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Fall by the Wayside

Fall guy Jack G. Beasley heads for the hills and some colorful touring routes

Kumoi, West Izu in early fall

Kumoi, West Izu in early fall

As the advertising billboards and department store displays remind Tokyoites daily, fall in Japan is nature's festival of colors. That makes now prime touring season, with the trees and leaves at their most breathtaking. Let me share with you some of my favorite places to take in the colors this fall. The best vehicles for this type of trip are a 4x4 or a dual purpose bike, and don't forget a good guidebook and map. (The English language "Road Atlas Japan" by Shobunsha is invaluable.) For bikers, plan ahead as the best places are in the mountains and it can get pretty cold at this time of year, with a chance of ice on the roads. In this case it's best to keep to the ocean side of the mountains, although you'll miss the best colors.

Kumoi, West Izu in early winter

Kumoi, West Izu in early winter

Hakone and Izu
A good place to head for a short trip is Hakone. The area is covered in woodland and, for bikers, it is not so high as to make riding unpleasant. Work your way around Lake Ashinoko between Routes 1 and 138 towards Nagao Pass, where you'll find a rolling hillside field of susuki (pampas grass). Around the end of October or the beginning of November, the white plumes offer a perfect photograph opportunity and a delightful walk. Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to be there when the sky color is at its best. Traffic can be slow but not jam-packed and the trip can easily be made in one day.

If you want to make a weekend out of it, reserve a room at one of the many hot springs in the area. Options for a second day could include a trip down to the Izu peninsula or to the base of Mt. Fuji. At Izu, head around the west side of the peninsula where the road is very much like a trip up the coast of northern California, with large cliffs sloping down into the sea. As you approach the bottom of the peninsula, you can't miss the golden fields of rice which are a real visual treat. Don't speed past the side roads which offer picturesque views of the golden plains to get the full value out of this journey. The return up the east coast on route 135 is mostly boring. However, there are some back roads that will take you north to the bottom of Kanagawa with less traffic and good views. The Izu route is a good choice throughout the winter as the roads are never icy nor the air too cold for bikes.

Takayama Festival
Takayama Festival

Kamikochi and Takayama
One of the best places for viewing the leaves in their full splendor is the Kamikochi area of Nagano and Gifu where you'll find all the colors of the rainbow. Of course the best time to go is during the week when traffic is lighter, but you'll have to put up with tour buses if you happen to hit it at the wrong time.

From Tokyo take the Chuo Expressway and turn onto the Nagano Expressway at Lake Suwako. At Matsumoto exit onto route 158 towards Lake Azusa. Route 158 runs between Matsumoto and Takayama and the side roads off it lead up into some of the best tree-viewing country in Japan, full of groves of birch and maple trees showing off their splendid colors. The Norikura-Kogen Botanical Garden is worth a visit, as are the surrounding woodlands. On these smaller roads you will miss most of the bus tours which head on to the Kamikochi hot springs further along route 158.

A nice side trip is to head from there to Takayama for an old Edo experience. Takayama is famous for its old town, quaint atmosphere and lively festivals.

For bikers this is strictly an early fall trip, as the weather can change at any moment from temperate to dismal rain, sleet or even snow. Route 158 is closed from mid-November to late spring for just this reason. If you can fit in a trip this season, you won't regret it. You could spend days and days driving or riding in the Gifu mountains and not see it all. But one of the joys of fall in Japan is that no two seasons are the same. So next year you can do it all again.

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