Gunma: Falling for autumn and hunting for the season’s colors

Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi
Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi

Gunma: Falling for autumn and hunting for the season’s colors

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

Though we still are keeping our distance and traveling less because of COVID-19, the seasons outside keep turning. We are now in the midst one of the Japan’s most beautiful seasons – autumn. All around us, the green forests, mountains and landscape are transforming into fiery crimson and orange hues.

In Japan, fall foliage is called koyo in Japanese and the hunt for this seasonal beauty is called Momiji-gari. Fortunately, the weather is still great and hunting for fall leave spots makes for an ideal, and refreshing, escape while still being safe and maintaining social-distancing guidelines.

ESCAPE TO GUNMA
For our first Momiji-gari of the season, my wife and I decided to hit the road for the mountains of Gunma Prefecture just northwest of Tokyo. Anxious for a change of scenery, we left our home in Yokosuka City around 4:20 a.m. Taking the Yoko-Yoko and Kan-etsu Expressways, it was around 8 a.m. when we got to Nakanojo Town in Gunma after getting off the expressway at Shibukawa-Ikaho IC and driving along Route 17. It was a beautiful day, great for fall leaf hunting.

We reached JR Nakanojo Station and were a little bit disappointed because it seemed fall had not yet reached our destination. Undeterred, we drove up deeper into the mountains and found what we were looking for. We reached Kuresaka Pass, which took our breath away with its orange slopes and bright yellow and red trees, black cliffs, and a view of the deep turquoise river water.

NAKANOJOMACHI
LOCATION: 1091 Nakanojomachi, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma Pref.
TEL: 0279-75-2111 (Nakanojo Townhall)

CELESTIAL BEAUTY AT NOZORIKO LAKE
Eventually we reached Nozoriko Lake, a crescent-shaped deep blue lake surrounded by gently sloping bold mountains. Although there were no signs of autumn here, the fantastic view of dark blue lake and mountains in a light green gradation were like looking at a living galaxy.

We parked the car and ventured out for a stroll around the lake. It was a windy and chilly day, but the view was worth the trouble. After our one-hour hike, we left the lake and continued our hunt for more fall foliage.

Our drive led us through the Shirasuna Glen Line featuring impressive maple trees dressed in red and orange leaves. The mountains were a kaleidoscope of fall colors here, too.

NOZORIKO LAKE


LOCATION: Nakanojomachi, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma Pref.
TEL: (Japanese): 0279-95-3111 (Nakanojo Townhall, Kuni Branch)

REFUELING AT MURAKAMIKE 
Soon it was lunchtime and we were hungry from all the driving and sightseeing, so we stopped by Murakamike, a popular kamameshi restaurant nearby. The Gunma specialty kamameshi is a rice dish boiled with crab, chicken and other ingredients in a small iron pot. Murakamike in Naganohara Town is known as one of the best kamameshi spots in the area.

After entering and immediately disinfecting our hands, we were seated in the dining room a good distance from other guests. For our two kamameshi sets with tempura and tofu on the side, we paid 2,200 yen ($20).

We receive our fresh-made kamameshi covered with wooden lids within 15 minutes of ordering. As soon as we lifted the wooden lids, the sweet aroma of well-steamed rice tingled our senses. The presentation was a delightful mix of ingredients including generous portions of crab meat, chicken, shrimp and vegetables.

The dish was simple, but it had a refined taste. We realized that the MVP of this dish was actually the rice and the ingredients merely assisted in showcasing the rice’s flavor. Our meals came with miso soup and pickles, both seasoned lightly, on the side. Although the pot dish seemed too much for one person, we devoured our tasty lunch with no problem.

MURAKAMIKE


LOCATION: 1587 Otsu, Naganoharamachi, Azuma-gun, Gunma Pref.
HOURS: Wed – Mon, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. and 4 – 7:30 p.m.
TEL: (Japanese): 0279-82-2272

DEVILISH DETOUR
After lunch, we continued our drive to Mount Asama Magma Stone Park.

The park is the site of lava formations left over from nearby Mount Asama’s 1783 eruption. When the lava hardened into these black unique shapes, locals believed the devil himself had pushed out the rocks from inside the volcano and into this location, thus giving the park its name Onioshidashi, which literally means “pushed out by the devil” in Japanese.

The view from this location is definitely other-worldly, with the unique stones and the snow-capped Mt. Asama in the distance. A 10-minute walk from the entrance brought us to a tiny Buddhist temple standing on a red wooden platform. From the deck, we were able to check out a panoramic view of the blue Gunma mountain range.

ONIOSHIDASHI-EN (MT. ASAMA MAGMA STONE PARK)


LOCATION: 1053 Kamahara, Tumagoimura, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma Pref.
HOURS: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
ADMISSION: middle schooler or older: 650 yen ($6), elementary schooler: 450 yen
TEL: 0279-86-4141

TAKING IN SOME HISTORY
Our final stop was Tozenji temple in Kurabuchimura Village. This may seem like an average temple, but it has a connection to Yokosuka Naval Base, and is the final resting place of an important figure in Japan’s history.

Here lies Oguri Kosukenosuke, a senior vassal of Edo Shogunate, who was one of the main figures in the founding of “Yokosuka Seitetsujo,” in 1871, which today is Yokosuka Naval Base, home of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet.

When we walked up on a steep slope to enter the temple field, we saw statues of Oguri Kozukenosuke and his sworn friend, Kurimoto Joun, standing beside Oguri’s tomb in a tiny, yet elegant temple garden. We prayed in front of Oguri’s tomb and gave thanks for his efforts to make Yokosuka such a great city.

The temple hall features items related to Oguri’s life and service in the Shogunate. We were greeted by the chief priest Taiken Murakami, who gave us a little more insight into Oguri’s work in establishing Yokosuka and the naval facility.

We spent a few hours perusing the temple and talking with Murakami, but soon it was dark and time for us to head home.

TOZENJI TEMPLE


LOCATION: 169 Gonda, Kurabuchimura, Takasaki City, Gunma Pref.
TEL: (Japanese): 027-378-2230

The drive back set us back about six hours due to heavy traffic in the area, but nothing could diminish the great time spent koyo-hunting and enjoying the fresh mountain air.

It is a great time to get a mask on, head out for some autumn color-hunting and fresh air. In Japan, peak fall foliage season runs through mid-December in the Kanto Plain, Iwakuni and Sasebo areas. Don’t miss out!

takiguchi.takahiro@stripes.com

Where to hunt for fall foliage near you

Iwakuni - Miyajima Momijidani Park

Sasebo - Kujukushima

Misawa - Oirase, Towada Lake, Hakkoda and Jogakura

Atsugi - Nanasawa, Miyagase Lake and Mt. Oyama

Yokosuka - Yoro Valley in Chiba Pref. (by Tokyo-wan Ferry)

Fuji - Kawaguchi Lake, Shuzenji

Yokota - Okutama Lake

Speakin’ Japanese: Enjoy your nomijigari autumn color-hunting

You’ll probably come across other autumn color hunters so greet them with this phrase while keeping a good social distance:

“Momijigarini kimashita”
(“I came here to hunt for autumn colors.”)
(“momiji” = autumn leaves, “momijigari= autumn leaves hunting, “..ni kimashita” = came here to ..)

When you find a great landscape on your autumn-colors hunting, you can say:

“Subarashii keshiki desune?” 
(“It’s a splendid view, isn’t it?”)
(“subarashii” = splendid/wonderful, “keshiki” = view/landscape, “desune?” = isn’t it?)

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