The sakura cherry blossoms are among the most iconic images of Japan (along with bullet trains and Mt Fuji) but for many (myself included) the autumn colours are arguably even better, perhaps because they’re best enjoyed by going for a hike in the mountains.
The world cup being in autumn means visiting rugby fans have the chance to see this spectacle while in Japan, though it requires a little effort due to the timing. The leaves don’t really change in major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto until late November/early December, a few weeks too late for the tournament, but if you’re heading up north for games in Sapporo or Kamaishi the timing’s good for autumn excursions in Hokkaido or Tohoku. Alternatively the colours should be good throughout October at higher elevations in the mountains around the edges of Tokyo, making it a great time for places like Hakone and Nikko.
Japan’s autumn colour season starts in central Hokkaido’s Daisetsuzan National Park in late September before sweeping its way from north to south and from high elevations to low elevations.
The two matches in Sapporo are in the early days of the tournament in late September, so it’s perfect timing for a visit to Daisetsuzan.
It’s a pretty massive park with multiple entry points, but coming from Sapporo the easiest approach is to take the Asahidake Ropeway up from Asahidake Onsen and do one of the day hikes on the trails fanning out from the upper station (get trail maps and advice from the park officials).
To get there from Sapporo you can ride the train to Asahikawa (40 minutes), then take a bus (1 hour) from there to Asahidake onsen. Alternatively it’s around 3 hours by car.
It’s quite far for a day trip, though certainly doable if you’re okay with spending half of it getting there & back – alternatively there are a few hotels near the ropeway (see here), and see here for park info.
The Tohoku region covers the northern end of the main Honshu Island, including Iwate Prefecture where Kamaishi is located.
If you’re attending a match in Kamaishi, the Fiji-Uruguay game in September is too early but for the Namibia-Canada match the train ride through the mountains from Hanamaki to Kamaishi should hopefully be looking pretty fine. In the wider region there are loads of famous places for the autumn colours, though you’ll generally need to get to slightly higher elevations.
Here are some good places to visit in Tohoku, with expected peak colour time in brackets though they’re all worth visiting at any other time:
Osorezan (late Oct)
Osorezan, which translates as Mt Fear or Mt Dread, is a volcano at the northern end of the Shimokita Peninsula and forms the northern tip of Honshu. The poisonous caldera lake in the volcano’s crater is an otherworldly place, and rightly so – this is the gateway to the underworld. The Sansu-no-kawa river which drains Lake Usori is like a Japanese River Styx, and blind mediums called Itako perform an annual ritual at Bodaiji temple on the lakeshore in which they channel the spirits of the dead to communicate with the living. It’s a very cool place to visit, and though the colours generally peak in late October they should already be looking decent in the days following the Namibia-Canada match. For more pictures and details see my travel blog post here.
You can get there from the Kamaishi area by riding the shinkansen from Shin-Hanamaki (or Morioka) to Hachinohe, then the private Aomori Railway from there; it’s a private railway as far as Noheji, then JR from Noheji to Shimokita Station, but the whole thing’s fully covered by the JR Pass despite the private railway section. From Shin-Hanamaki it’s almost 4 hours to Shimokita, and then a 45-minute bus ride gets you up to the lake from the station. If you’re making your way down from Hokkaido, you can take the Aomori Railway from Aomori Station to Noheji (45 mins) then JR from there, again all covered by the JR Pass despite the non-JR segment.
Yamadera (late Oct/early Nov)
Yamadera literally means ‘Mountain Temple’, and that’s exactly what Yamadera is. Some 1200 years old, it’s one of the coolest temples to visit in all Japan with an upper area accessed via a steep half-hour climb up the mountain. The hike’s well worth the effort, with rewarding views across the valley from some beautiful hillside temple structures. Again the colours generally don’t peak until late October, but it should already be looking pretty good if you visit following the Namibia-Canada match. To get there simply ride the Sanzen Line to Yamadera Station from Sendai Station (1 hour) or Yamagata Station (20 minutes); once you disembark at Yamadera Station, Yamadera itself is up the mountainside on the far side of the small town. Just follow the signs (or Google Maps) and it’s about a 10-minute walk from the station to the entrance gate.
For more info and pics of Yamadera see my travel blog post here.
Tazawako & Kakunodate (mid Oct)
The old samurai town of Kakunodate and nearby Tazawako in central Akita Prefecture can be visited easily using the Akita shinkansen on which they are one stop apart (or 3 stops on the local train). The lake’s a 15-minute bus ride from Tazawako Station, and the samurai district’s walkable from Kakunodate Station. Mid-October should be perfect timing for the autumn colours in Akita; it’s perfectly feasible to visit on a day trip from Morioka or Sendai (or even from Kamaishi), especially if using the JR Pass.
Tokyo actually gets some cracking autumn colours right in the city at the various temples, parks and gardens (see here for pics), but they won’t reach their peak until several weeks after the final. If you’re wanting to see some autumn colours near Tokyo during the tournament, try the following:
Tateyama-Kurobe (late Sep/early Oct)
This isn’t exactly close to Tokyo to be fair, but if you’re in the capital during the early stages of the tournament you’ll need to travel quite far to see some peak autumn colours. The best bet is probably the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, a series of varied transportation links (various trains & buses, a ropeway, and a couple of cable cars) crossing the mountains between Nagano and Toyama prefectures. If you’ve ever seen those photos of buses driving between 15m walls of snow, that’s from the Alpine Route (though the snow’s all long gone by autumn); it’s also a really famous area for its autumn colours, and gets them earlier than most places due to the altitude. There’s a very informative website on the route here.
Nikko (throughout Oct Oku-Nikko > early Nov Nikko town)
Site of the famous mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first shogun of a unified Japan), Nikko also has a mountainous interior (Oku-Nikko, ‘Deep Nikko’) of lakes and waterfalls where the large elevation spread allows for an extended autumn colour season. The colours descend from the highest elevations throughout October, eventually reaching Nikko town in November; if you’re in Tokyo for a match in October, head up to Nikko and take the bus up to Oku-Nikko and you should be treated to some spectacular colours.
Nikko works as a fairly long day trip from Tokyo, though that’ll often mean only having time for the mausoleum – if you want to see Oku-Nikko too, either stay overnight (Search Agoda for hotels in Nikko) or make a super early start from Tokyo.
If you have the JR Pass you can take the shinkansen to Utsunomiya then change to the JR Nikko Line, journey time 1h45. Without a JR Pass it’s a fair bit cheaper (and only a little slower) to use the private Tobu Railway; taking their Kinu express train from Asakusa and changing to the Tobu Nikko Line at Shimo-Imaichi gives a journey time of 2 hours.
Hakone (late Oct/early Nov)
Another popular day trip or overnight trip from Tokyo, Hakone (in the mountains to the west of Yokohama) offers lake cruises and Fuji views, with the autumn colours usually peaking in late October. Again, it works fine as a day trip (and is closer than Nikko) but it’s also a nice idea to take your time and stay up there.
From Odawara Station (three Kodama shinkansen stops from Tokyo Station (35 minutes) or the stop after Shin-Yokohama) you can catch the bus (around an hour) up to Lake Ashinoko, where you can take a boat cruise on the lake and ride the Hakone Ropeway. That’s plenty for a day-trip, and you can descend to Odawara and take the train back to Yokohama/Tokyo or on to Shizuoka. You can also stay up there at one of Hakone’s hotels or ryokan, and take your time to check out the various museums, the other ropeway (there are two, the other one being the Komagatake Ropeway up Mt Komagatake), ride the scenic Hakone Tozan Railway, and soak in the hot springs. You can get the Hakone Free Pass for 2 or 3 days which covers most of these (and can also include an optional round-trip from Tokyo on the private Odakyu Line, useful if you don’t have the JR Pass). Check out the Hakone homepage here, and search hotels in Hakone here
Kawaguchiko (early Nov)
The Mt Fuji climb’s already closed for the year by the time of the World Cup, but if you want to get up close for the views then Kawaguchiko (Lake Kawaguchi) in the Fuji 5 Lakes region does the job, doable as a daytrip or you can go stay up there. It’s a thousand metres higher than Tokyo so the autumn colours reach their peak a month or so earlier than in the city, generally in early November – if you’re in Tokyo for the final, that’s the perfect time to visit Kawaguchiko (though it’ll be nice throughout October too). Search Agoda for Kawaguchiko hotels.
Access is via the private Fujikyu Railway from Otsuki, which is on the JR Chuo Line from Tokyo Station & Shinjuku; Otsuki to Kawaguchiko takes just under an hour for 1,140 yen (plus a few hundred extra if you take the express service). If you have the JR Pass you can use it as far as Otsuki, you can jump on the Kaiji limited express which takes 80 minutes from Tokyo Station to Otsuki. If not using a pass it’s cheaper to take the rapid service as far as Takao, then the local service from there to Otsuki, overall this works out around 25 minutes slower than using the limited express. Confused? Check the train times on Hyperdia (see here for an explanation on how to use it)