Crimson Comes South: Top Spots to Enjoy the Autumn Leaves in Southern Tōhoku
Naruko Gorge (Miyagi)
Best viewing: late October to early November
The Naruko Gorge is located very close to the famous Naruko cluster of hot springs. The 100-meter-deep gorge was shaped by the Ōya River and is roughly 2.6 kilometers long. In the autumn, the sheer walls of the gorge are transformed as the beech and oak leaves turn bright yellow and the delicate maples shine in red. The gorgeous display can be viewed from a number of different angles. A platform at the Naruko Gorge Rest House offers a lovely view of the Ōfukasawa Bridge spanning the colorful display; from a pedestrian walkway on the bridge visitors can look down into the gorge.
Best viewing: early to mid-November
The temple Entsūin located in Matsushima—an area considered one of Japan’s three most scenic spots—was built 370 years ago as a memorial temple for Date Mitsumune (1627–45), a grandson of Date Masamune (1567–1636), one of the leading daimyō of the Tōhoku region and founder of the city of Sendai. The temple is particularly famous for its shinji-no-ike garden pond shaped in the character for kokoro, meaning “heart” or “soul.” In the autumn months the temple grounds are filled with people enjoying the colorful foliage. During this season the grounds are lit up at night, and musical concerts add an ethereal air, with flute and drum accompanying visitors as they stroll through the gardens. Come enjoy the sight of colorful autumn leaves reflected in the pond and garden stones naturally decorated with bright red maple leaves that have wafted down from the branches.
Zaō Echoline (Miyagi and Yamagata)
Best viewing: mid-October
The Zaō Echoline is a mountain road cutting east to west through the Zaō mountain range. It offers a scenic 26-kilometer drive through the autumn foliage of maple and beech trees highlighted against a backdrop of green conifers. Along the way, be sure to stop at Okama and Takimidai for more breathtaking views. Okama, located near the point where the Zaō Highline splits off from the Zaō Echoline, is a serene, emerald-green volcanic lake reflecting the bright colors of the surrounding autumn foliage. Takimidai offers a dynamic view of three waterfalls: Sankaitaki, Fudōtaki, and Jizōtaki.
Risshakuji, Mount Hōju (Yamagata)
Best viewing: early November
Risshakuji, located on Mount Hōju near the city of Yamagata, is a venerable mountain temple with a history going back 1,100 years. The temple complex consists of more than 30 buildings and towers clinging to a sheer mountainside in a compound spanning more than 100 hectares. Known better simply as Yamadera (mountain temple), the temple is especially beautiful in autumn, as are its natural surroundings. The view looking up at the mountain temple is lovely, but a slow climb up the 1,015 steps leading to the grounds will also give you scenic views of the Niōmon temple gate, the Kaizandō, and numerous other spots that are especially beautiful in autumn. The best view of all is to be had from the Godaidō, a building with a stage-like platform extending out near the top of the mountain that gives a sweeping view of the colorful autumn mountains all around the tiny town far below.
Mogami Gorge (Yamagata)
Best viewing: late October to late November
The Mogami Gorge is a scenic area extending roughly 16 kilometers along the middle reaches of the Mogami River. Here you will see the brightly colored foliage of mountain maples interspersed among giant indigenous cedars, some more than 500 years old. Driving or trekking through the lovely area can be a fine experience, but for ultimate enjoyment, we recommend a river boat ride. The boatman will regale you with wonderful stories and songs as the boat glides through the gorge. From the boat you will be able to view such wonders as the Nanataki, a waterfall plunging down the slope in seven separate cascades, and the famed Shiraito-no-taki, an elegant flow of water cascading down 123 meters.
Tsuruga Castle (Fukushima)
Best viewing: late October to early November
Tsuruga Castle, with its red roof tiles and pure white walls, is a proud symbol of Aizu-Wakamatsu city. During the Boshin War (1868–69) between the ruling Tokugawa forces and the eventually victorious rebels seeking to return power to the emperor, the castle endured a month-long siege, giving it a reputation as an impregnable fortress. The castle grounds are a well-known place for viewing cherry blossoms in the spring, but also offer lovely views of colorful maple and ginkgo trees from late October through early November. The castle and grounds are illuminated at night to create a fantasy world, with the castle seeming to float among the reds and yellows of autumn.
Mount Adatara (Fukushima)
Best viewing: early to mid-October
Mount Adatara is one of Fukushima Prefecture’s most well-known mountains and is featured in 100 Famous Japanese Mountains by mountaineer and author Fukada Kyūya. In autumn its gentle slopes are covered in beautiful reds and yellows. A ropeway from the Adatara ski slopes to the top of the mountain offers a leisurely 10-minute ride over the carpet of autumn foliage. The most scenic view, however, is said to be from the Yakushidake Panorama Park, a short walk from the ropeway station at the mountaintop. A viewing platform offers a sweeping vista of the colorful slope in the foreground contrasting with the rugged Azuma Kofuji and Issai Kyōzan peaks in the far distance.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Aizu-Wakamatsu’s symbol, Tsuruga Castle, in the fall. Reporting and text by Shoepress.)