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Nikko: Starting to Change

Mt. Nikko-Shirane

As we roll into October today, we continue our coverage of this year's autumn color season by reporting from Japan's best spots to view the colors. While the highest elevations on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido have already reached their peak coloring, the main island of Honshu is just now seeing its highest mountains start to change colors.

This month and through November our team will continue to track the colors as they progress across the country, starting this month in the highest elevations of northern and central Japan.

Today, I made my way to Nikko National Park, one of Japan's most impressive and well-known autumn color spots.

Mt. Nikko-Shirane

Starting to Change

Nikko can be split into two general areas: the low-lying town area (home to the famous Toshogu shrines and temples) and the highlands of Okunikko, where the park's most spectacular natural scenery can be found. The nearly 2000-meter elevation difference between the two areas means that the season here often lasts for almost an entire month beginning in early October as the autumn colors make their way from the high mountain peaks downward.

As the season has only just begun here, to find the best colors, today I headed upward: to Nikko's highest peak, Mt. Shirane (2578 meters). The mountain is located on the border of Tochigi and Gunma Prefectures, deep among the mountains of Okunikko. To access the mountain, most visitors use the Nikko-Shirane Ropeway located at the Marunuma Kogen Ski Resort (accessible by car or bus).

At the top of the ropeway I found the autumn colors on the slopes of Mt. Shirane still in the process of changing colors today. Though not yet at their peak, the greenish yellows were dramatically beautiful against the huge volcanic peak. I expect the colors to change quickly this week and be at their best at this very high elevation by the weekend or next week.

The Nikko-Shirane Ropeway at Marunuma Kogen Ski Resort: my ride up
Some lovely views going up
The top of the Nikko-Shirane Ropeway with Mt. Shirane looming in the distance
The autumn colors on Mt. Shirane were just beginning to change
Leaves beginning to change (this particular tree was ahead of the pack)
Foot onsen at the top of the ropeway!
Enjoying the views in style
Entrance to the hiking trail network
Beautiful forest paths (still mostly green at relatively lower elevations)
Autumn flowers coming out

After a short hike through the pleasant trails around the Marunuma Highland area, I descended the back down the ropeway and drove back toward Okunikko. The colors in this remote area were still just beginning to change today, but were showing some pretty yellows in spots. The bright turquoise ponds that dot the valleys here made for some nice contrasts.

Lovely view going back down the ropeway
The trees along the mountain road between Marunuma and Okunikko were starting to starting to get their autumnal look
The small hidden lakes between Shirane and Yumoto were gorgeous (even in pre-peak colors)

Okunikko

Starting to Change

From Marunuma Kogen, it's about a 15-minute drive into Tochigi Prefecture and the Okunikko area proper. Starting at Okunikko's high point called the Konsei Pass, I made my way down the mountain roads toward lower elevation, watching the leaves become greener as I went.

Just beyond the Konsei Pass lies the Nikko Yumoto Onsen, the foliage around which was just beginning to show some nice color today. It will still be another week or so until the colors approach their peak here, but there were a few spots around Lake Yunoko especially were already starting to put on an impressive display.

Mt. Nantai towering above Okunikko
The colors at the Nikko Yumoto were also just beginning to change today
A flash of autumn yellows around Lake Yunoko
Autumn has definitely arrived
Into the woods

Continuing down in elevation, my next stop from the Yumoto was the Senjogahara Marsh and Ryuzu Waterfall. Both are very popular autumn color spots in Okunikko (and relatively easily accessible, compared to Shirane), and for good reason. Today, though, both spots were only just starting to see coloring, though Senjogahara's golden grasses were arguably already quite stunning.

Here, too, the colors should be much more advanced into next week.

The Senjogahara Marsh was just starting to turn yellow today
Starting to look a lot like autumn
Ryuzu Falls, still surrounded mostly by green

My last stop today was to the majestic Kegon Falls, one of Japan's tallest waterfalls. Located at the lowest portion of Okunikko, nearby the beautiful Lake Chuzenji, the colors here were still quite green today. This area usually changes color shortly after the upper parts of Okunikko, which I expect will be around next week.

Kegon Falls, also surrounded mostly by green leaves today
Splish splash
Further down, the Irohazaka Hill is also still mostly green, but seemed to also be starting to change today
In a couple weeks this will all be bright red and yellow

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