After falling in love with Japan while living there as a student 40 years ago, I am finally getting back there regularly after several decades of parenthood and working as a teacher of Japanese language and then in the horticultural field. I enjoy researching obscure trails, trying them out, and then leading walking trips for small groups along these ancient trails through rural Japan.
Autumn or ‘aki’ is a special season in Japan. After the unpredictable blasts of late summer hurricane weather, the blue skies and cool nights of October are welcome. Arguably the best season for walking in Japan is autumn. The trees start to change colour in late September up in Hokkaido and Tohoku, gradually transitioning through the chain of islands south-west to peak in Kyushu in late November.
Most loved of all Japanese autumn leaves is the ‘momiji‘ or maple. It appears everywhere in autumn as a seasonal motif – in kimono textiles, print and even as a decoration on food.
Deciduous trees in Japan provide spectacular autumn colour, and walking through forests of beech, maples and larch is unforgettable. Narai village on the Nakasendo trail and Kamikochi in the central Alps area are good viewing spots for Karamatsu larch.
Autumn in Kyoto is all about strategy. Identify your destination, your route, and get there before opening or you will be in a very long queue with tourists and school groups. If you can tolerate the crowds, it is still sublimely beautiful.
Ginkgo trees come into their ancient glory at this time – sometimes up to more than a thousand years old, these venerable giants glow golden in temple grounds.
best Walks for autumn
Nakasendo – November
Tohoku Basho – October
Oirase Stream in Aomori – mid October
Kamikochi in Nagano – early October
Mt Fuji foothills to 5th Station – mid October
Kyoto Circuit Trail – mid November
With the warming climate, the timing of the autumn leaves’ peak has been getting later and is very dependent on the last hurricane, which usually marks the end of warm and humid weather. This has been as late as early November in recent years.
Summer in Japan is hot. HOT. With 99% humidity enveloping the heat sink of old post-war concrete and new age designer urban sprawl, even nights don’t cool down much. Air conditioners are used sparingly as an austerity measure, and the peak hour train crush is unbearable. Japan’s cities are the worst place to be in July and August, and the antidote is Tohoku.
Tohoku means ‘the North-east’ and refers to the 6 prefectures at the northern end of Japan’s largest island, Honshu: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata. While it can get hot up there too, the lush summer green of forests, mountains and rice paddies temper the heat.
67 % of Japan is forest – both natural broad-leaf deciduous, native conifer forests and the ubiquitous conifer plantations of Hinoki and Sugi cypress. The mountains of Tohoku are under deep snow for many months of the year, with a short time to rush through spring, summer and autumn before settling down under the frozen white blanket again from late November. Excellent hiking abounds here. In August 2019 I found a few days for hiking when I visited Aomori to attend the Hiraga Neputa Festival, and experience the onsen and warm country hospitality of the Kuroishi area.
Green rice plains stretch off across the middle distance in the western Aomori prefecture, bordered by the volcanic mountain ranges of Iwaki-san and Hakkoda. Summer in the Aomori countryside is an immersion in shades of green.
Nearly exactly 141 years before, In late July 1878, intrepid traveller Isabella Bird passed through Aomori in drenching rains making the heat of summer unbearable when travelling by foot and packhorse and staying in tiny hamlets sleeping on her wet stretcher and bedding (why didn’t she accept a warm dry futon? – fleas). She was one of the first foreigners ever to visit this area of Japan, and a woman! Her account of the journey is a fascinating picture of 19th century Japan, although her cultural sensibilities are viewed through a heavy veil of Victorian racial superiority.
In her book ‘Unbeaten Tracks in Japan’, (page 130) she describes the wet landscape of mountainous Tohoku as follows:
‘It was pretty country, even in the downpour, when white mists parted and fir-crowned heights looked out for a moment, or we slid down into a deep glen with mossy boulders, lichen-covered stumps, ferny carpet, and damp, balsamy smell of pyramidal cryptomeria, and a tawny torrent dashing through it in gusts of passion. Then there were low hills, immense rice-fields…’
My stay in Kuroishi coincided with the summer festival week of Neputa, as did Isabella Bird’s visit in 1878, then called the Tanabata Festival. I was unaware of her visit to this very area, until I spotted a faded plaque at the little onsen village of Nakano.
Kuroishi is a delightful little town of well-preserved Edo period architecture in Nakamachi area. With so much rice, sake breweries are abundant. Sweet little 2 carriage trains manned by a single driver run to this area of Aomori. Samisen playing is a local skill with a long reputation here for excellent musicians.
My first walk was a little hike up into the Shiroiwa hills behind Kuroishi with my homestay host, the delightful Mrs Ishiyama, last generation of her family of Shinto priests to still live in the pretty rural hamlet next to the shrine. Now her son owns a designer ramen chain in Tokyo. Perfect summer weather meant the forest was alive with insects, as we walked along a stream past wild hydrangeas. Mrs Ishiyama was very fearful along the way that we might encounter a bear. We emerged at our destination unscathed, at a white cliff of exposed volcanic rock, and finished our walk by visiting the tiny Shinto shrine for the god of the white rock.
Ishiyama-san’s country garden was a dream mix of summer flowers, vegetables, fruit trees, and a beautiful ‘kura’ storehouse, a feature of this area of Aomori. She showed us her fascinating hobby of making charcoal ‘flowers’ from smoking chestnut conkers and other cones and nuts, which are then used as air fresheners in houses, as charcoal absorbs smells and moisture.
Freestanding storehouses called ‘kura’ are a feature seen all over rural Japan. These buildings were invaluable necessities for food storage through the long winters, and they are particularly attractive and well-preserved architectural relics. Thick plaster walls insulate and their location away from the main buildings in a farm complex protects from fire. The decorative details seen in the northern ‘kura’ are beautiful, and many are well maintained and still in use, for rice and apples. I have seen them renovated into separate accommodation with a very atmospheric ambience.
The Kuroishi area publishes a local guide to its distinctive ‘kura’ with a walking map but in Japanese only.
oirase – hiking with bears
Not far to the east of Kuroishi, the really wild forest of the Hakkoda mountains begins. Well-known in Japan is Hakkoda’s Oirase Stream walk, and I set out to experience this trail for myself. Taking an early bus from Aomori city, I disembarked 2 hours later at the trailhead with one other walker. We struck up a conversation, discovered a shared interest of plants and set off together, past the first of several ‘Kuma Chui’ (beware of the bears) sign. The walking trail follows a rushing stream called Oirase, and unfortunately so does the highway! Tour buses and tourist cars were frequent reminders that non-walkers also enjoy this beautiful part of Japan through the window.
Walking through the lush green vegetation of high summer, with the sound of the adjacent crystal-clear stream was a delight. Stopping to identify an interesting tree, I noticed movement in the riverside vegetation about 10 metres away and to my amazement, a black bear stood up and looked me straight in the eye. Tapping my companion on the shoulder to alert him to the now two bears close by, we retreated with hearts thumping quietly further up the track. The Japanese black bear (Tsuki Waguma) is a smaller species than the really scarey brown bears of Hokkaido, but still an animal which commands respect. They had been foraging in the lush growth next to the stream, and the water noise had masked our presence. I always carry bear bells in Japan, but this time had not tied them to my pack. not far along the trail after our bear interaction we came across a sign saying that bears had been sighted in this area recently. Incongruously, tourist buses were passing by, oblivious to the presence of these genuine Oirase forest residents. I have seen bear paw prints and scats on walks in Japan before, but this was a truly remarkable hiking experience for me. Bears have a bad name in Japan and can be dangerous if surprised. There are annual reports of negative bear/human interactions, with both parties coming out badly. Occasionally people are killed, and aggressive bears are culled. With young people moving away from the farming life to jobs in cities, forest edge hamlets are populated by elderly people or abandoned. Orchards and crops are not tended and bears come out of the forest to feed, as forestry plantations have impacted on their natural diet of fruit and berries from the broadleaf deciduous forest vegetation, and the vicious cycle continues.
The Oirase stream flows into serene Lake Towada, an ancient crater lake. Despite the tour buses, the Oirase stream walk is a delight.
A short bus ride brought me to my accommodation for the night, a beautiful old onsen in the forest. Many centuries old with VERY hot water bubbling up, soaking in the hot spring bath of xxx was heaven.
A short walk before breakfast through the silver birches near the onsen took me to a mirror-still lake. The only person there, I sat listening to birds and insects, watching fish in the clear water and admiring the perfect reflections of the white bark of the trees opposite, until… I heard a large animal moving through the forest behind me. I took to my heels imagining not wild pigs or deer but the bears of yesterday coming to eat me. This area becomes overwhelmed with tourists in the autumn (mid to late October) who come for the golden forests, the ancient onsen and to photograph this particular lake in its autumn glory.
Not far away from Tsuta onsen, Hakkoda Mountain has a network of trails through the alpine landscape over the dormant volcano which I walked with some Japanese friends. We took the cable car up to the mid-station level, saving about 700m of ascent, and giving us more time on the mountain. Our goal was to do a loop walk finishing down at another ancient onsen hot spring hotel in the middle of nowhere. After walking through wind-pruned alpine conifer scrub, we emerged into a high open plateau. Perfect blue sky weather was reflected in the circular ponds dotting the rolling green meadows, and the hot day no problem at altitude. Weather can change very quickly up here, and to venture further into the crater section, I would recommend a local guide.
To cap off my Aomori travels, I participated in the local Neputa festival of the Hirakawa district. This festival held in early August originated from the Tanabata festival combined over the centuries with the cultural traditions of the north. Being a small local version of the famous Aomori city Nebuta, everyone was involved, from the local preschools to the nursing home residents – I love the strong sense of community which exists in rural Japan. Amazing floats trundled off to thunderous drumming as the sun went down behind Mt Iwaki. The colourful Neputa festival continued through the clear starry night with the whole rural region coming together to celebrate summer, a truly memorable event.
Summer in Tohoku is apples, peaches, and lush green velvet rice paddies. Spring is immersion in white blossoms as petals flutter in the breeze at Hirosaki Castle. Autumn is harvest time and endless forests of golden leaves. The other face of Aomori in winter is one I have yet to experience – a harsh time outside when the tough northerners batten down the hatches and make sake, do traditional crafts and enjoy each other’s company. And there’s great snow for skiing!
I was a guest of Koji-san of Pitt Travel, Goshogawara, and received great hospitality from the staff of Green Farm Nokakura Association, Sato-san and Norita-san. There is a wonderful overnight homestay system in the area,details available from Pitt Travel.
A list of travel hack apps to make the most of your Japan trip. Apps for planning your Japan itinerary, booking accommodations, maps and navigating transit, food guides (including specialty ones for vegan, halal, cafes, and ramen). Make use of some of the best regional apps around!
The simple Shinto torii gate always exerts a mysterious pull on my curiosity. Aside from the fact that they nearly always come with trees, they are usually beautiful forms, inviting a thoughtful sojourn exploring the Shinto shrine complex beyond, or working out what deity they signify in Shinto nature worship.
Encountered all over Japan, in forests, on roadsides, in city alleys and private gardens, the elegant shape of the torii gate can be seen demarcating the everyday world from the sacred world of Shinto deities. They can be tiny or enormous, made from natural timber, stone, in vermilion red, or functional concrete. The presence of a torii gate is the simplest way to identify a Shinto shrine from a Buddhist temple, although the two religions harmoniously coexist even on the same site. Consistently appearing in Shinto architecture right down to the dress of shrine maidens, the colour red symbolizes the sun and life, and is thought to repel evil spirits, danger and illness.
The original meaning of the word torii is unclear. The enigmatic
literal meaning of the two kanji
characters which write torii 鳥 居 can be
translated as ‘bird perch’, but it is possible that it derives from the term tōri-iru 通り入る, meaning
to pass through and enter – the function of the gate separating the human world
from the spirit world.
Theories of the origin of torii gates abound:
the ancient religious use of bird perches in groups at the entrance to villages throughout Asia, which were thought to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck
the association of white birds with souls of the dead in folklore and the three-legged crow in Japanese mythology
similar symbolic gates were widespread in Asia in ancient Hindu and Buddhist sites, possibly transmitted back to Japan with Buddhism from the 6th century
Inari & the FOX guardians
Often seen within Shinto shrines are a pair of fox statues, guarding a subshrine or a sacred object. These are the messengers of the deity Inari, a busy god with many portfolios: rice and agriculture, fertility, sake, merchants, swordsmiths and general prosperity and success. The foxes, messengers of Inari, can often be seen with keys to the rice granary in their jaws, a common sight in agricultural areas. Foxes are mythical shape-shifters, often into female form to fatally seduce men, and are believed to have the power to speak. They are mischievous and cunning, but bring protection from bad fortune as well.
The bibs are an interesting feature, placed by devout local people to protect the deity and thereby assist the souls of deceased relatives. As a deviation from the usual foxes, in Takayama I came across a pair of bears as shrine guardians.
The most well-known (and photogenic) Inari shrine is Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, with its hill paths completely covered with red torii gates, donated by businesses grateful for success. There are many other Inari shrines across Japan which have this same style of torii avenues without the crowds.
But my favourite torii gates are the weathered and authentic ones deep in the country. Next time you travel on regional trains in Japan, look out for isolated groves of trees in the middle of fields or hillsides – hidden in the middle is likely to be a local Shinto shrine worshipping some ancient deity of nature. Take note of the style of the torii gate if you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse – simple country shrines show an authentic spirituality which is often lost in important shrines.
(all images are by and remain the property of Relle Mott)
During my Spring 2018 visit to Yamagata Prefecture as a reconnaissance for the Tohoku Basho Trail walk, I caught glimpses of what seemed to be sections of a remnant old trail from bus windows. Kanji characters on the odd dilapidated sign read ‘Rokujuri-Goe Kaido’, meaning the 60 Ri Traverse Road. Looking at this more carefully, a ‘Ri’ is an old distance measurement equalling 3.97km, ‘Goe’ means mountain crossing or traverse, and ‘Kaido’ means an old highway from the Edo period. So my translation is the ‘238km mountain crossing old road’. But where did it go and was the trail still walkable?
There are hundreds of ancient trails throughout rural Japan,
relics of pilgrimage routes, trade routes for transporting goods back and forth
by carriers on foot, oxen and mules, for officials on government business, and frequently
for marauding armies. The deeper into regional Japan you go, the harder it is to
find these trails and usually the less preserved, and finding a multi-day trail
that is cohesive and not hidden under highways and train tracks is a challenge.
With the aging population and demise of agricultural communities, the knowledge
of the old trails is being lost.
I began some months of enjoyable online research into the Rokujuri-Goe
Kaido in preparation for walking this trail in the autumn of 2018 as a side
adventure to the Tohoku Basho Trail.
I discovered that the trail was at least 1300 years old, and
connected Tsuruoka on the coastal Shonai Plains with the inland towns of Mogami
and Okitama, and further on towards Tokyo in the south. It traversed the old province
of Dewa, which once incorporated most of Akita and Yamagata prefectures.
Dewa is famous for the Dewa-Sanzan (the three sacred mountains of Dewa) which were at the centre of mountain worship practices of the Shugendo sect. Mt Haguro (Black Feather Mountain) temple complex is the most well-known, situated at the top of 2446 stone steps. Mt Gassan (Mountain of the Moon) is a mysterious high peak, snow-covered all year round, and Mt Yudono (Spring of Rebirth) is the third mountain. In a simplistic explanation, the pilgrimage to Dewa Sanzan is a ‘journey of rebirth’ where Mt Haguro represents the present and fulfilment of earthly desires, Gassan symbolizes death and the past, and Yudono symbolizes rebirth, the future. The Rokujuri-Goe Kaido seems to be the lower altitude access road to all three mountains, with Mt Yudono the pilgrim’s goal. For most of the year the alpine route is covered in deep snow.
History of the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido
The first mention of the trail was in 712, recorded in a war chronicle as the shortest land route between Yamagata and Dewa Province. In 1587, Lord Mogami and his army invaded Shonai over the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido. Poet Matsuo Basho passed this way in 1689, writing some memorable haiku poems about the sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan. In 1832 the Shonai feudal lord Sakai, his family and 300 vassals travelled this road to pay compulsory homage to the Tokugawa Shogun in Edo (present-day Tokyo). From 1932, a new prefectural road for vehicles was built, signalling the demise of the old foot trail. In 2007, the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido was designated as a ‘Scenic Byway of Japan’ by the Japanese government.
Tracking down the trail
Enlisting the help of my friend Katsuhiro Shoji from the Yamagata Prefectural Tourism Authority a map in English was happily revealed. Apparently this trail was restored in 2007 and was in reasonable condition, walked occasionally by local hikers, nature study groups and pilgrims.The local Asahi district tourism office provided up-to-date information about the state of the trail, revealing several sections closed by landslides after the heavy rains of summer 2018. The trailhead was shown as Kobo-no-Watashi, which was once a wharf on the Akagawa river, but we started several kilometres further on at Honmyoji Temple due to the landslide section. Having previously experienced the beauty of walking in the Japanese mountains in autumn, I set a date for my group at the height of autumn colour at the very end of the season, before the trail is closed from the first weekend of November. Past experience of lesser-known trails in Japan has shown that signage can be non-existent and trails confusing with many side paths, so the next step was finding a guide. Thankfully Shoji-san found me a local volunteer guide, a sprightly 78-year-old who skipped over those mountain trails like a teenager.
Our two day walk on the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido began near Honmyoji Temple, to skip the landslide section. The walk to Tamugimata village started through wet pine plantation forests on a slippery trail on quite steep slopes. The weather was cool with showers and we were grateful for our wet weather gear. As the trail climbed, the deciduous trees showed off their autumn glory and we were immersed in gold. We emerged from the forest round lunch time at the sombre graveyard and stone lanterns of Churenji, a significant and Shingon Buddhist temple from 833. Our damp and cold group was kindly invited inside to eat our picnic lunch by the heater, where we promptly disgraced ourselves by dropping rice balls on the tatami, and melting a beanie on top of the heater! Despite our poor form, we were shown the most significant elements of this ancient temple – some magnificent painted ceilings and the tiny, crusty body of a self-mummified priest!
Setting off again, we walked through quiet rural hamlets,
where jizo stone monuments watched over us, drank from a travellers’ spring, and
admired a venerable sugi cedar tree. Late in the afternoon we saw the valley of
Tamugimata below us in a setting of golden forests, but clouds obscured the snowy
peak of the sacred mountain Gassan. Our inn for the night was the only
accommodation in the district, a roadside establishment run by a cheery family
who cooked up a storm for the weary walkers.
The following morning we walked down to the village to see
the remaining three storied farmhouses with their graceful thatched roofs, an
architectural style unique to the area designed for access from the top floor
windows during winters with very deep snow, and for keeping animals on the
ground floor during long winters and silkworms in the attic in summer. With a
long walk and ascent today we didn’t stay long in Tamugimata. A little further
up the road, our guide had a treat in store – instead of taking the foot trail
off into the hills, we continued up the paved road to Natasu-daki, a
spectacular 90m waterfall thundering from all the rain on the opposite side of
the valley, set in the golden autumn landscape.
We walked up hill and down dale: through golden beech forest, past stone monuments, fording streams and climbing ever steeper slopes until we caught a glimpse through the mist of the red Torii gate of Mt Yudono, our destination. Pockets of snow lay on the mountainside indicating our altitude, and after a very beautiful walk, we emerged from the forest.
The entry to the sacred natural hot spring and sheer red rock face of Mt Yudono is further up the valley beyond the enormous red torii gate. However, the esoteric practices required of pilgrims will remain a mystery and rebirth have to wait till next visit as our warm, dry bus was waiting to take us back to Tsuruoka city, down through the golden landscape of Yudono.
I subsequently discovered that it’s possible to do a third day on the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido, continuing on to Shizu Onsen. Forestry workers told me that there is a trail (for experienced mountain hikers only) down from the summit of Mt Gassan to a mountain hut called Nenbutsugahara, and onward to Hijiori Onsen, but this can only be done in July and August, and a local hiking guide would need to be found. Similarly, walking the high alpine trail to the summit of Gassan is done in summer.