The Colors of Autumn from a Mountain, from an Onsen: Nasu Kouyou
Autumn in Japan is renowned for kouyou, which translates - literally, yet entirely inadequately - as “crimson leaves”. Instead, think of a mountain shrouded in mist, hints of color hidden amidst the clouds, until the morning sun pulls the damp away and reveals a mountain resplendent in her skirt of red and gold and green. Cool, dry air, forms pleasant breezes carrying hints of sweet persimmon and crisp pear and the promise of hot baths in a natural spring back at the hotel. That’s kouyou.
The primary trees responsible for all the colors are the Japanese maple (momiji) which turns red and gold and every shade in between, the ginko (icho) which turns a bright yellow, and the Japanese rowan (nakamado) which turns a brilliant red.
Nasu, in September
The Nasu District, in north-western Tochigi, promises one of the earliest views of kouyou in Japan, with the season starting in mid September and lasting about a month. The trees can be viewed from both numerous onsens and hiking trails along Mt. Chasu-dake (Mt. Nasu). Alternately, take the cable car to (near) the top of the mountain and enjoy a colorful ride!
Nasu Town and Nasu District
The best way to get to Nasu is to first go to Nasushiobara Station by shinkansen and then change to a local train bound for Kuroiso Station. Alternately, drive either Route 4, Route 400, or take the Tohoku Expressway and exit at either the Nishinasuno or Kuroiso interchanges.
A quick note: Nasu is the name of a small town in the Nasu District. Nasushiobara is the name of a large city that borders the Nasu District. For the most part, these distinctions should not affect your travel plans, especially if you guide yourself via station names and end point destinations. Just be warned that older maps and guidebooks may not show these differences and instead refer to the entire area as Nasu.
Mt. Nasu-dake is one of the Hyakumeizan, or 100 Famous Mountains, and is an active volcano. But don’t let that deter you, it is quite safe and all trails are clearly marked. The mountain is considered an easy to moderate hike but, like most of Japan’s mountains the weather is changeable, and good boots and an all-weather jacket are recommended. And, of course, don’t forget your camera!
Mt. Chasu-dake is the most accessible of Nt. Nasu-dake’s five peaks. The ropeway travels from base to summit stations in about five minutes, although the name summit is somewhat misleading as it is an additional 45 minute hike to the summit proper.
To access the cable car and hiking trails, please take the bus from Kuroiso Station in Nasushiobara City to Nasudake-sanroku, which takes about an hour.
Once you’ve made the climb and admired the myriad multi-colored views, you might find it is an ideal time to relax with a hot soak. There are several well-regarded onsens (natural hot spring bathing spas) built along the slopes of Mt. Nasu-dake in what is called the Nasu Highlands. Collectively, the springs are known as Nasu Onsen, but I’ve highlighted a few with their respective specialities:
- Shika-no-yu boasts traditional wooden bathing facilities but visitors should be warned that the water has a strong sulfuric odor.
51, Yumoto, Nasu-machi, Nasu-gun, Tochigi-ken
- Omaru Onsen Ryokan is a combined hotel and spa. It offers both a spa only as well as overnight options. It has both open air and mixed bathing areas.
269 Oaza-yumoto Nasu-machi, Nasu-gun Tochigi-ken
- Yuyu Tengoku, part of the Nasu Sunvalley Hotel, offers a stunning 44 types of bathing, including sulfur, weak alkaline, and magnesium springs.
203, Yumoto, Nasu-machi, Nasu-gun, Tochigi-ken
Autumn in Nasu is truly stunning and well worth the time and effort to get there. Once there, an easy morning’s hiking and an afternoon in the spa will give you the perfect chance to enjoy the changing of the leaves and the beauty of the mountains.