Soaking in Japan's autumn colours

Tsurunoyu Onsen in Japan.

When I planned my trip to Japan last month to enjoy its autumn colours, I did not bargain on landing in Tokyo just as Typhoon Vongfong - this year's worst tropical storm - was about to hit the country.

Perhaps it was just as well that the typhoon struck Japan. During its brief one-night sojourn, it emptied the heavens of so much rain that I got to enjoy brilliant sunshine and deep blue cloudless skies for most of the rest of my trip.

This was a bonus, for I could enjoy mountain tops that turned a fiery red under the setting sun and forests that were bathed in a soft golden glow as the yellowish-red leaves on trees shimmered in the autumn sunshine.

Travelling in Japan has always been enjoyable but expensive, but this time, the financial pain was mitigated by the 32 per cent drop in the value of the Japanese yen against the Singapore dollar since my last trip three years ago.

During our two-week stay on this trip, a group of us visited Kurobe Dam, the highest dam in Japan, located west of Tokyo. We then travelled to the wild and rustic Tohoku region in the north before ending the trip with a visit to Nikko, a Unesco World Heritage site that is surrounded by a huge forest.

Most places can be reached by train and the numerous buses that fan out from train stations. Most of the station masters speak a little English.

My favourite spot is the Tohoku region, which is at its most captivating in autumn. As I arrived in Tazawako - a small town that was my favourite staging point, and which was a 2½-hour ride on the Japanese bullet train or shinkansen - there was at first little hint that autumn was here.

Lush green foliage covered the hills surrounding Tazawako and I kept my fingers crossed that I would get to see autumn colours as I boarded the shuttle bus with friends for the one-hour journey to Nyuto Onsen - a collection of onsen ryokan (Japanese inns) in the mountains.

But as the bus wound its way up the mountain slope, the scenery soon changed, giving way to spectacular sights of mountains covered with flaming red trees.

When we reached our inn - the Ganiba Onsen - where we would stay for the night, the transformation was complete. Autumn was at its peak, with a vast forest featuring trees of different hues of red, orange and yellow stretching as far as the eye could see.

The region was dotted with ryokans, where wonderful outdoor hot-spring bath-houses, or onsen, occupied a central place in each establishment. An overnight stay would include a marvellous breakfast and dinner whipped up by the inn's proprietor.

The high point of our trip was a three-hour trek from the Ganiba Onsen to another spa - Tsurunoyu Onsen - which formed the backdrop to some scenes in Iris, the hit Korean TV drama aired two years ago.

Tsurunoyu is described as a "secret spa" because it is located about 3km from the road. Visitors have to make prior arrangements to be picked up if they do not drive there. But its remoteness only made us more determined to find it.

Walking in the forest with a light drizzle overhead was an enchanting experience, as we encountered fast-flowing streams and large swathes of wetlands where dried-up marshes had turned a reddish orange.

The inn itself was in a fairyland-like setting. We took a brief dip in the milky smooth waters of its large open-air bath and enjoyed the intense autumn colours of the hills hovering over us before heading back to Ganiba.

However, Ganiba - where we stayed for a night - was not to be outshone. Its bathhouse was surrounded by tall, ancient trees whose colours danced in the twilight as we took a bath there in the evening.

The inn also served an incredible dinner which included steamed Hokkaido crab, sashimi and a baked trout wrapped in leaf.

But my objective in visiting Japan this time had been kindled by a desire to find out how Kurobe Dam looked like in its autumnal glory.

To get there, we first took a three-hour train ride from Tokyo to Toyama, a coastal city along the Sea of Japan. From there, we bought tickets, costing 9,390 yen (S$104) each, to traverse the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine route.

That, in itself, was a novelty as we used different modes of transport, which included buses, cable cars, funiculars and tunnel trolley buses, a journey that took us 2,450m up to Murodo before we descended into the valley where Kurobe Dam - the highest dam to be built in Japan - nestled.

The emerald water of the lake, formed by the dam and its surrounding yellowing beech forests, reminded me of scenes from The Lord Of The Ring movies.

The highlight was the majestic sight of tonnes of water unleashed by the dam, with the water droplets forming a rainbow as they splashed into the lake below.

For any traveller, visiting just Nyuto and Kurobe Dam at the height of autumn would be a high point. But near the end of our holiday, we also made a trip to Nikko, two hours away by train from Tokyo.

We were rewarded by the spectacle of the Kegon waterfall which projected an almost zen-like beauty, as we listened to the sound of its water plunging into the ravine in the valley below, and enjoyed some of the most incredible autumn colours among the surrounding trees.

Now, amid the hustle and bustle that is Singapore, I sometimes replay my video of the waterfall. The scene, still etched deep in my memory, has an instant soothing effect.

This article was first published on Nov 23, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.