**EDIT: The Oirase Gorge area will be closed to private cars/transport this weekend Oct 28~29 between 9am-3pm, due to peak season traffic congestion. Details and alternative transport options here: http://www.eco-oirase.com/en/detail) **
If there is one place in Tohoku to visit in Autumn, this is it. Oirase Gorge in Towada, Aomori Prefecture is a divine 14km stretch of the clearest fresh water cascading down rocks, waterfalls and rapids, surrounded by a lush forest.
Whilst beautiful to visit at any time of year, if you take a walk along the trail anytime from late October ~ early November you will without a doubt be treated to some of the most picturesque natural scenery you have ever seen. The richly varied foliage transforms into a multi-coloured palette of deep reds, oranges, bright yellows and gold. We visited just before peak in mid-October, and the views were still breathtakingly gorge-ous.
The mountain stream flows from one of Japan’s biggest lakes, Lake Towada. The walking trail itself runs between ‘Ne-no-kuchi’ （子ノ口）, the mouth of the stream, to ‘Ishigedo’ which is not far from the main information centre (奥入瀬渓流館） in Yakeyama hot spring town.
We first visited the centre to ask for advice, as we only had just under four hours to spend in the area and wanted to make the most of the time we had. We were informed that the lower half of the mountain stream (between Ishigedo and Kumoi-no-taki falls) was known for its picturesque rapids and streams, whereas the upper half (between Kumoi-no-taki falls and Ne-no-kuchi/Lake Towada) was the highlight, featuring many beautiful waterfalls. As we were traveling by car (using a super-great value system called the Tohoku Expressway Pass), we decided to first drive the length of the stream back to the mouth, Ne-no-kuchi, walk downstream to Kumoi-no-taki (approx. 2 ~ 2.5 hour walk), and then take one of the frequent JR buses back to where we had parked (buses run 1 to 2 times an hour, with extra buses provided in peak periods) . I was really impressed by the transport options and information available which made it very easy to calculate time for a smooth return journey. There were also rental bikes available!
(Hint: starting your walk from Nenokuchi means you will be following the trail downstream/downhill, making it a slightly easier walk. Neither direction, though, is strenuous as there is only a subtle incline.)
The trees around Lake Towada had already begun to change and looked stunning as the sun poked through the clouds, illuminating their fiery beauty.
The first major stop on the trail was ‘Choshi-Otaki’ falls and it was certainly a dramatic start! A single but powerful torrent of water spewed over a small cliff, flowing into the winding stream below. This is one of the more famous views you can find on the trail. It took us about 25 mins to arrive at Choshi Otaki from our starting point.
Continuing on, we greeted fellow walkers taking the trail in the opposite direction, and took in the early Autumn scenery before us. Time passed faster with every stop as we desperately tried (and mostly failed) to capture some the beauty with our cameras, and before we knew it, we had arrived at our second goal; ‘Kudan-taki’, which means ‘nine steps’ falls.
Whilst the trail itself, in parts, follows beside a fairly busy road (particularly in Autumn, the road can become congested with tourist traffic), for the most part it was easy to forget the outside world and be lost in the raw nature around us. Already incredibly beautiful, it was fun to spot small patches of reds in the higher maple trees; hints that peak Autumn colour was only a week or so away…if only fate would bring us back again!!
In just a week or so, this beautiful waterfall called ‘Shiraito-taki’ (white thread) will be framed by brilliant red momiji maple trees…!
The last point on our walk (6.3km from the start of the trail) was perhaps my favourite; Kumoi-taki, a towering three-tiered waterfall which seemed to morph its shape with every step as we walked closer.
It was an absolutely stunning walk! I only wish we’d had more time to explore the lower half of the stream as well. I guess it’s always a good idea to leave something for next year, though I doubt anyone could ever get sick of this scenery, no matter how many times visited.
It is recommended to give yourself about 5 hours to walk the entire trail, depending on how frequently you would like to stop for breaks/photography! It is also worth keeping in mind that the trail can become very crowded in late October ~ early November as everybody in Tohoku wants a piece of this paradise.
By car: The Oriase information Centre (奥入瀬渓流館）in Yakeyama is located about 1 hour and 20 mins from either Aomori City or Hachinohe City. There is parking available at the centre, or at ‘Nenokuchi’, at the beginning of the trail.
By JR bus: this option is highly recommended for visiting tourists. Fairly regular buses run from JR Hachinohe Station, or JR Aomori station. Fares are covered by the JR Pass! You don’t need to make a reservation, simply turn up at the bus stop and line up on the day. The buses drive through the Oirase Stream area, stopping at some of the major scenic points/waterfalls. As such, you can plan your trip to hop on and off these buses if you don’t want to/don’t have the time to walk the entire length of the trail. Timetables can be accessed here.
***PLEASE NOTE: buses are suspended between November 13 and April 20 due to heavy snow***
Oirase Information Centre (奥入瀬渓流館). Parking available!
Opening hours: 09:00am ~ 16:30pm
Nenokuchi Station (子ノ口駅）(Parking area/ start of trail from Lake Towada). We parked our car and started walking from here!