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Onsen and Koyo: Blissful Autumn Pastimes Throughout Japan

The Zao Echo Line is a mountain road running between Yamagata and Miyagi Prefectures. (It is closed from early November until late April because of snow.) Visitors to the Zao area on the Yamagata side can also take a trip on an aerial tram to appreciate the koyo from above.

As chilly weather overtakes warm days, leaves on the mountains turn to red, orange, and yellow, showing off their beauty. Literally meaning “red leaves” in Japanese, koyo is the foliage that catches people’s eyes, and going out to appreciate koyo is an autumn tradition in Japan. There are many notable koyo destinations, but when leaf-viewing is combined with onsen (hot springs), the pleasure is multiplied. Here are three remarkable areas where you can immerse yourself in beautiful nature and the ultimate in relaxation.

Located in northern Japan and close to resting volcanos, the Zao area in Yamagata Prefecture offers good onsen and magnificent mountain views. Some of the popular koyo spots are Takimidai and Sainokawara along the Zao Echo Line, a mountain road that stretches across Miyagi and Yamagata Prefectures. Some onsen overlook beautiful foliage, such as those at the Zao Kokusai Hotel and the Tsuruya Hotel.

About 80km (50 miles) north of the Zao area, Naruko Onsen in Miyagi Prefecture offers wonderful experiences. The area is famous for its 1.5-mile-long, V-shaped gorge with a 328-foot dip, which provides views of red and yellow koyo amid the dark green of the pine trees.

If you want to visit onsen and koyo spots not far from Tokyo, Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture is a good option. Hakone, 90 minutes from Tokyo Station, is a well-established onsen town deep in the mountains with great accommodations and many souvenir shops. Also not far from Tokyo is Shuzenji, a traditional resort in Shizuoka Prefecture. Less touristy and loved by many modern Japanese novelists, Shuzenji has a number of places to see koyo, including maple forests at Shuzenji Shizen Koen (Shuzenji Natural Park) and Shuzenji Niji-no-Sato. Niji-no-Sato has a light-up event, during which you can view illuminated koyo at night. The Katsuragawa and Asaba hotels have rotenburo (outdoor onsen tubs), allowing you to appreciate magnificent koyo views while enjoying a relaxing soak.

The Okuhida Onsengo villages, located in Nagano and Gifu Prefectures, are also popular among Japanese. Since the trees at the tops of mountains begin to change color first, mountain ranges with wide elevation gaps are ideal for koyo-viewing. Okuhida’s landscape showcases a beautiful gradation of koyo, and it also has many quality onsen spots.

Koyo begins in the north and moves south, but the peak time for each leaf-viewing spot varies depending on the elevation. In Japan, the koyo forecast is updated daily, and you can find information about peak times quite easily.

The Naruko Onsenkyo hot springs area is located in the northern part of Miyagi Prefecture, close to the intersection of Yamagata, Akita, and Iwate Prefectures. Deep in the mountains, it offers dynamic koyo views. Naruko is also famous for its cute, wooden kokeshi dolls.


Destinations Offering Koyo and Onsen

Close to Tokyo, Hakone Onsen is the perfect place to spend a day enjoying koyo and onsen at the same time.


Koyo-related souvenirs

Autumn maple leaves are among the most popular and striking examples of koyo. Called momiji or kaede in Japanese, the maple tree and its leaves inspire many souvenir items.

Momiji Manju

The most popular and well-known item related to momiji in Japan may be momiji manju. Originally made in Hiroshima Prefecture, this consists of maple leaf–shaped sponge cake stuffed with red bean paste. Today, there are other stuffing options, such as chocolate cream, green tea cream, cheese-flavored cream, and sweet potato paste.

Maple Tree Items and Crafts

Maple trees are also used for wooden items and crafts. You can think of koyo and incorporate a Japanese twist into your life in America with maple wood shamoji (paddles for cooked rice) and chopsticks.


There are several drinks made from maple leaves and trees. Tea made with a maple extract is believed to have an ability to relieve tired eyes and improve liver function. There are also cider drinks made from maple sap.