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Beauti-fall Shinetsu Part 1: Nagano’s awesome autumn scenery

Beauti-fall Shinetsu Part 1: Nagano’s awesome autumn scenery

Updated as of 16 August 2023
Originally published on 19 November 2021

 

Have you heard of the Shinetsu Region before? Shinetsu (信越 Shin’etsu) refers to Nagano and Niigata, and comes from the first characters of Shinshu (州 Nagano's old name) and Echigo (後 Niigata's old name). These two prefectures experience high snowfall, and have the highest number of ski resorts in Japan (#1 Niigata, #2 Nagano). However, when the snow melts, a whole new world is unveiled—revealing a nature lover’s paradise, which I believe is the most beauti-fall in autumn. In this series, we will check out the Shinetsu Region’s autumn scenery, starting with Nagano in Part 1, and Niigata in Part 2!

 

Mention “Nagano” (長野) and images of soaring mountains and rich nature come to mind. Outdoor enthusiasts will tell you that Nagano shines brightest during summer, with wide options of activities such as hiking, biking, climbing, camping, boating, and more. Winter sport enthusiasts will tell you that winter is the season to visit Nagano, for its amazing powder snow and variety of slopes available for both beginners and experts.

 

Map of places introduced in this article. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

However, I personally find autumn to be the most mesmerising and beauti-fall, and in this article, I will introduce my top recommendations for catching Nagano’s unbe-leaf-ably stunning autumn scenery. Don’t worry, all of these places are pretty accessible with minimal walking required, but also have options for the more adventurous travellers to venture out for better views. Are you ready? Let’s go!

 

① Matsumoto City

First up we have the charming Matsumoto City (松本市 Matsumoto-shi), which is one of my favourite cities in Japan. Matsumoto has the stunning Northern Alps as its backdrop, and is where you should base yourself if you want to explore the surrounding mountains and autumn spots. But you don’t have to look too far for some autumn colours, there are plenty to be enjoyed in Matsumoto City itself.

 

Matsumoto Castle

Viewing period: early to mid-November (varies each year)

Matsumoto Castle in autumn. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Matsumoto City is best known for the stunning black Matsumoto Castle (松本城 Matsumoto-jō), my favourite castle in Japan and a National Treasure. Built during the Bunroku Era (1592–1596), Matsumoto Castle has the oldest five-tiered castle tower in Japan, and is an amazing feat of architecture.

 

The castle is surrounded by a moat, and when the waters are still, they provide beautiful reflections of the castle, the sky, and the scenery. The park surrounding Matsumoto Castle is free to explore, so you can enjoy views of the castle like the ones above without an admission fee. However, for even more amazing views, I recommend entering the castle tower and checking out the panoramic scenery from the top!

 

Ticketed area of Matsumoto Castle and the view from the top. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

From the outside, the castle looks like it has five floors, but there are actually six, as there is a “hidden” floor. After climbing up six flights of stairs, you will be rewarded with a fantastic panoramic view of Matsumoto City. On clear days, which are more common during autumn and winter, you can even see the Northern Alps in the distance, which makes a stunning backdrop.

 

For more about Matsumoto Castle and other iconic Japanese castles, check out my previous article here.

 

Nawate Street / Metoba River

Viewing period: early to mid-November (varies each year)

Nawate Street and the Metoba River riverbank. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Close to Matsumoto Castle, located between Yohashira Shrine and the Metoba River (女鳥羽川 Metoba-gawa), is a small street known as Nawate Street (縄手通りNawate Dōri). One thing you’ll notice is the abundance of frog-themed decorations and souvenirs on sale.

 

It is said that in the past, the banks of the Metoba River used to be home to frogs, and the sound of frogs croaking was a common occurrence. The Japanese word for “frog”, “kaeru” (蛙), sounds like the Japanese word for “returning home” (帰る), and the various frog decorations symbolise a safe return home.

 

During autumn, you can see trees covered with fiery autumn colours, and just a short walk away is the Metoba River, where more colourful trees line the riverbanks.

 

Yohashira Shrine

Viewing period: early to mid-November (varies each year)

Yohashira Shrine. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Nearby Nawate Street is Yohashira Shrine (四柱神社 Yohashira Jinja), which has plenty of beautiful trees on its grounds. The name “Yohashira” literally means “four pillars”, and the shrine was so named because it is dedicated to four deities. During autumn, the leaves on the trees turn various shades of red and orange, creating an eye-catching sight right in the middle of the city.

 

For more information about what you can do at Matsumoto, check out our Nagano branch’s previous articles here and here.

 

Access to Matsumoto City

JR Matsumoto Station (松本駅) is about 2.5–3 hours from JR Shinjuku Station on the Limited Express Azusa, and about 50 minutes to 1 hour from JR Nagano Station on the Limited Express Shinano.

  

② Lake Suwa (諏訪湖)

Lake Suwa as seen from Tateishi Park. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Next, let us check out Lake Suwa (諏訪湖 Suwako), Nagano Prefecture’s largest lake, which located almost in the centre of the prefecture. Have you seen Shinkai Makoto’s anime movie “Your Name,” (君の名は。 Kimi no Na wa)? Shinkai Makoto is a Nagano native, and it is said that Lake Suwa was one of the inspirations for Itomori, the fictional town in the movie.

 

Tateishi Park

Viewing period: late October to mid-November (varies each year)

Lake Suwa in autumn. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

The shores of Lake Suwa are about a 10-minute walk from JR Kami-Suwa Station, but for a fantastic view, I recommend heading over to Tateishi Park (立石公園 Tateishi Kо̄en), where you can get an aerial view of the lake and its surrounding towns.

 

Autumn colours around Tateishi Park. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Tateishi Park can be accessed by a 10-minute bus or taxi ride, or 30-minute walk from JR Kami-Suwa Station. If you’re up for it, I recommend taking the walk up, as you can enjoy the beautiful autumn colours and the various views around the park.

 

Located at an altitude of 934m, the view from the top is magnificent, offering panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and the three towns and cities of Suwa, Shimosuwa, and Okaya. Looking at the scenery, it’s not hard to see how this view could have inspired scenes in movies and films!

 

Sunset over Lake Suwa. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

If you have the time, I also recommend watching the sunset over from Tateishi Park, as Lake Suwa reflects the setting sun, and creates a warm and romantic atmosphere. It’s the perfect spot for a romantic autumn date, or for a quiet recharging time.

 

Takashima Park

Viewing period: late October to mid-November (varies each year)

Takashima Park in autumn. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Over in Suwa Town, about a 15-minute walk from JR Kami-Suwa Station, is Takashima Castle (高島城 Takashima-jō), Although the castle itself is not very large, the castle grounds are home to a beautiful park, Takashima Park (高島公園Takashima Kōen), which has an atmosphere reminiscent of a Japanese garden.

 

Takashima Park and Takashima Castle in autumn. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

This gorgeous garden is a must-visit in autumn if you’re around Lake Suwa, when its trees erupt in vibrant and colourful shades of red, orange, and yellow. The garden’s small pond is like a mirror, reflecting the beautiful views and the sky clearly, and is especially stunning when the skies are blue. While the castle requires an admission fee, the park is free to enter, and you can spend an hour or two strolling around the park and admiring the autumn colours.

 

For more information about what you can do at Kamisuwa, check out our Nagano branch’s previous article here.

 

Access to Lake Suwa

JR Kami-Suwa Station (上諏訪駅) is around 2 hours 10 minutes by Limited Express Azusa from JR Shinjuku Station, or less than 30 minutes by Limited Express Azusa from JR Matsumoto Station.

 

③ Kamikochi (上高地)

If you ask me what my favourite place in Japan is, without hesitation my answer will always be Kamikochi (上高地 Kamikōchi). At an altitude of 1,500m, Kamikochi is a beautiful, pristine highland region where the view of the clear blue Azusa River (梓川 Azusa-gawa) flowing in front of the Hotaka mountain range is simply mesmerising. Did you know? The Azusa River is where the Limited Express Azusa train—which connects Shinjuku with Matsumoto and Hakuba—gets its name from.

 

Kamikochi in autumn. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Nestled among soaring peaks and deep valleys, the Northern Alps region is a mecca for climbers, with Kamikochi being the gateway for various hikes into these mountains. However, don’t be mistaken that Kamikochi is just for hiking enthusiasts, for there are many places where you can get amazing views that are barely a few minutes’ walk from the nearest bus stop!

 

Kamikochi Bus Terminal area

Viewing period: mid to late October (varies each year)

Kappa Bridge in autumn. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

When arriving at Kamikochi by bus, most people get off at Kamikochi Bus Terminal, the terminal station. From there, a short 5-minute walk brings you to one of the most iconic views of Kamikochi: Kappa Bridge (河童橋 Kappabashi). Around Kappa Bridge, you can get a fantastic view of the Hotaka mountain range, and the beautiful Azusa River flows in front of you. In fact, you can even walk down to the riverbank and play in the water. Be careful though, in autumn the water is quite cold.

 

Kamikochi’s larch trees in autumn. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Another scenic spot near the Kamikochi Bus Terminal is the larch trees (カラマツ karamatsu) lining the banks of the Azusa River. About a 10-minute walk from the bus terminal towards Taisho Pond (opposite direction from Kappa Bridge), you will reach a big, open space, with tall larch trees lined up in a straight line along the river bank. The waters of the Azusa River here are shallow, and you can even walk across to the patch of gravel on the other side.

 

In autumn, the larch trees turn a brilliant shade of yellow, which is simply stunning to look at. Together with the mountains in the background and a blue sky, it’s an amazing view that visitors often miss as they only head towards Kappa Bridge, so don’t forget about it!

 

Taisho Pond area

Viewing period: mid to late October (varies each year)

Taisho Pond in autumn. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Although most people get off at Kamikochi Bus Terminal when visiting Kamikochi, here’s a tip for those of you seeking out autumn views: get off at Taisho-ike Bus Stop instead, and take the 1-hour flat walk from Taisho Pond (大正池 Taishō-ike) to Kappa Bridge. I highly recommend this route as the scenery is stunning, and the path is paved, easy-to-walk, and refreshingly cool due to it being alongside the Azusa River.

 

Another tip: visit early in the morning, when the trees glisten with morning dew, the magnificent peaks of Mount Yakedake and the Hotaka mountain range are shrouded in mist, and Taisho Pond’s tranquil waters reflect the beautiful scenery like a mirror. An early morning hike here offers a tiny glimpse into the magic of nature at Kamikochi. I have literally spent up to 2 hours just standing by the side of the pond, gazing at the peaceful scenery and getting lost in my thoughts.

 

Grass turning orange in autumn. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

We mostly think of trees changing colours in autumn, but don’t forget that there are also some types of grasses that turn gorgeous hues of orange, red, and yellow in autumn. This orange grass field is about a 15-minute walk from the Taisho Pond Bus Stop, and is a favourite among photographers. There’s a large and wide wooden platform with ample space for admiring the scenery, as well as benches for resting, and in the background, you can see the Hotaka mountain range.

 

Karasawa Cirque

Viewing period: late September to early October (varies each year)

Hiking up to Karasawa Cirque in autumn. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

At Kamikochi, the areas around Kappa Bridge and Taisho Pond are already very beautiful and can be enjoyed without much walking, but for those who are more adventurous, I very highly recommend taking the hike up to Karasawa Cirque (涸沢カール Karasawa Kāru). From Kappa Bridge it’s about 6 hours one-way, but the view is absolutely stunning.

 

Autumn here is gorgeous, and the vibrant foliage draws incredible crowds from all over Japan—there are even tour groups of just senior citizens! From Karasawa Cirque, it is possible to further climb up to the peaks of Mount Okuhotakadake (Japan’s 3rd highest mountain at 3,190m) and Mount Kitahotaka (Japan’s 9th highest mountain at 3,106m). They are each around a 3.5-hour climb from Karasawa Cirque.

 

For more information about hiking from Kappa Bridge to Karasawa Cirque in autumn, check out my previous article here.

 

Access to Kamikochi

Kamikochi banned the entry of private cars to preserve its pristine beauty, so you can only get here by authorised buses and taxis. It takes about 1.5–2 hours by train and bus (¥2,710 one-way) from Matsumoto City to Kamikochi.

 

④ Hakuba (白馬)

Next, one place in Nagano that you can’t miss during autumn is Hakuba (白馬). Although Hakuba is well-known as a premier winter destination due to its beautiful powder snow, it offers captivating views of nature during autumn.

 

Hakuba’s sandankо̄yо̄. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)

 

Something to keep an eye out for at Hakuba is the beautiful phenomenon known as sandankо̄yо̄ (三段紅葉 three layers of autumn colours). It usually starts snowing much earlier at the top of high mountains, but the nearby lower mountains are still developing autumn colours, while the ground level is still green. When this happens, you can see three layers of colours: white, orange, and green.

 

Sandankо̄yо̄ usually happens sometime in October, depending on when snow falls on the mountain peaks, but if you can’t catch it, don’t worry, Hakuba still has plenty of other breathtaking autumn colours for you to catch.

 

HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR

Viewing period: early to mid-October (varies each year)

HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR in autumn. (Image credit: Hakuba IWATAKE)

 

While at Hakuba, one place I highly recommend everyone to visit for viewing the autumn scenery is HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR (白馬マウンテンハーバー). HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR is a panoramic viewing terrace opened in October 2018, and provides an unparalleled view of the surrounding mountains, from snow-capped peaks in spring, to lush greens in summer, to fiery warm colours in autumn, and snowy white in winter. Best of all, the terrace is free to use, so no admission fee is required to enter!

 

View from HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR in autumn. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The terrace is just a 3-minute walk from the gondola station, and at its entrance is a bakery: THE CITY BAKERY. You definitely must try their signature cinnamon muffins and thick, creamy hot chocolate. Not only are they delicious, but also warm you up in the chilly autumn weather. Sitting on the terrace, sipping on a warm drink and gazing at the colourful fall foliage, doesn’t that sound wonder-fall?

 

I haven’t had the best of luck visiting HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR as it was mostly cloudy all four times I visited, but autumn was definitely the most colourful and vibrant. Even though the skies were cloudy and blocked the view of the peaks of Hakuba’s mountains, the autumn colours were out in full force, with bright patches of orange and yellow covering the mountain slopes. The amazing views made it a memorable experience, even more so because of the delicious snacks and easy access.

 

Clear view of autumn scenery from HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR. (Image credit: Hakuba IWATAKE)

 

Access to HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR

Hakuba is a 1-hour bus ride from Nagano Station. If travelling by train, it is a 1–1.5-hour ride by Limited Express from JR Matsumoto Station, a 3–3.5-hour ride from JR Nagano Station, or around 3 hours 40 minutes by direct Limited Express train from JR Shinjuku Station.

 

From Hakuba Bus Terminal, take a bus to the foot of Mount Iwatake, then take the Iwatake Gondola Lift “Noah” up to Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort. HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR is a 3-minute walk from the gondola station.

 

Tsugaike Nature Park

Viewing period: mid to late September (varies each year)

Tsugaike Nature Park in autumn. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

If you don’t mind a little bit of walking, check out Tsugaike Nature Park (栂池自然園 Tsugaike Shizen’en). At an elevation of 1,900m above sea level, Tsugaike is one of Japan’s highest marshlands. The park has boardwalks which make hiking a breeze, offering a variety of courses ranging from 1–3.5 hours to suit different fitness levels, while providing majestic views of Hakuba’s mountains.

 

Here, it’s not just the leaves on the trees that change colours: the grass on the ground also turns into various shades of yellow, orange and red! As you walk along the boardwalks and look around, you’ll see that you’re surrounded by autumn colours.

 

Access to Tsugaike Nature Park

From Hakuba Bus Terminal, take a bus to the foot of Mount Tsugaike, then take the Tsugaike Gondola Lift “Eve” up. From the gondola station, transfer to the Tsugaike Ropeway bound for Tsugaike Nature Park.

 

Happo Pond

Viewing period: mid to late September (varies each year)

Happo Pond in autumn. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

If you’re slightly more adventurous, how about a hike to Happo Pond (八方池 Happо̄-ike)? Located at an elevation of 2,060m, this picturesque pond is especially breathtaking when the waters are still and the majestic mountains are perfectly reflected in them. Although the 90-minute hike to Happo Pond involves climbing up some rocky terrain, it is still doable for anyone of reasonable fitness.

 

If you’re an avid climber, you can take a further 3-hour climb up to the peak of Mount Karamatsu. Being able to witness autumn colours on the mountain peaks is an amazing feeling, and I highly recommend nature lovers to give it a go.

 

Access to Happo Pond

From Hakuba Bus Terminal, walk 10 minutes to the Happo-One Gondola Lift “Adam”, and take it up. Then, transfer to the Alpen Quad Lift, and finally to the Grat Quad Lift. After getting off, it’s a 90-minute hike to Happo Pond.

 

⑤ Togakushi (戸隠)

Kagamiike Pond in autumn. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)

 

Located in a forested area of the mountains at an elevation of 1,280m, Togakushi (戸隠) has plenty of natural beauty, and is a great escape from the city. Here you can enjoy a relaxed countryside atmosphere and scenic views. Although Togakushi is known for its mystical cedar-lined paths that lead to the various shrines of Togakushi Shrine, the one must-visit spot in autumn is Kagamiike Pond (鏡池).

 

Kagamiike Pond

Viewing period: early to mid-October (varies each year)

Kagamiike Pond in autumn. (Image credit: photoAC and JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The name “Kagami” means “mirror”, and when the waters are still, they beautifully reflect the autumn landscape and Mount Togakushi, just like a mirror. Right beside Kagamiike Pond is a café, Donguri House, where you can relax and grab a bite to eat. The terrace seats provide stunning views of the pond, and is the perfect place to admire the scenery. While here, you’ve got to try some Togakushi soba, one of Nagano’s must-try foods.

  

Access to Togakushi

Togakushi is about a 1 hour–1 hour 15-minute bus ride from Nagano Station. Kagamiike Pond is a 40-minute walk from the Kagamiike Iriguchi Bus Stop.

 

⑥ Karuizawa (軽井沢)

Just around an hour’s bullet train ride from Tokyo, or 30-minute bullet train ride from Nagano, is Karuizawa (軽井沢), a highland resort area located about 1,000m above sea level. Karuizawa is perfect for a family getaway, as many of the sights are easily accessible by walking or by bus.

 

Kumobaike

Viewing period: mid-October to early November (varies each year)

Kumobaike Pond in autumn. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Kumobaike Pond (雲場池) is a small pond that’s about a 10-minute bicycle ride or 30-minute walk from JR Karuizawa Station. Despite its small size, this pond offers beautiful reflections of the sky and trees, and the leaves of the trees here turn amazing shades of red and orange during autumn.

 

Although there are no swans here, Kumobaike Pond is sometimes also referred to as “Swan Lake”. There are however, cute ducks that wade in the pond to enjoy the cold waters.

 

Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street

Viewing period: mid-October to early November (varies each year)

Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street in autumn. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

If you enjoy shopping and enjoying a town atmosphere, head over to Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street (旧軽井沢銀座通り Kyū-karuizawa Ginza Dо̄ri) is Karuizawa’s main shopping street. Located a 5-minute bus ride or 30-minute walk from Karuizawa Station, the street’s buildings have a Western vibe, and there are lots of cafés and bakeries scattered around.

 

Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street is extremely picturesque in autumn, when the leaves of the trees erupt in vibrant and eye-catching shades of red and orange. Enjoy the autumn colours while shopping and strolling down the street, grabbing a bite to eat, or basking in the atmosphere!

 

Karuizawa is famous for its bread and baked goods, so I recommend popping into a bakery to buy some bread, and savouring it while leisurely strolling down the street.

 

Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza

Viewing period: mid-October to early November (varies each year)

Autumn colours at Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

If you still can’t get enough of shopping, head on over to Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza, a huge outlet mall with over 200 shops, and located right beside JR Karuizawa Station.

 

The outlet mall is surrounded by nature, with a large manmade pond, grassy fields, and lots of colourful trees. Here you can enjoy some fall foliage in a mall environment, which is perfect for families with young children or those who don’t like to walk much.

 

Access to Karuizawa

JR Karuizawa Station (軽井沢駅) is approximately a 1-hour ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station, or a 30-minute ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Nagano Station.

 

Closing

Nagano is home to a plethora of beauti-fall autumn scenery. These were just some of my favourite places, but Nagano still has much, much more. Which would you like to visit next? Stay tuned for Part 2 of this autumn Shinetsu series, where I will introduce awesome awe-tumn spots around Niigata Prefecture!

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are thinking of visiting the Shinetsu Region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Narita Airport and Matsumoto (~¥19,500). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

Header image credit: Japanmase and Hakuba IWATAKE

 

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