Nara's 10 Top Autumn Foliage Spots

Autumn is coming! Grab your cameras, charge your smartphones, bring extra memory cards and get your shots while you can. The decline of this army of color can be as swift as its advance. Here are the 10 best places to see the autumn leaves in Nara:

10. Chogakuji Temple

Chogakuji Temple was founded in 824. It is home to the first Buddha statue with gem stones for eyes, a number of scrolls depicting the Buddhist image of hell, and a restaurant serving traditional Nara somen noodles. A multitude of flowers throughout the temple’s gardens and grounds make Chogakuji a colorful place throughout the year, but it’s the maple trees scattered throughout the temple that set it off into a glorious blaze of color every November. The leaves start changing color around the middle of November, and peak viewing season lasts until the end of the month .

Chogakuji is located near Tenri City in Yanagimoto, 4 stops south of Nara on the JR Manyo-mahoroba Line. The numbers 60 and 62 buses run to the temple from Tenri Station. Get off at the Kaminagaoka Chogakuji-mae bus stop. Alternatively, Chogakuji is a ~20-minute walk east of JR Yanagimoto Station.

9. Chogosonshiji Temple

Chogosonshiji Temple is home to several papier-mâché tiger statues, 1,840 stone lanterns, an enormous main hall and a balcony stage overlooking the Yamato Basin, and 2 traditional “shukubo” temple-stay lodgings that allow visitors the chance to experience Buddhist meditations and rituals. Its location high on the slopes of Mt. Shigi places it the middle of a Japanese forest. The trees on the surrounding mountainsides and those within Chogosonshiji’s grounds are the site of a spectacular and long lasting autumnal display. The leaves start changing around the beginning of November and peak viewing is from mid- November to the end of December!

Chogosonshiji Temple is accessible by bus from Oji Station. A one day bus pass (the “Wan Day Pass”) valid for the round trip to the temple from Oji Station, and the surrounding area (including Horyuji Temple) can be purchased for ¥500 at Oji Station and at the Nara Visitor Center & Inn: the regular one way fare is ¥430.

8. Mitarai Gorge

The Mitarai Gorge in Nara’s Tenkawa Village is one of the most highly regarded beauty spots in the Kansai region. Waterfalls, steep canyon walls, suspension bridges, great hiking and hot springs await visitors to this remote locale high in Nara’s Kii Mountains. An 11km long hiking trail connects the towns of Dorogawa Onsen and Tenkawa-Kawaai through the Mitarai Gorge and Tenkawa River Valley. There are bus stops at both ends of the hiking trail (Dorogawa Onsen and Tenkawa-Kawaai bus stops) allowing visitors to hike up or down the canyon. Hiking from the bottom to the top will put visitors in the historic and beautiful mountain hot spring town of Dorogawa Onsen and allow them a relaxing soak after their hike.

The leaves of the Mitarai Gorge start turning around the end of October or beginning of November and reach their peak around the middle of November. A regular bus service runs to both ends of the hiking trail from Kintetsu Shimoichiguchi Station. The one way fare to Tenkawa-Kawaai at the bottom of the gorge is ¥1,110, the trip to Dorogawa Onsen is ¥1,280.

7. Odaigahara

The Odaigahara mountain area, a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve on the border of Nara and Mie Prefectures, is sometimes referred to as “The Roof of Kansai.” The summit of the highest mountain in the area tops out at 1,695 meters (5,561 feet) in elevation. The remoteness of its location and a high total annual rainfall have allowed the broadleaf deciduous forests of the area to flourish. The ruggedness of the landscape at places like the Dajagura Cliff (a rocky cliff top that juts out into a 1,000m deep valley, overlooking a gorgeous fang-shaped mountain and with nothing but a chain to separate visitors from the view) further enhances the experience.

The leaves on Odaigahara start changing at the beginning of October and reach peak viewing from the middle of October to the beginning of November. Odaigahara is best accessed by a car but there is a limited bus service, one round trip per day during the week and two on weekends and holidays, from Kintetsu Yamato-Kamiichi Station. The one-way fare is ¥2,000.

6. Shoryakuji Temple

Shoryakuji Temple is located in the mountains southeast of Nara City. It was founded in 992 and rebuilt in 1180 after being burned down in a civil conflict. The guilt bronze Buddha statue and a number of other artifacts, artworks and structures are registered as Important Cultural Properties but Shoryakuji’s greatest draw is the 3,000+ Japanese maple trees spread throughout its garden and grounds. The vibrant red, yellow, orange and green leaves of the trees and their beautiful setting have earned Shoryakuji the nickname “Ninshiki no Sato,” Village of Autumn-tinted maples.

Shoryakuji Temple’s leaves start turning around the beginning of November and peak viewing season is from the middle of November to the beginning of December. A seasonal bus service (November 12th-December 4th in 2016) to Shoryakuji Temple departs from JR Nara Station

(#16 bus stop on the west side) and Kintetsu Nara Station (#3 bus stop) 6 to 7 times per day. The one way fare is ¥530.

5. Mt. Yoshino

Mt. Yoshino is famous for the 30,000~ sakura trees that cover the mountain in pink flowers every spring. Those same sakura trees and a number of Japanese maples and other deciduous trees throughout the mountain’s forests and many temples and shrines color the landscape in a fiery patchwork in the autumn months. Peak viewing times vary with elevation at Mt. Yoshino. Trees near the top of the mountain start turning around the middle of October while trees further down reach their peak from the middle to the end of November giving visitors plenty of time to enjoy the foliage.

The Kintetsu Line runs straight to Mt. Yoshino and the journey from Kintetsu Nara Station costs as little as ¥850 each way and takes just under 2 hours.

4. Hasedera Temple

Hasedera Temple was founded in 686 and expanded to its present size in 727. The temple’s golden 11-faced Kannon of Mercy Boddhisattva Statue and the beauty of the locale have kept the temple in continuous favor with Japan’s ruling elite, and insured a steady stream of money and resources for upkeep and maintenance, for centuries. The temple’s main hall sits high on the slope of a mountain and is accessed by the 400 or so covered and lantern-lined Nobori-ro cloister stairs. The balcony stage connected to the front of the main hall provides a stunning view of the temple compound and the surrounding mountains and valley. Sakura trees and flower gardens keep Hasedera Temple colorful in all seasons but its Japanese maples and other deciduous trees, and its colorful and historic buildings are something to behold when autumn arrives. The slightly out of the way location cuts down on the crowds as well.

Hasedera Temple is a short 1.5km walk to the north of Hasedera Station on the Kintetsu Osaka Line less than an hour’s train journey south of Nara City. Peak viewing time is from the middle of November to the beginning of December.

3. Tanzan Shrine

Tanzan Shrine was built to honor the soul of Fujiwara no Kamatari, a 7th century courtesan who helped restore the power of government to the Imperial family in a 645 military coup d’état. The shrine is famous for its one-of-a-kind 13-story pagoda (reconstructed in 1532), it’s large collection of historic and culturally significant artifacts and structures, and for the hundreds of Japanese maple and other deciduous trees that line and surround its grounds. Tarzan Shrine’s peak autumn foliage viewing season is from about the middle to the end of November.

Tanzan Shrine can be accessed by bus (¥980 round trip) from the south exit of Sakurai Station (JR or Kintetsu Lines). There are 8-10 round trips per day from the number 1 bus stop. Alternatively, for those holding an International Drivers Permit or for those who enjoy cycling, bicycle rentals and 50cc scooter rentals are available at either Kashihara Jingumae or Asuka Stations. The ride to Tanzan Shrine is ~10km from Kashihara Jingumae Station and ~8km from Asuka Station.

2. Takatori Castle Ruins

The ruins of Japan’s largest mountain castle are one of the most spectacular places to see the autumn colors. Takatori Castle was established in 1332 and, with the exception of the 4 year period between 1580 and 1584, in continuous use until 1873! At its height the castle had 2 keep towers (a 3-story main tower and a smaller sub-tower), 27 turrets, 33 gates, 9 bridges, 3.6 kilometers of stone walls, 2.9 kilometers of earthen walls and 5 moats. 143 years of abandonment has allowed the dense forests of Mt. Takatori to reclaim much of the castle but ongoing preservation and maintenance work by the Town of Takatori has turned the main, 2nd and 3rd bailey’s of the castle into a pleasant and park-like environment. A gazebo, some benches on the stone foundations of the turrets, and abundance of deciduous trees and the fantasy novel environment make it one of the most spectacular places to see the autumn colors. Peak viewing time is from the middle of November to the start of December.

Takatori Castle Ruins sit atop the summit of Mt. Takatori. They are accessible via a ~13km round trip hike from Tsubosakayama Station on the Kintetsu Yoshino Line. A limited and seasonal bus service from the station to Tsubosaka-dera Temple can cut the one way distance down to 4km. Acquire an International Drivers Permit before coming to Japan and Takatori Castle Ruins can be accessed via a 50cc scooter from the Asuka Rent-a-Cycle depot at Asuka Station one stop up from Tsubosakayama. The all day scooter rental costs just ¥2,000 and makes the journey that much more fun.

1. Nara Park

Nara’s deer filled signature site is full of maple, ginko, Chinese tallow and several other varieties of deciduous trees that light up the World Heritage Landscape. At 660 hectares in size, the leafy adventures can go on and on. Here is a short list of some great autumn foliage viewing locales: The Isuien and Yoshikien Gardens (show your passport at the later to receive free admission) to the west of Todaiji; the “floating” Ukimido Gazebo on the Sagi-ike Pond to the south of the Nara National Museum; the trails and areas between the Great Buddha Hall of Todaiji Temple and the Nigatsu-do Hall and Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine; the view of Nara Park from the Nara Prefectural Office’s rooftop garden and observatory; and the Mizutani-chaya Tea House and Shrine on the road up to the foot of Wakakusayama.

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