I love autumn. I blame it on growing up in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, whose oaks and maples had a penchant for cloaking themselves in fabulous colors every October. When I was younger, I couldn’t imagine a moer picturesque place to enjoy the fall.
And then I moved to Japan.
Autumn here is spectacular – it’s like the maples are ramped up on steroids and the ginkos are vying for a new color name in the Crayola box. I’m still scoping out my favorite spots here on Kyushu for leaf peeping but one of my all-time favorites (aside from Kamikochi) is the Togakushi region just north of Nagano.
The back roads of Nagano must be stunning to explore by rental car but the best part of Togakushi is its accessibility by public transport. Buses run from near the Nagano train station to the forested region; there are several stops but I recommend disembarking at the Okusha stop. Across the street, you can start your adventure at the Togakushi Ninja Village, a cross between an old-style farm museum and a ninja fun house and activity center. The museum buildings showcase implements once used in the local harvests, though English explanations are somewhat lacking. The Ninja House – NOT for the claustrophobic – is a fun house of darkened mazes and rooms with no seeming exits. The outdoor ninja yard is more fun than you might think.
Back by the bus stop, a long path lined with cryptomeria trees leads slowly up into the hills to the Okusha, the northernmost section of the Togakushi shrine. The shrine building isn’t terribly exciting but its location is prime, tucked away against the hills. This alone is a worthwhile walk, but if you’re keen to stretch your legs a bit, follow the path south along the Togakushi Forest Reserve. You might catch sight of some of the reserve’s 120 bird species or you can just enjoy the fall colors.
Eventually, if you follow the trail for another hour or so (it does climb a bit in one or two spots but the views are worth it), you end up in the village of Chusha. The main part of the Togakushi Shrine is here; you can’t miss the massive torii gate right next to the bus stop. There’s also a wonderful handcut soba restaurant here, on the corner opposite the bus stop. Nagano is known for its buckwheat and on weekends, the line outside this little local eatery stretches through the village.
You could comfortably spend a day in Togakushi, leaving after your breakfast in Nagano and heading back to the city for dinner. Buses run from Nagano once an hour to Togakushi Kogen (Togakushi Highland); the fare is a ¥1160 one way. This website has some more information on what to see and do.