With the autumn color season just beginning in some of Japan's most famous autumn color spots, including Kyoto and Tokyo, today I instead went to a slightly more off-the-beaten-path koyo (autumn color) destination looking for some autumn leaves at their peak this week.
Shiobara Onsen is a small hot spring resort town, tucked away in a river valley in the northern mountains of Tochigi Prefecture in the city of Nasushiobara, which is about an hour Shinkansen ride north of Tokyo. Once a developed, large hotel-littered weekend escape resort for Tokyoites before the 1980s economic bubble burst, the now sleepy town has managed to retain a rustic, laid-back atmosphere that steps back to spotlight its beautiful scenery, waterfalls, hiking trails, and abundance of natural onsen.
In autumn, Shiobara comes to life as thousands of visitors flock to see the changing colors of the foliage that covers the valley's slopes. Today, I headed to Shiobara, too, to try and catch this beautiful spot at its best.
Shiobara Onsen: Peak Color
I started my day with a drive into the Shiobara valley from central Nasushiobara City, where most visitors come from. Having a car is almost essential for covering a reasonable amount of ground in Shiobara in a day (or two) as the town is fairly spread out.
Almost immediately upon entering the valley, it was clear that the autumn color season was well underway here, with plenty of yellows and reds popping out all over the mountain slopes on both sides of the Hokigawa River. The weather was unfortunately a bit overcast, which slightly muted the colors today, but the foliage was still nice.
Starting in the "lower," more eastern part of the valley, the trees directly along the Hokigawa had mostly just reached peak color very recently, and look to likely remain colorful through the end of this week.
As I continued further up and into the valley towards the heart of Shiobara Town, the colors were even slightly more advanced. In particular, picturesque Kurenai-no-tsuribashi, or "Scarlet Suspension Bridge," located right in the middle of town (near the Shiobara Bus Terminal), was surrounded by firey red momiji (Japanese maple trees) well into its peak color today.
As I made my way deeper and further up into the valley, the colors continued to further and further along. In the Kamishiobara and Okushiobara areas, the trees at the tops of the surrounding mountainsides were already even a bit beyond peak. Again, though, at the banks of the river, the timing was still quite good for some nice colors.
After a quick toe-dip into the further reaches of Shiobara, I made my way back into town and a bit off the beaten path to find a lovely hidden gem at the end of a winding dirt road deep in the forest: the Kotarogafuchi teahouse. Perched precariously on the rocky banks of a mountain stream, the rustic old teahouse serves green tea and simple local takes on Japanese sweets and simple dishes, which visitors can enjoy on straw mat-covered benches while enjoying the view and sound of the stream.
After my morning snack, I continued back down past the main town area, retracing my steps towards the eastern entrance to the valley, where some of the area's best hiking trails are located. Several trailheads dot the road between town and the beginning of the valley, which often lead down trails that wind down the steep slopes to pristine forest walks along the Hokigawa and to some lovely, hidden-away waterfalls.
The valley here had some great coloring today, and seemed to have only just peaked recently, possibly leaving the rest of the week to catch it at its best.
My last stop for the day was to one Shiobara's Momijidani Suspension Bridge. The bridge spans 320 meters over an artificial lake created by the nearby Shiobara Dam. While one of the area's more overtly touristy attractions, at this time of year the "Maple Tree Valley" lives up to its name, as the hills surrounding this section of the valley are covered in foliage that was in the midst of changing color today.
As the sun finally came out at the end of my time here, my search for a bit of off-the-beaten-path autumn color was not in vain. For travelers interested in seeing some autumn color in nature this week, but still relatively close to Tokyo, Shiobara could be a good option.