By the end of the year, snow will be on the ground and fine sheets of ice will cover the lakes in this scenic part of northeastern Japan. But in late October, autumn foliage lent a splash of vibrant color to the landscape.
We had come to Urabandai in Fukushima Prefecture specifically to enjoy the autumn colors. We were not disappointed. At first I wondered if we had come too early, but as the hotel shuttle bus that came to pick us up at the station wound deeper into the hills, we caught glimpses of russet, gold and scarlet.
Urabandai Kogen Hotel, roughly three hours from Tokyo, is located in Bandai Asahi National Park. A well-tended lawn at the back of the two-story hotel extended to the shores of a lake where the still waters reflected the autumn colors of the trees. Soon after we arrived, I took a walk on the green carpet studded here and there with a motley collection of leaves of different shapes and colors. The sun warmed my back. It was tranquil. It was what I had come for.
We had booked two guided treks to take us through the nearby woods, one in the afternoon on the day we arrived and the second early the next morning. In retrospect, I think we could have taken the walk by ourselves, as the paths were clearly marked and it seemed highly unlikely we would get lost or run into any danger. Local people have seen bears in the woods, as our guide had, but he said the bears generally avoided humans. Overall, though, it was nice to have a guide to provide information about the plants, trees and the history of the area.
Urabandai, located about 800 meters above sea level, was formed when Mt. Bandai — which remains an active volcano — erupted in 1888. Goshikinuma, one of the natural attractions in the area, encompasses five bodies of water that were created in the wake of an earlier volcanic eruption.
On the first day we walked to Nagase-numa, an area thick with Japanese beech, tall trees that can grow to 30 meters. The leaves had turned to a brilliant russet color, while the ubiquitous maple trees blazed with yellow and red.
The walk is an easy trek and can be done wearing a pair of sneakers, as the path is mostly flat.
The autumn colors were more striking when we went to Goshikinuma – literally translated as “five-colored marshes” — on the morning of our second day. The marshes, which were more like lakes, were formed when Mt. Bandai spewed earth and rubble, blocking rivers in the area and creating ponds and lakes. The waters are known for their distinctive colors, cobalt blue and emerald green, due to the minerals such as aluminum mixed in the sludge at the bottom of the lakes. Other lakes have a reddish tint from the iron oxide. The color tones can change with the time of day and seasons. .
The sky was unfortunately slightly overcast on the second day, but that didn’t detract from our enjoyment of the walk.
For months in the winter, the area is buried under snow and the lakes become virtually inaccessible without wearing a pair of snowshoes. Local old-timers say, however, that they used to see a lot more snow. In fact, the snowfall was so deep that one could step over the cables of a telephone pole. But that was many decades ago.
In the winter, the terrain changes dramatically. Perhaps it is the white of the snow, but the water’s blue color seems even more distinctive and mysterious amid winter frost.
Urabandai Kogen Hotel, with its red-brick façade, has the ambience of a western hotel. It offers both traditional Japanese and western style meals in the dining room, where the dress code is casual — except that you cannot wear the Japanese “yukata” provided by the hotel or go in your room slippers. One of the hotel’s best features is the outdoor spa, which offers an expansive view of the lake and distant mountains. The hotel offers guided tours throughout the year, including winter walks wearing snowshoes.
Urabandai’s charms are not just confined to winter. It is also a great place to escape from urban summer heat, as it can be as cool as the well-known summer resort of Karuizawa, but without the tourist crowd. The autumn foliage can typically be seen for about a month from mid-October.
Urabandai Kogen Hotel – Take the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Koriyama, where you change to a local train. Get off at Inawashiro where the hotel shuttle can pick you up. The train ride itself is a little over 2 hours.
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Rates start from around 24,000 yen per person including dinner and breakfast (two people staying in one room) depending on the type of room and season.