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…
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 – near the town of Chino, Lake Tateshina is 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!

The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon!

For three hundred years, a missing tea bowl passes from one fortune-seeker to the next, changing the lives of all who possess it…read more

“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly e-magazine Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Published by Jonelle Patrick

Writes all the Japan things.

11 thoughts on “The Most Beautiful Autumn Leaves In Japan

    1. Thank you, sweet friend! Those were such amazing places, and coming from Northern California, where leaves just sort of shrivel up and drop off without turning nice colors, it makes me happy to see them too!

      1. For us in the middle of the Oregon Outback, the few trees have already lost their leaves. We had a week with yellow leaves. Most of my life I lived in CA so, yeah, lack of beautiful foliage. Though green is a good color!

  1. Whoooaaa!! These photos are magnificent Jonelle I am adding this to the list for our next trip, can you please tell me what week we should go there for next year so we don;t miss out?

    1. I don’t know how next year will be, but this this year everything is SO LATE. +_+ Like, a week late! The summer just wouldn’t quit, and even now it’s not quite cold enough for the leaves to start turning in Tokyo. I just checked Instagram, and don’t see any great photos from Nagano or Kawaguchiko yet, so I’m betting they’re running a week late too.

  2. Wow, these places are so beautiful!!
    I would definitely want to be there in autumn.
    Thanks for sharing your captivating photos.
    How do we get to Tateshina from Sakudaira Station by public transport?
    Also what’s the name of the lake in Tateshina where all these photos were taken? Please help me get the location correct as there are many lakes in that region.
    Appreciate your assistance.

    1. Yay, I’m so glad you’re planning to see some of these gorgeous places for yourself! The name of the mirror pond where I took the photos is Mishaka-ike, but there’s also an incredibly beautiful one called Kagami-ike that I haven’t seen yet, but is on my list! If you google it, you can see photos of that one too. I’m afraid I went to Tateshina with a Japanese friend who had a car, so I can’t help with public transportation details, but if you’re staying in an inn nearby, I’m sure they can help you figure out the best way to get to the mirror pond. Both of the places I mentioned will be well known to anyone in the hotel business! As for public transport from the Sakudaira Station to Tateshina, I’d use the Japan Travel app (you can get it from your phone’s app store) to figure out the best route. If you do go, please come back and tell me about it! ^_^

  3. Thanks so much for your prompt reply.
    So the name of the mirror pond is Mishakaike.
    You also wrote that “right in the middle of Tateshina town is a lake surrounded by walking paths”.
    I couldn’t locate any lake in Tateshina town in the Goggle map.
    Is there a name to this lake?
    Is it in another town nearby?

    1. Ha, once again, I’m the victim of being taken there in a car instead of navigating there myself, and I have to thank you for making me drill down on this. After searching Google images, I believe that the place where we walked around the lake and next to a stream was actually Lake Tateshina, with Mt. Tateshina in the distance, behind the trees. But this lake turns out not to be IN the town of Tateshina, after all. It’s closer to Chino. You’re the first person who actually told me you’re trying to go there, so thank you, I’ll fix that location in the post, in case there are any more actual leaf seekers out there! Also, arg, just a caveat—the photos on the net look like the place where I took the photos, and the map matches the features of the walk as I remember them, but now I’m worried that you’ll go there and it’ll turn out not to be the place. Of course, pretty much everywhere in the Tateshina area is absolutely breathtaking in the autumn, so it’s entirely likely you’ll discover an even better place, but I just wanted to say I’ve still got a tiny degree of unsureness about the location.

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