of all the places we visited on this weekend trip, Takayama’s autumn colours were the most brilliant. Before hitting the road again on the Sunday, we went to the highest point in the town, to a park called Shiroyama where Takayama Castle used to stand. We were actually hoping to catch a glimpse of the town from above, but it turned out there were too many trees to see anything. But that didn’t matter at all. Instead, we were completely blown away by the colours. It looked like someone had gone and painted the leaves in neon yellow and red and orange. I don’t think I’ve ever seen leaves so brightly coloured before in my life. The park was small and we didn’t spend long there, but it was an absolute gem!

From Takayama, we drove up through the mountains to Toyama. The entire weekend was incredible. Japan is such a diverse, beautiful country, and there’s so much to discover.

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Hida Hida