紅葉 – Kouyou

A wildfire of scarlet leaves has spread across Touhoku and the three day weekend offered the perfect opportunity to chase them across the beautiful, scenic landscape. We stayed at free campsites and accessible road stop stations along the way, paying only for toll roads, gas, onsen, and food. Total it cost about $200-300 between the two of us (approximately $150-200 per person for all three days). It’s a cheap and back roads method of travel for the more adventurous, although hotels and hostels are easy to find at each prefecture.

Towada-Hachimantai National Park is the remains of a shield volcano (the kind that forms over millennia of oozing lava) and has many lovely look out posts as you drive up and around it. It borders Aomori and Iwate, making it the perfect bridge between the two prefectures. For the shortest and easiest climb, drive the car to the last rest stop on the mountain and take a lovely hour and a half hike through trees and marshlands. The peak is dotted with curiously named marshes (Megane-numa, for example, is a duet of two very round ponds that supposedly look like glasses when viewed from above). The paths are paved for the most part, rendering proper hiking shoes with grips unnecessary.

You’re going to meet entire families or groups of friends/tourists hiking with you or passing you on their way down. Best thing to do is offer a friendly ‘Hello’ or if you can muster up the courage to do it in Japanese it will make them even happier. Advanced speakers can even through in a good old ‘Otsukare-sama desu’ for good measure; watch their eyes light up and laughter slip from their lips. Most of the time they’re going to want to strike up some conversation, to practice their English, and to ask where you’re from. It can take a couple minutes from your hike but worth the cultural exchange.

Our next stop took us to Mt. Kurikoma, a stratovolcano located between Akita and Yamagata. In its history, the volcano erupted twice, violently leaving two caldera scars as parting gifts for the amateur geologist to marvel over. The climb up and down lasts about three hours, if you have a set of good working knees, and features a gorgeous variety of volcanic activity : sulfur lakes and streams (harnessed by mankind for the popular mineral onsen), steaming fumaroles, fertile flat lands, and basalt deposits. Pro tip: pack Hokkairou (heat patches), check weather reports in advance, and don’t start your hike after 1pm if you have bad knees. We eventually made it out of the mountain with our quick wits and a cell phone flashlight but there were more than a couple times that we thought it would be a close call as the battery levels dropped ever lower and the storm grew from sprinkle to pelting rain to wind lashes and rain combined.

As you can see from the pictures below, there are very few truly bright red/orange trees left. There was a terribly strong wind in the days leading up to our departure. By the time we arrived we were only able to enjoy the remnants of what I’m sure had been a gloriously vibrant kouyou experience only days before. Still, even the burnished gold leaves made for a captivating climb. Also, the photos below were taken with an iPhone camera and no filters. I probably didn’t do the colors justice, but I tried my best!

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