Joe's Japan Travel Journal
by Joe, staff writer of

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2015/10/22 - Autumn Color Report: Northern Alps

The colorful mountainsides of Shinhotaka

Sometimes a little trip off of the beaten path can be the most rewarding. Continuing my autumn color reporting in Japan's Northern Alps this week, today I found myself exploring the winding roads and river gorges of two of the deepest areas of this mountainous region. While the Northern Alps are famous for vast swathes of autumn colors covering the slopes, most travelers only go as far as the most well-known spots (not without good reason, of course!). But with deciduous trees, shrubs and grasses covering almost every inch of the mountainsides in this region, breathtaking views can be just as rewarding in its less-known corners.

After a great day in nearby Kamikochi yesterday, I started my morning early in the Okuhida area of the Northern Alps, after a night at a lovely local ryokan. Okuhida is not only famous for its scenery, but also for its abundance of onsen, many of which also sport awesome outdoor baths with mountain views of their own (here's a list of some of the best onsen in this area!). Today the entire valley was splashed with great autumn color on the lower slopes, making for a pleasant drive to my first destination of the day: the Shinhotaka Ropeway.

Morning light pouring into the Kabatagawa River valley of Okuhida
The drive from Okuhida to Shinhotaka
In the elevation range around 1000 meters, the hillside foliage was amazing
The Shinhotaka Ropeway car on its way up

The Shinhotaka Ropeway is a popular destination for travelers looking for great mountain views, conveying passengers up to the its 2155-meter-high top station, and offering fantastic views of the Hotakadake mountains. Though it is perhaps most popular in the summer, as the top station also connects to a major trailhead for hiking along the Northern Alps ridge lines, if you time it well, it can also be a great place to see some autumn color. At this point in the season, the trees near the ridge line have long-since lost their leaves, but right around the base station, up to an elevation around 1600 meters or so, the trees were pretty spectacular.

The view from the Shinhotaka Ropeway
Yellow karamatsu (Japanese larch) dominating the palette around the base of the mountains
Golden cones up on the foothills
Further up (in the 1800-meter range and above) the trees were mostly sans leaves
The top station of the ropeway was bustling today
The trailhead of the ridgeline path to Mount Nishi-hotakadake (in the distance) and beyond
Nishi-hotakadake (2909m) and the Hotakadake massif extending into the distance
Mount Karasagatake (2897.5m), Gifu Prefecture's highest peak
A footbath at the bottom of the ropeway
Bright red momiji (Japanese maple) around Shin-Hotaka

After coming down from the ropeway, I enjoyed a great drive through Okuhida and countless valleys and river gorges along my way south to my next destination for the day. The views along these mountain roads are wonderful, and in contrast to the higher areas which were beyond their peak color, the gorge bottoms were absolutely at their peak today.

Nonohana Sanso, one of many onsen ryokan (hot spring resort/inns) in the area
Beautiful color in the lower areas of Shinhotaka and Okuhida
Sacred ropes hanging from the torii gate of a local shrine
Gorge after gorge with peak autumn colors as I wound along the mountain rivers

After about an hour drive, I found myself on the Norikura Kogen Highlands. Located in the shadow of Mount Norikuradake, the highlands consist of forested slopes packed with hiking trails, ski resorts and lifts, onsen (check out Shirahone Onsen), waterfalls, and wildlife. While Mount Norikuradake itself is a popular early-in-the-season koyo (autumn color) destination, its peak color comes and goes quickly in the high alpine areas. Mid-season, however, the highland forests below the mountain offer some very nice colors, too.

While the foliage in the Norikura Kogen was a bit beyond its peak color today, there was still much to enjoy. I did a few small hikes to some of the famous waterfalls in the area, most of which are pretty gentle if you're in normal fitness. I even ran into a family of tanuki--my first time seeing them live (and not as roadkill victims) in the wild! All in all, it was a wonderful day of mountain koyo hunting.

Norikura Kogen, the highlands at the foot of Mount Norikuradake
Like much of the Northern Alps area this week, the deciduous karamatsu pine trees were the king of autumn colors around Norikura Kogen
Susuki (pampas grass) in place of the meters of snow that surround the many chair lifts in the winter
Two of the three Sanbontaki Falls
Stacked stones before the falls
Sanbontaki Falls
These guys were sniffing around near the Sanbontaki rest house
He wants to be your friend. Or steal your bento.
Found this mind-blowing elephant-trunk-tree-trunk tree along a path
Ushidomeike Pond
The lovely Zengoron Falls
Sasa and shirakaba (alpine bamboo and white birch) lining the hiking trails
Leafy forest floor

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List of Posts:
2019/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2019
2018/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2018
2017/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2017
2016/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2016
2016/03/24 - Setouchi Triennale 2016
2015/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2015
2015/12/04 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/12/03 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2015/11/19 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2015/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Mount Mitake
2015/11/16 - Autumn Color Report: Mount Takao
2015/11/12 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2015/11/11 - Autumn Color Report: Fukuroda Falls
2015/10/30 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/10/26 - Autumn Color Report: Bandai
2015/10/22 - Autumn Color Report: Northern Alps
2015/10/21 - Autumn Color Report: Northern Alps
2015/10/20 - Autumn Color Report: Mount Fuji
2015/10/15 - Autumn Color Report: Hachimantai
2015/10/14 - Autumn Color Report: Towada
2015/10/13 - Autumn Color Report: Hakkoda
2015/10/08 - Autumn Color Report: Nasu
2015/10/06 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2015/04/14 - Cherry Blossoms 2015: Yoshino
2015/04/13 - Cherry Blossoms 2015: Miharu
2015/04/08 - Cherry Blossoms 2015: Matsumoto Report
2015/01/29 - Crabs, Peonies and Castle Cruises in Shimane

2014/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2014
2014/12/16 - Seasonal Illumination: Osaka
2014/12/15 - Seasonal Illumination: Kobe Luminarie 2014
2014/12/09 - Seasonal Illumination: Ashikaga Flower Park
2014/12/05 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2014/11/28 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/26 - Autumn Color Report: Nara
2014/11/25 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2014/11/13 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2014/11/07 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2014/11/04 - Autumn Color Report: Hakone
2014/10/29 - Autumn Color Report: Shima Onsen
2014/10/21 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2014/10/16 - Autumn Color Report: Alpine Route
2014/10/08 - Autumn Color Report: Nasu
2014/10/07 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2014/09/26 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2014/08/20 - Kusatsu Onsen Beautification