The Most Beautiful Autumn Leaves In Japan

Last fall on this exact day, I was ogling some of the most gorgeous autumn leaves in Japan, and I’ve been WAITING for the season to roll around again, so I can show you!

All these places are within shouting distance of Tokyo, but while the leaves are still maddeningly green in the city, they’re already all colors of glorious, just a few hours away.

First stop: Suwa City in Nagano prefecture

The very best leaves were at a place discovered by accident! Riding through a totally ordinary neighborhood in Suwa City, we turned a corner, and suddenly…CASTLE

And not just a castle. Across the moat and through the gate…

THIS

Takashima Castle’s garden was aglow in every color of autumn leaf imaginable, and it checked every single Japanese garden box: artfully-placed boulders, mirror-like reflecting pond, stone lanterns and picturesque bridges galore…

murmuring waterfalls…

And my favorite features: we had the place entirely to ourselves…

and it was FREE!

Next stop: the venerable Suwa Taisha Shrine, which is actually spread over four different locations around the lake. This one is called (quite appropriately) the Autumn Shrine

The Japanese maple leaves were at that exquisite state of changing that looks like the whole landscape was painted with the Photoshop gradient tool, shading from yellow to red in this-has-to-be-fake-but-it’s-not beauteousness

The leaves greeted us as we crossed the stone bridge to the entrance…

and gave us a grand finale fireworks send-off as we stopped to admire the garden on our way out

And in between, this fabulous shrine building, with my favorite kind of super-chonky sacred rice straw rope over the entrance

Dunno why I’m so fascinated by these fat bois, but I really love them (and took about a thousand pictures of this, from every possible angle, so give thanks that my feeble leaf-dazzled brain’s editing functions are slightly stronger than my shutter finger)

Because otherwise you’d be tired of looking at these photos before I showed you the shrine’s awesome purification spring, which spouts steamy hot spring water instead of the usual chilly offering, and gives the distinct impression that firebreathing dragons have been harnessed for the greater good

And these sacred logs, which are ridden down the mountainside by intrepid locals every six years, at the Obashira festival, one of the most dangerous events in all of Japan. Ever since the eighth century – when the shrine was founded – four huge trees are felled and ridden down the mountain to each of the four locations of the Suwa Taisho shrine. Excellent photos and details at Kuriositas here, if you’d see what it’s like to REALLY live dangerously

And if that isn’t enough to get you on the train to Suwa City right now, it’s also home to Masumi, my favorite sake brewery, where they not only produce such fine sake that it’s paired with cuisine at fancy restaurants all over the world, every year they do a special bottling with killer label art.

A visit to their tasting room after a hard day of leaf-viewing is just what the doctor ordered, and you can actually learn what qualities you most like in a sake by seeing where your favorite falls on the fruity-to-dry spectrum

And see how the illustration wraps around the box for the special artist label variety? Kinda makes you want to buy three, doesn’t it? NOT THAT WE KNOW ANYBODY WHO WOULD DO THAT

Getting there: Suwa City can be reached in just over two hours by riding the Chuo Line Azusa from Shinjuku to Kamisuwa Station

Next stop: Tateshina also in Nagano prefecture

This is the closest place to Tokyo for fall leaves in all their wild glory, untamed by gardener’s hands (yet somehow still impossibly picturesque!)

The test of true leaf devotion is to get to this famous mirror pond at six in the morning, to see its surface unruffled by any breeze or obscured by mist. We arrived at 5:55, and managed to snap about five photos before the clouds began to roll in. The cars that wheeled up at 6:10 were treated to a view of pea soup so thick you couldn’t see those trees on the far side (><;;)

But the clouds only made the surrounding landscape more beautiful

The way the brilliant autumn leaves fade into the magical mist takes my breath away every time

But early birds don’t have all the fun – right in the middle of Tateshina town is a lake surrounded by walking paths, and this is where everyone’s dream of an ideal stroll among the autumn leaves comes true

The walkways meander alongside a stream that feeds the lake

…delivering can’t-believe-it’s-true color around every bend

…with curtains of yellow and orange and red all around

I felt totally surrounded by autumnal princess robes

…and had to stop to marvel at the sheer perfection,

It’s an autumn landscape so vast and perfect, I spent hours here, just wallowing in its beauties

Getting there: The bullet train from Tokyo Station to Sakudaira Station takes about an hour and a  half

And finally: Lake Kawaguchi near Mt. Fuji

In less than two hours by train, you can be basking in these amazing autumn leaves in the town bordering Kawaguchi-ko, the easiest Mt. Fuji area lake to get to.

The famous mountain holds court to trees dressed in fall finery during the day…

…but it’s seeing the leaves lit up at night that makes it so worth the trip

All the trees lining the main thoroughfare are spotlit from sundown on

It’s a fine evening walk along the paths

…stopping to admire the occasional lantern along the way

Getting there: The JR Chuo Line Azusa takes about an hour to get from Shinjuku Station to Otsuki Station, where you transfer to the Fujikyu Railway Line, and ride another scenic hour to Kawaguchiko Station

And one more…Ryuzu Falls in Nikko

I hesitate to include this one, because even though it’s gorgeous, it’s not worth an entire trip from Tokyo, but if you’re already in the Nikko area franting about the Toshogu Shrine and such, take the bus bound for Yumoto Onsen from the Nikko train station, and get off at the “Ryuzu no taki” bus stop to see this:

It’s pretty spectacular, but all you can do is look at it and take pictures from the very extensive souvenir & snack stand

If you’re like me, and love the leaves but hate the crowds, take a peek at how to avoid masses of people and peak season prices, while still managing to snap way too many colored leaf pix in Japan!

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