Tohoku’s mountains are ablaze with autumn color earlier than the Kansai or Kanto regions, giving hikers and “leaf peepers” a perfect jump on the season.
Colors begin turning in late September on Zao, Yamagata’s famous ski mountain, and usually peak in mid October. Take the ropeway up for a bird’s eye view of the foliage and surrounding landscape. Three different stations on the ropeway offer various trekking courses. There are no bad options: choose your fun depending on whether you want to walk the rim of a volcano, meditate at soothing ponds, or romp through the forest to a waterfall.
Hidden waterfall on one of Zao’s trekking coursesWhichever way you choose, you’ll be surrounded by gold, by a yellow that borders on lime, by orange as bright as the sunset, by reds from flame to rust, and even purple. After you’ve blitzed out on beauty and got the endorphins pumping, be sure to take advantage of one of Zao’s many therapeutic onsen. A soak in the warm waters is not only a perfect remedy for any post-hike sore muscles, but is also like a soothing blanket in the cool autumn temperatures.
Yamadera’s trail of 1,000 steps will also reward you with a grand-scale view of the colors, usually peaking in late October, and is easily accessible from Yamadera station on the JR Sanzen line. For a more adventurous and off the beaten track experience, get off at Omoshiroi Yama Kogen, the station just east of Yamadera. Cross the bridge at the station exit to find a trail that descends into a small gorge. Follow it along the opposite side of the stream and into a semi cave-like, slightly ethereal environment. The trail can become slippery as it narrows to hug massive rock formations that seem alive and whispering. Watch your step.
Gorge trail near Omoshiroi Yama Kogen in mid November (slightly past peak)
You can walk the length of the gorge in approximately 45 minutes, but the atmosphere will likely compel you to stop along the way to fully take in the surroundings. The trail crisscrosses the stream on a set of rudimentary bridges; take the final one to walk up and out of the gorge. Here you’ll meet with a paved road that you can follow all the way to Yamadera Station (another 45 minutes). You can catch good views along this road without having to share it with many cars, or you can take the gorge trail back to Omoshiroi Yama Kogen station.
Yamagata’s Momiji Koen in mid NovemberIn Yamagata itself, the city’s Momiji Koen is small but simply spectacular. The reflections of fire-red maple leaves against the glassy surface of the sculpted pond, and against the actual glass windows of the wooden teahouse, will stop you in your tracks. Circle around the backside of the pond: the glowing orange against a blue sky is enough to make you believe in magic and fairy tales. It’s a place that slows the heart rate, where you can engage in your own reflections, and where you can’t help but appreciate the wonder of the season.
Inside the teahouse, enjoy a strong matcha served in the traditional fashion. The frothy, slightly bitter drink is paired with a homemade mochi sweet. The dim lighting and cozy atmosphere of the tatami serving room make it feel like an idyllic “green tea pub.” Tea ceremony classes are also taught here for very reasonable prices.
Just down the way, pop in at Senshin-an (洗心庵). This former retreat house has been turned into a community building with a lovely patch of sculpted garden reminiscent of Kyoto. Anyone is welcome to bring their own tea, wander the garden, and enjoy the peaceful viewing rooms.
Senshinan garden in Yamagata