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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Hakkoda Mountains in Autumn

With over a week of overcast skies and a chill in the air, I thought it would be suitable to write about fall foliage in the Hakkoda Mountains. The Hakkoda Mountain range lies south of Aomori City and consists of sixteen volcanic peaks. Only about two hours from Misawa, I spend much of my time throughout the year getting to know this region. Autumn is, by far, my favorite time here.

Typically peaking mid-October, colors start appearing in the highest elevations as early as late September and can last into mid-November in the lower elevations. This gives photographers a bit of a range in which to photograph fall foliage in this region.

Maple in a Beech Forest during Autumn

As the area is large, I am going to highlight two key routes and several locations throughout the Hakkodas so you can better plan your visit. We will start on the east and head west for this, as that is how I have learned it. However, if you start in Aomori City, it is still quite easy to find these places coming from the west side of the range as well.

On the west side of Towada, Route (Rt) 102 splits off into Rt 102 heading south and Rt 103 heading west. Our hunt for vibrant colors, seasonal reflections, and brilliant vistas begins here at the foothills.

Route 102

Oirase Gorge

Autumn leaves against the flow of Oirase Stream

If you follow Rt 102 south, this is the road that traverses Oirase Gorge and circles Towadako (Lake Towada). One of the premier koyo (the Japanese word for the phenomenon of changing autumn colors) viewing in the country, people flock to this location from all over Japan and internationally. Last month, I did an entire article on this location which you can view here.

Towadako (Lake Towada)

At the southern end of the Gorge, Towadako lays, surrounded by the remaining caldera walls. It is on these walls that the colors of autumn display themselves for all to see. Take a drive around the lake, visiting the various look out points or opt for a cruise across the surface so as to admire the walls from below.

Route 103

If you decided to proceed west, up Rt 103, you enter into a maze of switchbacks that will take you up and into the heart of the Hakkodas. This is an amazing drive that will have you wanting to pull over at every chance if you have come at peak color. The road follows the hillsides under a canopy of deciduous forest.

Maple leaves in color against forest background

A couple words of caution. If you or your passengers have a habit of getting motion sickness make sure that you all have taken medications prior to attempting this road. Also, with as many hairpin curves as there are on this route, please be safe, patient, and polite when driving. Do not attempt to pass on this road unless the vehicle in front of you has slowed and put on their hazards (the Japanese way of saying "Please pass."). And, as much as you may want to stop and take pictures, please be aware that the roads here are narrow with little to no shoulder. Make sure you are able to get your car safely and completely off the road before getting out to shoot.

Photo tip: when shooting fall foliage, use a polarizer to help make the colors pop by taking away glare that might be coming from the lighting.

Tsuta Onsen

Photographer Mass

When caught at peak color and no wind, this is a photographers dream location. And dont take my word for it. There are plenty of others willing to get up at ridiculous times in the middle of the night to drive here for sunrise, too.

Photo tip: Be here a minimum of an hour before sunrise, ideally two, and be prepared to wait. This image was taken after I had already been here a while. I arrived just shy of an hour before sunrise and there was zero, I mean not an inch of room, on the boardwalk. I had to stand just off it in about two inches of water for the remainder of my time.

Location tip: If you want to be on location, thus not having to factor a drive into your visit here, you can stay at the Onsen hotel located at the trail head. Book about 8-10 months in advance and be prepared to pay several hundred dollars. But, hey, it will save you a very early morning drive and you get an awesome onsen to lounge in when not shooting. (Tattoos not allowed at this onsen.)

Couple walking down trail

From the parking lot, it is an easy one kilometer (if that) to the Tsutanuma Pond. Find your spot, and relax. Once the sun comes up, it still has to climb over the elevated forest at your back before the magic happens. In the meantime, you can start shooting or enjoy the early morning around you.

Photo tip: Make sure you have a tripod for this. The long wait and early low light shooting require a tripod. A camp stool for yourself wouldn't be unwise either. Just don't bring anything bigger than a stool as space is limited.

Back out on Rt 103 westbound, there will be a smattering of pull-offs. Many are just dirt or gravel and you have to watch closely for them as they are usually just a car-width break in the roadside vegetation. The one I really like is going to be on the left, just after the first bridge after the tunnel. This will make sense when you are driving, I promise. Here there is a gravel parking area good for 3-4 cars. It is along the river and fisherman use it mostly. You can get some very nice intimate landscapes, work reflections, or use it as a stop to shoot the road through the trees.

Further along there will be just bend after bend of Beech forest.

Suirennuma Pond

At the highest point on this road, Kasamatsu Pass, 1040 meters, there is a small roadside park. A set of restrooms, one covered picnic table and a short (less than 40m) boardwalk make up this spot. Dont let this fool you though - the view is worth it!

Alpine Marsh in autumn color and cloud

Frequently, at this elevation, the pass is covered in cloud. With this though, comes some great photo opportunities as well.

Hakkoda Ropeway

Dropping down the west side of the pass, you will see the Hakkoda Resort village before winding through more forest down to the Ropeway. The Hakkoda Ropeway is a four-season gondola, capable of transporting over 100 people to the summit of Mt. Tamoyachidake. In autumn, the gondola is filled to the brim (not for those who get claustrophobic when in a crowd). Hiking trails allow visitors to hike around the alpine environment before taking the gondola back down or hiking down to the base. The banner image at the top of the page was taken from the summit trail.

Rice bundles drying in the field

If you continue over to the foothills on the western side on the mountains, you will most likely end up in one of two places: Aomori City or Hirosaki. Grab a bite to eat, enjoy the golden fields as autumn brings on the rice harvest. Then, turn back and photograph your way back east, if you have time before dark.


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