Autumn Wonderland: Exploring Towada-Hachimantai National Park

3 days chasing northern Japan’s most breathtaking autumn colors

Tohoku, the northern region of Japan's main island of Honshu, is perhaps Japan's true best-kept secret.

As millions of visitors flock to the west and center of Japan each year, so many leave one of the country's most naturally beautiful, rugged and culturally fascinating regions untraveled.

In autumn, the stakes are even higher. The changing colors of Japan's autumn color season can be an unforgettable experience in many spots around the country. But many don't know that this frequently overlooked area is home to some of Japan's most impressive, vast color-changing forests during the season (normally starting in late September at high elevations through early November in lower areas).

For those willing to get off the beaten path and discover this magical seasonal phenomenon for themselves, Towada-Hachimantai National Park is the place to start. Spanning three prefectures in northern Tohoku, this mountainous park is home to forest-covered terrain peppered with some of Japan's most unique onsen springs and geothermal hot spots, as well as two of the country's deepest and most picturesque lakes.

To try and capture a taste of this place at its best, I hopped aboard a Shinkansen headed to Akita Prefecture for a three-day adventure covering as much of the national park as I could muster.

Day 1: Akita Komagatake and Nyuto Onsen

The plan for my first day was to start with a bit of hiking. My first destination was Mount Akita-Komagatake, one of Towada-Hachimantai's most famous mountains and most popular autumn color viewing spots. After a day exploring the mountain, I would then stay the night nearby at the remote and wonderfully traditional onsen resort of Nyuto Onsen.

To get around the national park efficiently, a rental car was definitely the best transportation option for my trip. While some buses do run between many of the park's major destinations, buses can be infrequent and not always well timed for some trips. A rental car is a great choice for the most flexibility and freedom.

After arriving at Tazawako Station in Akita, I picked up my rental car for the trip and set off straight for Mount Akita-Komagatake.

I decided to start my hike at the mountain's traditional eigth station, well up the mountain. From here, the summit was about an hour hike.

Being a Wednesday in mid-October, I was conveniently able to drive all the way to the eigth station parking lot, but visitors traveling on weekends and holidays from June to October or on any day in mid-June through mid-August should note that this road is closed to private cars. During these times, the trailhead can be accessed by shuttle bus from the Arupa Komakusa parking lot.

After parking and starting up the trail, it wasn't even twenty minutes into the hike until the views of the landscape below the mountain began to unfurl. To the southwest, the gorgeous Lake Tazawako, Japan's deepest lake, was stunning. To the west, the valley just below me was filled like a bowl of candy with colorful foliage at the peak of its seasonal color.

As I continued to climb, clouds began to gather more densely around the mountaintop quickly creating a thick fog. With the clouds came a biting cold wind.

Once I reached the high plateau between the mountain's handful of peaks, the temperature and wind became more and more frigid. Thankfully, beside a small pond, a small emergency hut was waiting for me just when I needed it. I gratefully took the chance to take a break and warm up while I waited out the clouds.

As is often the case in the mountains, the weather can change fast. After just 20-30 minutes, my luck changed and the wind abated and the clouds began to part.

I moved fast and started to make my way up Mount Odake, one of Komagatake's three main peaks. The view back down to the pond was now somehow much more peaceful than when I first arrived. As I approached the ridge leading up Odake, the landscape ahead of me was suddenly filled by a huge fuming volcano named Mt. Medake.

And as I climbed toward the peak of Odake, as quickly as they had parted, the clouds rolled right back in, once again hiding the fleeting beauty of the landscapes.

After descending back to the eigth station from the summit of Akita-Komagatake, I was definitely ready to relax. I hopped back in my rental car and drove about 30 minutes through the colorful forest I saw from above earlier to my next stop: Nyuto Onsen.

Nyuto Onsen is an onsen resort that is less a town and more a small collection of ryokan, or traditional Japanese inns, tucked away deep in the mountains of Akita. Some of the inns here have been operating for over 200 years, and the proprietors pride themselves on their warm hospitality, beautiful rustic buildings, and, of course, their outstanding baths.

My inn for the night was Tae no Yu, a prime example of what Nyuto is known for. I spent a wonderful evening here enjoying the cozy atmosphere, eating local delicacies for dinner and breakfast, and trying out the ryokan's many indoor and outdoor onsen baths. Like most ryokan in Nyuto, Tae no Yu offers both gender-mixed and gender-separate baths, and uses water from its own hot spring sources.

A perfect way to end my first day.

Day 2: Mount Hachimantai

After a relaxing morning, I headed north for about one hour toward one of the national park's namesakes, Mount Hachimantai. As I drove, the autumn colors painting the slopes of the surrounding scenery along the road were jaw dropping.

Before reaching the mountaintop proper, I first made a stop at Goshogake Onsen. The Hachimantai area, like so many mountainous areas in Japan, is highly geothermally active, and in a few spots the super-heated earth bursts with hot spring water and billows of gas. Goshogake is one such place.

With hissing sulfur vents and bubbling ponds of hot mud all around, this "jigoku" (literally a "hell") as it is sometimes called in Japanese, was fascinating to walk around thanks to a well-maintained network of walking trails.

From Goshogake it was just a short 15-minute drive to the trailhead of the hiking trail to the summit of Mount Hachimantai itself.

As I was keen to learn more about this area, I was happy to find that guided walking tours are offered here. Both Japanese and English speaking tour guides are available (advance reservations are recommended). I met my energetic and very knowledgeable tour guide at the Hachimantai Mountaintop Resthouse and set off right away.

My tour was roughly two-hours long and took me all around the top of Hachimantai. As the name implies in Japanese, the mountaintop is actually rather flat, and is home to both conifer forests and marshlands dotted with entrancingly deep blue ponds. And always crowning the scenery in the distance was the hulking Mount Iwate, namesake of Iwate Prefecture.

Day 3: Tamagawa Onsen, Lake Towada and Mt. Hakkoda

After my hike of Mount Hachimantai, I stayed the night not too far away at an especially unique place: Tamagawa Onsen.

Even amongst this national park's top shelf lineup of hot springs, Tamagawa Onsen stands out. The source of this onsen, which is viewable by visitors, is the single most productive hot spring source in Japan, gushing almost 9000 liters of 98 degree hot water every minute. And if that wasn't enough, with a pH of neary 1, it is also Japan's most acidic onsen water.

While this unique water can be enjoyed in the baths of a ryokan a short walk from the source (which I did greatly the evening I arrived), the billowing fumes rising from the "jigoku" just adjacent to the source spring was impossible to ignore.

Amongst the otherworldly hissing sulfur vents, on the morning of my third day I found dozens of people lying on mats and in sleeping bags all around the valley, something I've never seen elsewhere in Japan. The reason is that this particular site is home to a rare, slightly radioactive stone called hokutolite, exposure to which is believed by many to offer a range of health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of cancer. Cancer patients and others from all across Japan come here to lie amongst these rocks for hours.

After exploring Tamagawa, it was time to make my way to my final destinations, about two hours north in Aomori Prefecture.

No visit to this park, however, would be quite complete without a stop at the second of its namesakes, Lake Towada. Straddling the border of Akita and Aomori and surrounded by rolling mountains, this pretty lake is often considered one of the country's most picturesque. In late October, the foliage on the slopes around the lake also feature some of the park's most impressive autumn colors, though I was a week or two early during my visit.

From the lake, I again found myself driving through serene forests. The further north I went, the more white-bark beech trees I came across. And it wasn't long till I was again in the midst of impossibly vibrant autumn colors.

My final destination for this trip was Aomori's Hakkoda Mountains. This rugged mountain area's harsh winters and copious amounts of powdery snow are legendary (making it a mecca for backcountry skiers and snowboarders from Japan and abroad). But it is equally well-known as one of the country's most spectacular autumn color spots.

Even the approach to the mountains was tantalizingly colorful. In particular, just at the base of the mountains, the area around Sukayu Onsen was especially impressive. Besides the colors, this onsen is also worthy of a stop in itself, featuring one of Japan's largest very traditional indoor mixed-gender baths (once common throughout the country, this style of bathing has become exceedingly rare in recent decades).

After my long journey, I finally was standing at the foot of my final stop: the Hakkoda Ropeway. Very grateful for the perfect weather I was enjoying in this famously bad weather-prone area, I boarded a gondola and made my way up the mountainside.

The sight here is hard to describe in words or do justice to with photos. At the peak of the season, which this day most certainly fell in, the entire northern slope of the mountains is a sea of red, orange and yellow. The colors cover every crease and valley in the slopes and seem to go on forever. Riding the gondola, the view broadens as you ascend and allows you to take in the sheer scope.

At the top of the ropeway, a nice observatory also offers impressive views back down over the painted slopes, as well as to the mountain peaks themselves. The top ropeway station also serves as a trailhead to the hiking trails that cover the whole area.

While I wished I could stay longer, with that, my visit was over, and I headed back down to return home with plenty of unforgettable memories.

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