As the middle of September arrives, the summer heat in Japan is finally fading, and fresh winds of autumn are cooling the country down after a long humid summer! Japanese autumn starts in early September and lasts until the end of November. Autumn is a favored season for Japanese people as there are many seasonal events related to autumn colors, known as koyo (紅葉) in Japanese. The tree leaves gradually change their color from green into yellow, and then into red and brown, creating a array of colorful mountains, until the leaves eventually fall to the ground.
The most popular way to enjoy koyo in the context of Japanese culture is going to an onsen (hot spring) and enjoy the view while bathing. This is seen as the best way to immerse yourself into the surrounding environment. Many onsen in Nagano are designed so that guests can enjoy views over nature directly from the window and feel “wabi-sabi” – a Japanese term that expresses the beauty of imperfection and the pathos that all things end.
This blog will introduce you to the best onsen in Nagano where you can enjoy beautiful autumn colors!
1) Kanbayashi Onsen (Approximate Koyo season: From mid-October to early November)
Kanbayashi Onsen, the closest onsen village to the Snow Monkey Park, has been recommended many times in our previous articles. This village has many luxurious ryokans (Japanese inns), such as Senjukaku, and is nestled at the entrance of the Snow Monkey Park. The village is located in the midst of wild nature and local farmlands, with scenic autumn landscapes of golden rice fields waiting to be harvested. This village is known as the area which holds the largest amount of hot spring water constantly sprung up from the source – 720 liters per a minute! Every ryokan has its own outdoor onsen bath so guests can enjoy a view of an outside while basking in the colorful surroundings.
2) Yamada Onsen (Approximate Koyo season: From mid to end of October)
Yamada Onsen, set in the middle of Matsukawa Valley, is one of the most popular sites for Japanese koyo. This village is popular not only because of its high-quality, natural onsen, but also because of the majestic mountains on both sides of the valley. The area is often introduced in Japanese travel magazines as a popular autumn destination.
There are nature activities through which you can enjoy the surroundings, such as a 30-minute long hike along the river running through the valley or a visit to the Kaminari-taki waterfall (雷滝) where you can get behind the falling water and see an impressive scenery of autumn colors and constantly running water. These are perfect activities to do before warming yourself up in an onsen.
There are various onsen facilities located in the village, but we recommended Shichimi Onsen and Takino-yu, two onsen facilities which provide amazing views over colorful autumn trees, located both near Yamada Onsen village. Shichimi Onsen is an outdoor, gender-separated onsen, and has white, milky water due to the special minerals in the water. Takino-yu has the biggest outdoor bath in the area and is gender-mixed. The onsen facility lies perched at the top of a river gorge.
3) Shibu Onsen (Approximate Koyo season: From mid-October to early November)
Shibu Onsen is also a popular onsen destination. The village is often visited in combination with a visit to the Snow Monkey Park as Shibu is located at a 20 to 25-minute walk away from the park entrance. The village is surrounded by the mountain range of Shiga Kogen, the largest and highest ski resorts in Japan. The autumn colors become visible from early September at higher altitude areas of 2000 meters. Then, by the middle of October, the color gradually moves down to the bottom area, where Shibu Onsen is located at the altitude of 700 meters. Shibu Onsen has a large number of traditional ryokan, whose onsen baths would be perfect to relax and enjoy a view of the colorful mountains.
4) Nagano Station area (Approximate Koyo season: From the mid-Oct until the early of November)
If you are staying in the Nagano Station area and are looking for a good onsen option, Uruoi-Kan is the only onsen facility located near the Nagano Station area. The appearance of the building might seem more modern than traditional, but inside there is a nice outdoor, stone-made, and spacious onsen that has a nice view looking over a river. The facility is easily accessible from the central area but if you do not want to walk for 30 minutes you need to take a shuttle or taxi to get there. If you stay in Hotel Kokusai 21, a renowned hotel in Nagano City that served as the official headquarters for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, is closely located at a 5-minute walk to the onsen. Thus it would be the perfect accommodation to combine a comfortable stay with an onsen experience.
5) Hodaka Onsen Town (Approximate Koyo season: From mid-October to early November)
Hodaka Onsen Town is located in the western edge of Azumino City, a city located just south of Nagano City and known as a popular area where you can experience the traditions of rural Japan.
The city is conveniently located between Matsumoto and Hakuba and offers a great combination of cultural and sporting activities throughout the year. Nestled right at the base of the Japanese Northern Alps mountains, Hodaka Onsen Town has traditionally been a popular place to visit as the gateway/endpoint for mountain hiking, and also as a convenient base for city sightseeing, close to places such as the Daio Wasabi Farm and local art museums.
The area is surrounded by lots of colors in autumn. The mountains are colored with artistic gradation, and rice fields create a scenery known by locals as the “the Mountainous Sea”: a landscape of golden rice straws fluttering in the wind.
Another reason to come to Japan in autumn is the great food. The whole country has many fresh food products especially for the autumn harvest season, such as rice, fruits, chestnuts, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, etc. All ryokans and restaurants have a special autumn menu with dishes made out of these fresh harvests. Autumn is a special time of the year and we wholly recommend visiting the country of the rising sun in this season.
Nagano, conveniently located right between Tokyo and Osaka, is an attractive destination in autumn. The prefecture has the best of Japanese autumn on offer; fresh foods, high-quality onsen, hospitable ryokan, and impressive autumn colors! If you want to take a day tour with us to be taken to the best koyo spot, Snow Monkey Resorts has seasonal tours starting from JR Nagano Station!