Falling for autumn in Karuizawa and Kusatsu, Japan
Falling for autumn in Karuizawa and Kusatsu, Japan
We are finally in Japan’s most beautiful season! You know what I mean, right? All around us the green forests, mountains and landscape are transformed into fiery crimson and vibrant orange hues, and there’s no better time to get to know your host nation than now. Fortunately, the weather is still great and that makes your hunting for fall leaf spots fun and refreshing.
Recently my parents, my wife and I drove to the central mountainous region of Nagano and Gunma prefectures, popular spots for Momiji-gari (or fall leaf hunting in Japanese), to see the bright colors during their peak.
Anxious for the breathtaking scenery filled with gorgeous fall foliage, we left our home in Yokosuka City near the U.S. Naval base before 5 a.m. We drove through Yoko-Yoko and Kan-etsu Expressways, and it was around 8:30 a.m. when we got to Karuizawa in Nagano. We drove along Route 43, enjoying the great views and beautiful weather.
Karuizawa – one of Japan’s most renowned premier resort spots
Karuizawa is a fascinating town, home to a lot of classical western-style wooden architecture, high-end summer residences, rich forest and natural beauty. Its busy streets are filled with trendy restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops.
We parked in the town center and picked up some free guide pamphlets at the tourist center. The history of Karuizawa as a premier resort town began when Canadian missionary Alexander Croft Shaw arrived there in 1886, according to the guide. Shaw was fascinated with the beauty of Karuizawa and built his church there.
Shaw wrote about the town as an ideal summer getaway, which attracted many celebrities at the time to build summer homes in the area and helped develop Karuizawa as a premier resort town.
Many summer villas and historical buildings still stand along the main street. We saw Shaw’s Memorial Anglican Church and St. Paul’s Catholic Church, as well as other wooden religious and public buildings with interesting traditional architecture. The town’s buildings and surrounding maple trees in their crimson colors gave the feeling of being in a postcard or painting.
One building we were unfortunately not able to visit here was the former Mikasa Hotel, known as one of Japan’s most important cultural properties. It is currently under renovation through March 2024, so we’ll have to come back to check it out.
As we completed our tour of the town and did a little souvenir shopping, we stopped for at a café to try Karuizawa soft cream. The soft serve ice cream is made from local milk and had a fresh and extremely rich flavor. You’ve got to try it!
From there, we hopped back in the car for a 30-minute drive via the Shiraito Highland Way Toll Road to Shiraitonotaki (literally, the falls of white threads).
Shiraitonotaki – countless crystal-clear waterfalls in the crimson forest
After parking at the entrance to Shiraitonotaki, we climbed along the uphill promenade and took in the unique view of multiple waterfalls crashing down from the mountain slopes. Surrounded by leaves in gorgeous pastel colors, the multiple streaks of crystal-clear water drape over the 60-meter-wide dome-like hill reminding us of a white curtain to the world of dreams. Visitors to Shiraitonotaki can approach the falls, so I put my hand up and felt the freezing stream. I put my hand up to my mouth and tasted the sweet, smooth spring water.
We enjoyed strolling around the waterfalls, then made our way back to the car to continue our hunt for more fall foliage. Our drive led us through the Shiraito Highland Way, aka “Japan Romantic Road.” featuring countless impressive maple trees dressed in red and orange leaves. The mountains were a kaleidoscope of fall colors here and there as well.
While we repeatedly stopped our car to photograph nice views of autumn mountains through the route, we found there are a lot of tourist attractions scattered throughout the route, including Mount Asama Magma Stone Park, the site of lava formations left over from nearby Mount Asama’s 1783 eruption.
It’s worth dropping by the park to enjoy the panoramic view of unique stones and the snow-capped Mt. Asama and blue Gunma Mountain Range in the distance. Since we had already visited this park in 2020, we skipped it this time around continued on our way.
Kusatsu – one of the best three hot springs in autumn colors
As we reached the town of Kusatsu in Gunma Prefecture, the awesome orange slopes and bright yellow and red trees took our breath away. It was the maple woods in the Kusatsu Alpine Plant Garden located next to Road Station “Kusatsu Undojaya Park.” We just had to stop to stroll the crimson woods and take plenty of photos.
We reached the center of Kusatsu Town around 2 p.m. Kusatsu, along with Arima (Kobe) and Gero (Gifu), was deemed as one of the best three springs in the country during the 15th Century.
Here, a large turquoise hot spring pond called “Yubatake” (hot water field) actually overwhelmed us with sight and sulfuric smell. The Yubatake is not only the centerpiece of the town, but also the water source for all the hot spring baths in the area. It produces some 4,000 liters of hot water per minute amid clouds of rising steam. The hot water field is surrounded by hundreds of inns, hotels, eateries and souvenir shops housed in traditional buildings, showcasing Japan’s typical onsen hot spring resort.
After parking nearby the town’s symbol, we ventured out for a stroll around the center town. It was 2:30 p.m. and we were hungry from all the driving and sightseeing, so we just stopped by the tiny Chinese restaurant Korin, located near the hot water field, to sip ramen noodles. The noodles there were mild and not very salty, which to me, would make a perfect meal at the end of a long night of hopping izakayas and game parlors in the area.
As we walked around the town enjoying the sights and sounds of the spring, sellers in yukata approached us to sample onsen manju, spring-steamed buns made with dough using spring water and filled with bean paste. We couldn’t resist but pick up one from their trays and sample it. It was really delicious with its complicated flavor and springy texture. You bet we bought many boxes of Kusatsu’s signature sweet there!
To wrap up our hunt, we couldn’t leave the famous hot spring resort without enjoying a hot soak at Sainokawara Open-Air Bathhouse located on the wide gravelly riverbed. With 700 yen ($4.50) for admission, we entered the hot spring to bathe in its hot spring pool.
Separated for male and female bathers, the open-air pool of hot spring was really huge, which can accommodate several hundred bathers at the same time. I actually saw 50 to 60 bathers enjoying their soak in the large rock-built pool. Bear in mind – although there is a bathhouse with coin-locker, there is no shower, no place to wash your body with soap and shampoo in the bath. You just simply rinse your body with bath water at the pool side, then go soak into the huge stone-built pool. That’s it!
Surprisingly, the water was not too hot, but I could feel the strong transparent sulfate spring water – heavy, smooth, and slimy. It felt like I was bathing in soap. And, though there were dozens of others bathing here, I was able to enjoy a long soak in the quiet and peaceful setting. When I got out of the water, I was nice and warm while my skin felt pretty smooth.
Feeling warmed up and refreshed, we left the hot spring resort around 6 p.m., the drive back set us back about four hours due to heavy traffic in the area. But nothing could diminish the great time spent Momiji-gari fall foliage-hunting and enjoying the fresh mountain air, popular streets of Karuizawa, beautiful waterwalls and a hot soak in renowned Kusatsu hot spring resort.
As the end of autumn nears, it’s not too late to get out and enjoy Momiji-gari and the fresh seasonal air. In the Kanto Plain, Sasebo and Iwakuni areas, you can enjoy the fall foliage through mid-December, so make plans to get out and catch the beautiful colors now! Happy leaf hunting!
Michinoeki (Road Station) Kusatsu Undojaya Park
Location: 2-1 Kusatsu, Kusatsu Town, Gunma Prefecture
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Kusatsu Sainokawara Open-Air Bathhouse
Location: 521-3 Kusatsu, Kusatsu Town, Gunma Prefecture
Hours: Apr – Nov, 7 a.m. – 8 p.m., Dec – Mar, 9 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Admnission: Adult: 700 yen, ages 12 or younger: 350 yen
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