Things are slowly opening up around Japan, but that doesn’t mean we want to charge into the most crowded and popular koyo (autumn leaf viewing) spots straight away. The leaves have already fallen in most of the country, but there is still time to view the fall foliage (or plan for next year).
While everyone is always looking for secret hanami (flower viewing) spots, you don’t hear people often talking about hidden koyo spots. So here are a few starting points in each region to take in the beauty of Japan’s fall colors while avoiding the crowds.
With so many options as day trips from Tokyo, some of the most well-known Kanto spots for fall foliage can get pretty crowded. So, as an alternative to the famously crowded Mt. Takao, why not head east to Mt. Tsukuba or its neighbor Mt. Hokyo instead?
Mt.Tsukuba has two peaks: Nyotai and Nantai. Nyotai can get a little busy during peak season, so head to Nantai at the top for picturesque views without the people. You can quickly get to the top via the cable car or ropeway or climb up yourself. For an even quieter experience, you can climb up Mt. Hokyo to get peaceful views of Mt. Tsukuba’s autumn colors.
For an overnight trip from Tokyo, you could head further north to Nasu. It makes an excellent alternative to Nikko that can get quite crowded in fall. In Nasu, you can soar over a sea of autumn colors on the Nasu Ropeway or bring your camera ready for a walk across the Tsutsuji Suspension Bridge for the early November colors.
Whether you’re looking for the perfect shrine and maple combination or a rushing waterfall amid trees of gold, there’s no shortage of foliage photo-ops in Kansai.
While Nara and its park (and deer) are often surprisingly quiet in autumn than cherry blossom season and summer, the nearby Mt. Wakakusa is even more peaceful. More of a hill than a mountain, it costs ¥150 to enter and takes around 15 minutes to get to the first viewpoint.
There are often a few deer roaming about, and you can get gorgeous shots of the city below, as well as of the Japanese pampas grass and fall colors.
If you want to step a bit further out of central Kyoto and Nara, make a trip to Hyogo’s Kogenji temple instead. Nestled among the fiery autumn leaves, you’ll find a serene temple and a quaint little shop named after momiji (maple leaf), with various souvenirs. After you’re done, you can follow the Kakogawa River to continue your momiji hunt.
In Japan’s warm southern island of Kyushu, the leaves are often late to fall. Thus, you can enjoy the crimson hues a little longer than in other parts of Japan. There are plenty of nature spots to choose from in Kyushu, but one of the most atmospheric in autumn is Kikuchi Gorge in Kumamoto. Even if you’re too early, the lush greens and mist from the waterfall are almost surreal. But in autumn, the gorge and nearby hiking trails turn into a painter’s palette of reds and oranges.
In Chugoku, the peak season for koyo is usually around late November. In Hiroshima, you’ll find the aptly named Momijidani (maple tree valley) park on Miyajima island. Nearby, behind the popular Itsukushima shrine, you can trek the Momijidani hiking trail found on Mt. Misen. While popular among Japanese trekkers, the spot is off the radar for most tourists.
Suppose you’re feeling more adventurous; head over to Shimane to see Gakuenji temple. There, koyo lasts all through November. However, if you’re looking to avoid crowds, it’s best to visit before November 23, as that’s the estimated peak time.
While Iya Valley is undoubtedly famous among autumn-loving hikers, it can get pretty crowded in the fall. A less well-known option is Kochi’s Sedogawa Gorge. The route from the Sedogawa Observation Deck to Amegaeri Falls takes about one hour. It has gorgeous rocky river scenes, waterfalls and a suspension bridge named Burabura (Japanese onomatopoeia for swinging) Bridge due to the way it sways!
Although it is possible to visit via public transport, it’s undoubtedly more accessible by car, which also gives you the option to drive around Kochi’s city center after your walk.
Shirataki Park in Ehime instead offers sturdy, non-swaying bridges, charming waterfalls and a valley view onto the local town surrounded by autumn leaves. The whole trek can be done in 30 minutes, a great alternative if you want a more leisurely stroll. Afterward, you can get on the train or drive alongside the Hijikawa River for more exploring in Ehime.
If you’ve already visited the likes of Mount Fuji’s koyo spots, such as Maple Corridor and the Fuji Skyline, you might be looking for something new.
Or you can take a longer trip to visit Gero in Gifu Prefecture and bathe in a steamy rotenburo (outdoor bath) while viewing fall foliage in one of the many onsen hotels in the area, such as the Gero Kanko Hotel. Gero is well-known as a cozy onsen town, so the spa-like treatments and surrounding scenery make for a relaxing trip.
Tohoku in autumn combines crisp cool air with fall foliage and quiet local towns. Right on the border of Akita and Aomori prefectures, you’ll find Lake Towada. Along the road from Yakeyama down to Nenokuchi, you’ll find 14 different waterfalls, each with its own take on autumn.
Of course, there is also the famous Oirase Gorge, but if it’s lesser-known gems you seek, don’t neglect the waterfalls like Ashura no Nagare.
However, if you’re making a trip from Kanto to Tohoku, you might want to visit somewhere a little closer, like Mt. Bandai in Fukushima—an excellent hike for beginners. It takes around two and a half hours to get to the top, where you’re rewarded with spectacular views of the neighboring mountains.
The leaves fall the earliest in Hokkaido, so if you’re used to the idea of autumn leaves in October, Japan’s great north is the place for you. While scenes such as Jozankei Onsen and Hakodate’s Goryokaku park have become staples for koyo, try Kosetsu Park in Hakodate for something more intimate. Here, you can go for a leisurely walk around 13 hectares of fall foliage that is even illuminated in the evening.
Those itching for more of an unknown-Hokkaido vibe can venture out to one of Hokkaido’s many national parks, such as the Shiretoko National Park.
There, the five lakes of Shiretoko offer unique autumn sceneries. About a twenty-minute drive away, you can also find Kamuiwakka Hot Falls, a rare onsen waterfall leading to small warm pools you can dip your toes in. Just be very careful, as this area is known for its bears!
These all make a good start on your hunt for hidden fall foliage spots around Japan, but if you feel like you’ve missed some of the famous sites, take a look at our regional guide to autumn leaves in Japan.
What’s your favorite secret koyo spot? Come on. Don’t leave us hangin’. Let us know in the comments!