Top 6 Autumn Places to Photograph in Tohoku, Japan

Updated: Jan 11, 2020


Mention to someone that you are planning a visit to Tohoku and chances are you'll be met with the response "where's that?" The more popular and 'Instagrammable' places like Tokyo and Kyoto are usually the first preference for new visitors.


But I'm here to show you why the northeast region of Tohoku holds its own and is equally as stunning and rich in culture but with far fewer crowds.


*Note: This trip and blog article was paid for by the Japanese National Tourism Organisation Australia. My photographic brief was to create a blog post about my experiences in the region with no bias towards any particular location or activity.




 


WHERE IS TOHOKU?


When I was invited to join this Tohoku trip, I asked myself the same question. I whipped out the map and found that the Tohoku Region (Tohoku Chiho, meaning "North East Region") is made up of six different prefectures on the northern island of Honshu.


Aomori Prefecture

Akita Prefecture

Iwate Prefecture

Yamagata Prefecture

Miyagi Prefecture

Fukushima Prefecture



GETTING THERE


Plane: There are roughly 8 main airports that connect the major cities to domestic routes from Tokyo. We flew into Sendai in the Miyagi Prefecture from Haneda Airport.


Train: It's no secret that Japan's railway system is world-class. Everything runs like clockwork, train lines reach far and wide, and of course, they're damn fast. The Shinkansen lines run directly from Tokyo and pass through Fukushima, Sendai, Yamagata, Morioka, Akita and Aomori on their way to Hokkaido. Other major railway lines branch out further still.

You can check their details and purchase tickets here. (The recent Typhoon Oct 19 has affected some train lines servicing Tohoku. CHECK UPDATES when planning your journey)


Car: The obvious choice of any photographer who wants the ultimate freedom to stop and capture images along their journey. Car hire can be secured upon your arrival in Tokyo, or you can elect to book a personal driver for the trip. While I didn't personally drive during our time here, I can safely say that driving around Tohoku seems quite civil and easy to do. For those less confident, perhaps catch the train to the region first, then hire your vehicle to avoid the chaos of Tokyo.



BEST TIME TO VISIT

Our visit was clearly during the Autumn Season and was a must-see time of the year for us. We'd heard the colours here were some of the best in Japan and that the gorges and mountain regions were stunning. Climate change has meant that the changing of colours has come later in the season this year.


TIP: You can actually check the state of Autumn Colours around Japan using this neat WEBSITE.


Winter is another popular time of the year to explore the area. Check out my friend Tim's BLOG who ventured there during a massive dump of snow.




 

TOP 6 PHOTOGRAPHY LOCATIONS



1. Akiu Falls

Miyagi Prefecture


Our first stop on our journey was the roaring Akiu Otaki Falls. The 55m falls by no means the tallest nor widest in Japan, but if you visit after a substantial rain period as we did, its power more than makes up for its size.


Located a short 20-minute drive from Akiu hot spring village, this waterfall is a must-see destination when visiting the Tohoku region.


Begin your walk from the top carpark and make your way down the short staircase to the upper falls viewing platform. When the falls are pumping, you will likely get wet, even up here.

You can then choose to follow the path that runs behind the small building at the viewing platform, which then leads down to the bridge. Here you will also gain another perspective of the falls.




Feeling more adventurous? Head down the path to the lower falls area, where you will get the best camera angles. Make sure you protect your camera and be careful on the wet rocks. You will also find a series of other small waterfalls at the base of the track and a beautiful view down the small gorge.









We arrived in mid-afternoon, and the light was still illuminating the falls. It would look amazing with some early morning or late afternoon colour, but I would check the direction of the sun when making this choice. Photopills is an excellent app for this.


Suggested Photo Kit


- Medium focal length lens to capture waterfall up close

- Ultra- wide-angle lens for river and waterfall combined

- Tripod + N.D. for long exposures

- Polariser to make the autumn colours pop and cut water glare

- Water protection for your camera and bag

- Lens cloths (a lot of them)


Optional

- Drone + polariser filters


 

2. Naruko Gorge

Miyagi Prefecture




No visit to Tohoku would be complete without a visit to Naruko Gorge. This scenic location is situated within the North-Western Prefecture of Miyagi, just down the road from Naruko Onsen.

This gorge is a significant highlight which attracts locals and tourists alike during Autumn as it bursts into colour during late October - mid-November. Access to the various viewing areas is also really good with several large carparks close to the Ofukazawa Bridge and lower walking tracks.





Photographers, it's worth timing your visit to the area when the train passes by the gorge. It's a blink, and you'll miss it scenario. You'll literally have 1-second to nail the shot so be prepared.


There are two excellent vantage points from the main bridge. There is also another viewpoint directly over the train, but it was overgrown at the time, and we couldn't see anything. There is a train timetable hanging here to use.


Tip: Use a focal length of 100-200mm (35mm Equiv) with burst mode and a shutter of around 1/1000 sec to freeze the train. A tripod is handy here, so you don't have to hold your camera in awkward positions. Careful as passing trucks make the bridge shake a lot.





There are many beautiful angles you can photograph when visiting Naruko Gorge, but my favourite would have to be from down below.





The short but steep path heading down below the main bridge presents visitors with breathtaking views of the river through lush vegetation as well as the beautiful man-made falls at the beginning of the trail. (Due to the 2008 earthquake, most of the trail is now closed)






To beat the crowds, why not complete the 45-minute Ofukazawa Walking Trail loop that runs west of the main road. Here you will find amazing colourful forest vegetation and several small waterfalls.





Suggested Photo Kit


- Telephoto lens to capture train from the bridge

- Wide-angle lens for images at the bottom of the gorge

- Portrait lens for nature-based portraits


Optional

- Polariser to make the autumn colours pop

- Tripod for long exposures of the waterfalls and river

- N.D. filters for long exposures



 

3. Geibikei Gorge

Iwate Prefecture




Geibikei is a towering 2km limestone gorge carved out by the Satetsu River.

Visitors can take the famous 90-minute round-trip boat ride down the river and witness some of Japans most idyllic scenery. (Due to the recent typhoon Oct 19, parts of the river cannot be visited, and we were not able to stop and get off the boat as per the typical experience)





The best thing about Geibikei is that no matter the season, you'll find incredible photo opportunities. During winter the gorge can be covered in a thick blanket of snow.





What makes a memorable travel experience is not just the pretty scenery but the unique and exciting people that call these places home.





Our peaceful boat ride through the Geibikei Gorge was shared with a variety of other visitors from around the world, all captained by one colourful man by the name of Ito Osamu.


While we didn't understand a word he was saying, the rest of the boat was in hysterics at his antics, and we couldn't help but be infected by the laughter.





Each captain gracefully guides the boats along the river and treats guests to a traditional song on the return home which echoes throughout the gorge. It really is the full sensory experience.