Autumn is Japan’s most colorful season and the best time of year to be outside enjoying some two-wheeled social distancing. We’ve chosen five routes—all easily accessible by car—where you can immerse yourself in autumn’s splendor.
Japan’s Highest Paved Road
The name “Norikura” is sacred to cycling hill climbers in Japan. Tatamidaira Basin (2,720 meters) is the highest place you can reach on paved roads in Japan. Just park your car at the Norikura Kogen highlands and pedal up! It is a 20.5 kilometer-route with an elevation gain of 1,260 meters. No personal motor vehicles are allowed on the route so cyclists have the right of way (taxis and shuttle buses are exceptions). Views from above the treeline are spectacular, but beware of sudden changes in weather and make sure to bring cold weather clothing.
Distance: 51 kilometers (round trip from the Norikura Kogen to Tatamidaira)
Peak Kōyō: Mid to late-September
Tohoku Peak Kōyō
Mt. Kurikoma (Kurikomayama) is one of the top fall foliage spots in Tohoku. From the center of Ichinoseki City, in the south of Iwate, it is a 45-kilometer ride to Kurikomatouge (Kurikoma Pass). We recommend this as a round-trip ride and Ichinoseki is on the the Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet train) Line if you choose to come by train. The route climbs about 1,100 meters and, with this much elevation gain, you will encounter the “true colors” of autumnal leaves as they gradually change colors from the foot of the mountains to the top. If you have extra energy and time, the peak of Mt. Kurikoma is a three and a half-hour hike up and down from the pass.
Distance: 90 kilometers (round trip to Kurikoma Pass)
Peak Kōyō: Early to mid-October
Deep Forest Foliage
When asked where to see the best fall colors with virgin forests of beech and other deciduous trees, my first answer is always Okutadami. It is recommended to cycle one way through the forests from Hinoemata Village in Fukushima Prefecture to Uonuma City in Niigata Prefecture (Approx. 85 kilometers), but you can enjoy seasonal foliage by making a round trip visit to Numayama-tōge (Numayama Pass) which is about 23 kilometers one way with about 820 meters of elevation gain. Upon your return to Hinoemata—after a chilly downhill—enjoy a heavenly dip in the onsen at one of the many minshuku.
Distance: 46 kilometers (round trip from Hinoemata to Numayama-tōge)
Peak Kōyō: Mid-October
Lake Kawaguchi, Yamanashi
Fuji Five Lakes Fall Cruising
Kawaguchi-ko is one of the Fuji Five Lakes and boasts a view of colored forests and Mt. Fuji across the lake. A 15-kilometer loop around the lake with a short cut across Kawaguchi-ko Ohashi bridge is almost flat and good for cycling beginners. Depending how much time and energy you have the route may be extended by including Sai-ko or Shoji-ko and Motosu-ko in the loop to make the ride 28 or 62 kilometers respectively.
Distance: 15 kilometers
Peak Kōyō: Mid-November
Kyoto and Nara
Ancient Temples and Neighborhoods
Kyoto and Nara are simply beautiful in autumn. Grab one of the well market maps of the city and enjoy the colors temple hopping on a 20-kilometer route throughout Kyoto. Pedal further out to the suburbs—Arashiyama on the west, Ohara in the north or Yamashina in the east—and you take in the ancient capital to the fullest. Nara City and its neighboring towns and villages also have many temples and shrines with beautiful autumn flora. Pictured here is the outskirts of Ikaruga, where Horyu-ji temple is located. Idyllic landscapes like this are part of Nara’s charm.
Distance: Approximately 20 kilometers
Peak Kōyō: Late-November