Unique Koyo Routes in Japan
Japan's beautiful autumn season is a feast for the eyes, and there are plenty of ways to experience the views as you travel.
The mild weather that autumn brings, combined with the spectacular views it offers, makes this the best time to enjoy the outdoors in Japan, and with some simple planning you can catch the koyo (autumn leaves) from a number of unique ways of getting around.
By Ropeway・Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
This ropeway is a part of the “Alpine Route,” a scenic path that crosses the northern part of the Japanese Alps, located around the border of Toyama Prefecture and Nagano Prefecture. Besides being the longest unsupported ropeway in all of Japan, it has some of the best views of autumn leaves in the entire country.
The ride takes about seven minutes, but expect to spend considerably more time – about eight hours – if you want to traverse the entire 90 kilometer route by an assortment of charming buses, cablecars, and trolleys. There are also several lodging options if you want to spend the night in the mountains.
Due to the varying elevations in the area, leaves turn at different times, but expect the color change between mid-September and mid-December. Another highlight of the Alpine Route is Mt. Tateyama, 3,000 meters high and usually covered in snow from late September until April.
If you’re traveling from Tokyo, the easiest way to get to the Alpine Route is by taking the shinkansen to Nagano, and then catching a highway bus for 90 minutes to Omachi, the eastern entrance of the Alpine Route.
Japan has a myriad of rivers, and the leisurely pace of a boat is an excellent way to experience the autumn foliage. There is most likely a suitable river nearby, no matter which part of the country you happen to be in. However, one of our favorite rides on the water is along the Hozugawa River which runs from Kameoka to Arashiyama in Kyoto. The 16 kilometer boat ride takes you through breathtaking ravines that are gorgeous all year round.
This river has been used by boats since the 700s, and due to the beautiful surroundings, the river became a popular sightseeing spot from the beginning. Pleasure cruises, running along the Hozugawa since 1895, take about two hours, and the best time to view autumn leaves is from the middle of November to early December.
To get there from Kyoto, take the JR Sagano Line to Kameoka Station, and the cruise starting point is located just an eight minute walk away.
By Car・Metasequoia Namiki
One of Japan’s most scenic roads is located near Takashima in Shiga Prefecture, not far from the western shores of Lake Biwa. Here, a 2.4 kilometer stretch of National Road 287, not far from the town of Makino, is surrounded by hundreds of Metasequoia trees planted in the late 1980s as a biology class project by a local school. Thanks to their efforts, car enthusiasts can cruise through one of the top scenic spots in all of the country. If you’re headed this way, the highest chance of catching the vivid colors here is in November.
Kamikochi is a popular nature preserve in Nagano, not far from the Alpine Route. The area is a plateau surrounded by some of the most impressive mountain scenery in the country, and part of the Chubu Sangaku National Park. Kamikochi is especially famous for hiking, and its spectacular vistas have made it an extremely popular location in October.
The area has several active volcanoes, and many of the lakes were formed by past eruptions. Most are the result of mudslides that disrupted the Azusa River within the last 100 years, leaving decaying trees that remain standing in the middle of some of the lakes.
If you’re an experienced hiker, you’ll probably opt for one of the more advanced routes up the mountain peaks, but some of these routes take several days and there’s already snowfall in October at the higher altitudes. Inexperienced hikers should go for the shorter routes around the lakes. Private vehicles are restricted from entering Kamikochi, so the only way to get here is by bus or taxi, and both Takayama and Matsumoto are connected to Kamikochi by bus.
By Train・Hakone Tozan Railway
Taking the railway up the mountain from Hakone-Yumoto to the hillside onsen town of Gora is a perfect way to watch the autumn leaves, and if this 40 minute leisurely trip isn’t enough you can continue by taking the cable car up to Sounzan.
The train itself is half of the fun, as the Hakone Tozan is the only mountain railway in Japan that climbs up the hillside by changing direction at several switchbacks along the way. Train geek or not, the ride gives you plenty of chances to see endless hills in all imaginable hues of red, yellow, and brown.
If you venture further up in Hakone, you’ll also be able to catch the snowy peak of Mt. Fuji as the perfect backdrop.
To get to Hakone-Yumoto from Shinjuku you can take the classic Odakyu Limited Express Romancecar for 90 minutes.
Get out there!
There are plenty of ways and plenty of places to take in the autumn colors all over Japan, and these were just a few of the more famous spots. Getting out into more rural areas can be a bit daunting for planning, but it’s worth the extra effort this time of year, and getting there can be just as interesting as your destination.