We were overjoyed to see colourful “Koyo” autumn leaves in the Japanese town of Nikko during the first few days of November, as predicted by the JR East Autumn sightseeing guide.
According to the experts at JR East:
“Koyo 紅葉 refers to the phenomenon of changing autumn colors, mainly when it occurs to the leaves of deciduous broad-leaf trees before the leaves fall to the ground”.
“The species of maple generally determines the color the leaves will change: red, yellow or brown. Although the word koyo literally means “red leaves,” it is used to refer to all the colors of autumn leaves. The word oyo refers to yellow leaves, and the word katsuyo refers to brown leaves specifically”.
“The koyo season in Japan typically begins in mid-September in Hokkaido to the north, gradually spreading to the southern end of the Japanese archipelago in about 50 days. The change occurs when the low temperature at dawn is about 6 degrees or 7 degrees Celsius, and the viewing season lasts for 20 to 25 days. The exact timing to see the leaves fluctuates somewhat from year to year”.
Getting to Nikko by Train
If you don’t have a JR pass then it’s also possible to catch Tobu Railway trains to Nikko. Japan guide has a good comparison of the different JR and Tobu options for trains to Nikko in terms of cost and time.
We traveled to Nikko using our JR Passes. The first part of journey was from Tokyo Station to Utsunomiya on a modern Yamabiko type train capable of speeds up to 240km/hr, travelling on the Tohoku Shinkansen line.
At Utsunomiya we changed to much older local train on the Nikko line. We sat in the front carriage from where we could see the train driver meticulously going through his strictly timed series of tasks during the journey.
Where to Stay & What to do in Nikko
Japan Guide has a great page about Nikko activities and attractions.
We decided to stay at the Nikko Station Hotel Classic, which was conveniently located across the road from JR Nikko station. The hotel website was mostly in Japanese so we paid for our Double room via their listing on Booking.com.
After checking in we refilled our water bottles at the free spring water outlet outside Nikko station, then enjoyed the Koyo leaves display while meandering towards the World Heritage shrines.
The Toshogu Shrine is Nikko’s main attraction, located about 20 minutes walk from the Nikko Station Hotel Classic. The shrine is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868.
Afterwards while walking back to our hotel we discovered a little local stall where a friendly lady was selling delicious “Yoba Manju”, a Nikko speciality fried pastry containing red adzuki bean paste.
Be aware that many restaurants and cafes in Nikko close really early by late afternoon and you can only eat dinner at the Nikko Station Hotel Classic if you check-in before 6pm.
We eventually found some young Japanese people who spoke English. They kindly guided us to a restaurant operated by a group of old ladies. The helpful youngsters asked the old ladies to serve us vegetarian food so we enjoyed Buckwheat Soba Noodles with vegetables and mushrooms for dinner.
In the morning we enjoyed breakfast at the Nikko Station Hotel Classic. You have the choice of choosing from a buffet of Western and Japanese style foods for breakfast and the option of an omelette made on the spot which suited us just fine.
Example Japan By Train Itinerary
We decided upon this itinerary (fly in to Narita (NRT) Airport > Tokyo > Nikko > Matsumoto > Koyasan > Hiroshima > Miyajima Island > Kyoto > fly out from Kansai Airport (KIX)) because we thought we could return to Japan again in the future and use Tokyo as a base to do day trips to places like Kamakura and visit attractions like the Ghibli Museum and the Meiji shrine.
Key Japan Tips
We knew that vegetarians are rare in Japan and we can’t read Japanese so we bought the mobile app for Happy Cow Vegan/Vegetarian places to eat so it wouldn’t be as hard to find food for our meals.
If you are going to catch a lot of JR trains during your holiday in Japan we recommend considering purchasing a JR pass, which has to be bought before you leave your home country.
We strongly suggest using the super useful Japan Hyperdia website to look at train schedules and the cost of different tickets. It will save you a lot of time and tell you exactly which trains you can catch between 2 stations, with different options balancing speed/number of train changes/journey time.
We highly recommend having mobile data on your phone so you can use it for map directions and finding places to eat.
View my Japan Photo Gallery
Japan Travel FAQ
There is a great Japan travel tips FAQ page on Whirlpool forums, well worth visiting for advice.