Header photo courtesy of John Wong
While the elegant blooms of sakura (さくら; cherry blossoms) have been known to draw thousands of visitors to Japan every spring, few seem to realise the raw beauty Japan offers in the latter half of the year, away from the leaf-peeping hubs of Kyoto and Hokkaido. When the nights get a little longer and the air a little cooler, when the autumn foliage dyes mountains in warm hues of red and yellow, the season of kōyō (紅葉; ”red leaves”) begins.
Kōyō paints the country gradually, from north to south, with a bold yet dreamy palette that distinctly contrasts with the radiance in springtime. With fewer crowds and milder weather, autumn is often seen by locals to be the prime time for momijigari (紅葉狩; “red-leaf hunting”) and venturing into nature to relish the serenity off the beaten tracks—and there is no stopping you from joining the. Chase the colours of autumn from Nagoya (名古屋市) all the way to Takayama (高山) with this four-day self-drive itinerary.
As the fourth-largest city in Japan, one morning is most probably not enough for you to explore Nagoya and all its goodness. But, since it is the closest city to the rural spots on the rest of this list and its airport (Chubu Centrair International Airport) has rental car services, Nagoya could be the best place to kick off the tour.
One of the most renowned landmarks is Nagoya Castle (名古屋城), a grand palatial structure built in the early seventeenth century and used extensively during the Edo period. Adding to its magnificence is the rich autumn foliage in the castle’s Ninomaru Garden (二之丸庭園), which contains various species of plants and trees from all over Japan. If you are in the area during October and November, you might be able to catch the local Autumn Festival happening on the castle grounds, too.
Before you hit the road towards the next destination, be sure to try out some of Nagoya’s delicacies, such as hitsumabushi (ひつまぶし; eel rice) and miso katsu (味噌カツ; deep-fried pork cutlet topped with Nagoya-style miso sauce)—you would not want to drive on an empty stomach!
Nagoya Castle, 1-1 Honmaru, Naka Ward, Nagoya, Aichi 460-0031, Japan
Ninomaru Garden, 1 Ninomaru, Naka Ward, Nagoya, Aichi 460-0032, Japan
A two-hour drive northwards from the city of Nagoya, Yamanaka-onsen (山中温泉) is one of the many hot spring areas located within the Kaga Province (加賀国). There is an array of hot spring resorts available, some of them even providing their own colourful collections of yukata (浴衣; traditional bathrobes) for you to choose from.
On the other hand, you could take a leisurely stroll around the Kakusenkei Gorge (山中溫泉), with paved paths, unique bridges, and an expanse of stunning fall foliage. Be sure to head back to your resort in time for dinner, as most hot spring resorts offer scrumptious dinner and breakfast for a night’s stay. One of the seasonal specialities is the Echizen-gani (越前ガニ)—succulent snow crabs caught in the oceans off the ports of Echizen and Mikuni.
Kakusenkei Gorge, 152 Yamanakaonsen Shimotanimachi, Kaga, Ishikawa 922-0127, Japan
Going further up along the Western coastline, just one hour away from Yamanaka-onsen is Kenroku-en Garden (兼六園), one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. Although the idea of driving first thing in the morning may drain you, you will certainly feel refreshed upon seeing the vast greenery in the garden, peppered with red and yellow maple leaves surrounding the quiet ponds and streams. You could treat yourself to some tea and Japanese sweets in the teahouses or head to the neighbouring Kanazawa Castle Park (金沢城公園) to soak up the historical and retrospective atmosphere.
Dazzlingly white under the sun, Kanazawa Castle does not seem to reflect its difficult history one bit, yet it had been, in fact, burnt down several times over the centuries since its establishment in the late sixteenth century. With the surrounding fall foliage, the landscape is somewhat wistful, but all the more photogenic.
Kenroku-en Garden, 1 Kenrokumachi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa 920-0936, Japan
Kanazawa Castle Park, 1-1 Marunouchi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa 920-0937, Japan
After walking around the huge gardens, it is time to refuel. The next stop is Ōmichō Ichiba (近江町市場), also known as the “Kitchen of Kanazawa.” Situated in the city centre, it has been the biggest fresh food market since the Edo period, and with over 180 stalls inside, you can imagine its liveliness and its attraction to both locals and tourists.
If you are a seafood lover, you are in luck—the market boasts of having fresh ingredients straight from the ocean, which you can take home or have the vendors prepare for you over the counter. Whether you are craving grilled skewers or a bowl of kaisen donburi (海鮮丼ぶり; rice topped with seafood), crispy croquettes, or some hearty oden (おでん; fish cake soup), Ōmichō Ichiba will have plenty of choices for you.
Ōmichō Ichiba, 88 Aokusamachi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa 920-0907, Japan
Having spent an afternoon in the bustling market, you will enjoy the upcoming retreat in Gokayama (五箇山), located an hour southeast of Kanazawa (金沢市). This mountainous area has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1995 due to its remarkable gassho-zukuri (合掌造り) farmhouses. These 250-year-old houses have steep roofs—as if hands of Buddhist monks clasped in prayer (hence the name, of which “gassho” means to join one’s hands in prayer, while “zukuri” denotes a type of architecture), which are designed to withstand the immense weight and amount of snow that falls in the region during winter.
Some farmhouses in the traditional villages in Gokayama, such as Ainokura (相倉) and Suganuma (菅沼), have been modified to become hostels, so you can have an authentic experience by staying overnight. In addition to rustic structures like irori (囲炉裏; traditional fire pits), you can expect cosy spaces, hospitable owners, and even simple but delicious homemade meals.
The next destination is the city of Hida (飛騨市), which is just over an hour further northeast from Gokayama. Early on during the drive, you may pass by the famous Shirakawa-gō (白川郷), a village similar to Ainokura and Suganuma, but much more popular with tourists due to easier access. If you wish to avoid the crowd, you are advised not to drive into Shirakawa-go, but instead look at it from above at Tenshukaku Observatory (天守閣天文台) where you should be able to enjoy a full view of the village with less intrusion.
Moving onwards, Hida might be the highlight of your trip as it was the setting for Your Name, the hottest Japanese animation film in 2016. If you are a fan of the movie, do not miss out on the photo op upon the footbridge of Hida-Furukawa Station (飛騨古川駅) as the train passes by underneath, as well as having a bite of the local snack goheimochi (五平餅; grilled rice cake). Even if you are not keen about the movie, the city itself will appeal to you with its prominent sake breweries and intimate cafés on the streets of Shirakabe Dozogai (白壁土蔵街). There are even beautiful koi fish swimming in clean canals on the roadside, making the town more charming and picturesque than ever.
Tenshukaku Observatory, 889 Ogimachi, Shirakawa, Gifu 501-5627, Japan
Hida-Furukawa Station, 8 Furukawacho Kanamoricho, Hida, Gifu 509-4225, Japan
Because hot springs are the perfect way to wind down after days of driving, and because one simply cannot have enough of them, here is yet another hot spring area for you on the list. The Okuhida-onsen (奥飛騨温泉) area is noted for its outdoor baths, with five onsen towns each using a different water source and thus offering varied properties in their hot springs. Most impressively, the region is surrounded by the Northern Japanese Alps, so you can imagine looking on to the sweeping landscapes of red- and orange-tinted leaves in the mountain mist while you bathe and relax in the early evenings or mornings. For dinner, some hotels feature the local Hida-gyu (飛騨牛; Hida beef) on their menus, which you can savour as steak or as an ingredient for Japanese-style hotpots, like sukiyaki (すき焼き) or shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ).
If you have left souvenir-shopping for the final day, now is your chance. The city of Takayama (sometimes specified as Hida-Takayama) bears a sense of nostalgia as it has been well preserved since the feudal times, during which was a centre of activity for many thriving carpenters and merchants. From the Sannomachi Street (三町筋) in the southern section of the Old Town to the Takayama Jinya (高山陣屋; former local government office and now museum), you will find traditional eateries, sake breweries, quaint souvenir shops, and more.
Another extraordinary feature of the city is its Takayama Matsuri (高山祭; Takayama Festival), which is held bi-annually in spring and autumn. During the Autumn Festival, about a dozen giant floats are displayed throughout the northern part of the Old Town, acting as the main attraction for many splendid performances and possessions. If you prefer places with fewer spectators around, have a short hike over to Shiroyama Park (城山公園) where the Takayama Castle (高山城) once stood. It may be a bit of a tough climb if you wish to see the ruins located at the very top, but the panoramic view of the city, framed by beautifully yellowing foliage, is well worth the exercise.
Takayama Jinya, 1-5 Hachiken-cho, Takayama-shi, Gifu 506-0012, Japan
Shiroyama Park, Shiroyama, Takayama, Gifu 506-0822, Japan
Last but not least is Kōrankei (香嵐渓), an exquisite valley deemed to be one of the best for leaf-peeping in Japan. Maple trees have been planted in the area since almost 400 years ago, delineating the western and southern sides of Mount Iimori. Along the Tomoe River (巴川) at the base of the mountain are walking paths with dense tree canopies, and several bridges stretching across the waters to the opposite bank. As the sun sets, food stalls begin to open near the Tomoehashi Bridge, music performances commence in the open spaces, and the trees are illuminated until 9 pm. Almost three hours south of Takayama, Kōrankei is close to the first stop of Nagoya, and is, therefore, a good place to wrap up this trip.
Tip: Accommodation at Kōrankei may be very difficult to book as most visitors are locals, and hotels are relatively small. Make sure to book much in advance if you wish to stay overnight, or drive to nearby cities (such as Anjo) for alternatives.
Kōrankei, Iimori Asukecho, Toyota, Aichi 444-2424, Japan
Visas: While citizens from 68 countries and regions (including Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Canada, the USA, and the UK) generally do not require a visa for tourism purposes, it is best to check official websites before your departure, especially with COVID-19 affecting air travel and border control.
Forecasts: Autumn foliage in Central Japan is normally best observed in November, but be sure to check forecasts online as this differs from year to year, and keep that in mind when booking accommodation in advance.
Parking: Another tip for accommodation is to ensure that there is free parking on-site, or that there are carparks nearby—if you do not mind spending an extra ¥1,500 or so per night.
Choosing routes on the GPS: Most rental cars in Japan nowadays have a built-in GPS available in Japanese, English, and Mandarin Chinese. Other than the language, it is crucial to choose your routes wisely: if you want to save time, expressways and toll roads will be your go-to, but if you prefer to save money and are fairly confident in your driving skills, you could select the no-toll courses and you would be rewarded by more scenic views on the way.
Convenience stores and rest stops: Driving for hours on end is not only exhausting but also potentially dangerous for you and your passengers, so do take a break at any of the rest stops available every 20 kilometres or so along the highways. Also, take full advantage of Japan’s amazing convenience stores, fully equipped with local snacks, desserts, and other facilities. Stock up on goods to nibble on during your journey to avoid fatigue—do not forget to pick up the sour candies!