Top 6 Autumn Places to Photograph in Tohoku, Japan

Updated: Jan 11


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.





Suggested Photo Kit


- Telephoto lens to capture other boats in the gorge

- Wide-angle lens for images of your own boat within the gorge


Optional

- Polariser to make the autumn colours pop

- Tripod for when you get off the boat




4. Mount Hachimantai

Akita Prefecture




Mountt Hachimantai is a flat-topped mountain sitting at 1613m above sea level. It is the 3rd highest mountain in the area and offers some stunning views across the region. This stop wasn't originally on our itinerary and was a late inclusion due to its mass autumn colour change.







Our driver, who lives in the nearby city of Morioka, mentioned that there was a possibility of cloud inversion further up the mountain. Our excitement was high, and he ensured us that there was a great viewing location to witness the spectacle.





The mountain is accessible by bus or car along the Hachimantai Asupite Line Road. The higher section of the road is closed outside of November through to late April due to snow. The drive itself is quite picturesque and oh so fun. There are plenty of great switchbacks and S bends to take photos of.




Mount Hachimantai is best explored by private vehicle, that way you can pull over and really admire the incredible views over the surrounding areas and Mount Iwate.


The volcanic landscape features some of Japan's most rustic hot springs where people from around the world travel for their claimed health benefits.





If you look carefully, you'll see giant plumes of steam rising from large vents in the countryside.

Did you know that the Tamagawa Onsen found in Hachimantai, features Japan's most acidic hot spring at pH1?



Suggested Photo Kit

- Telephoto lens to compress the nearby mountains and trees

- Wide-angle lens for vista and panorama images


Optional

- Polariser to make the autumn colours pop

- Tripod for timelapse



Extra




For a super fun food fest, head back into Morioka City to AZUMAYA Honten for a Wanko Soba experience you'll never forget. Basically, you sit around a table with a selection of small condiments and a bowl. Your table has it's own waitress who stands behind you with a giant stack of small bowls containing mouthful sized amounts of soba noodles inside. Every time you finish a cup, she replaces it instantly with another.





This continues until your stack of bowls reaches mountainous levels. I managed to consume 64 (average for males) while Julian smashed out 102! You then get a small certificate and wooden plaque (100 bowls and/or for tourists) to commemorate your achievement.









5. Ryusendo Caves

Iwate Prefecture




One of the major attractions in Iwate Prefecture is the Ryusendo Cave system located 2km outside the town centre of Iwaizumi Town.


The giant limestone caves extend nearly 5000m into the mountainside with almost 700m of the caves open to the public. Of the four lakes inside the caves, three are open to the public and measure 35, 38 and 98m respectively.





Large volumes of clear, blue water can be seen inside the caves along with fast-moving water originating from deep inside the Earth. The majority of which is lit via underwater lighting that adds to its visual grandeur.





The narrow winding staircases and low-lying ceilings are not for the fainthearted but are easily navigated via the one-way route around the area. Although, I was too busy focusing on taking good photos that I forgot which way I had come and ended up backtracking a few flights of steep stairs.




A real treat for photographers lays at the entrance to the cave. Here you will find some incredibly picturesque scenery with the Shimizu River cutting its way down the valley. A short pathway runs parallel to the stream and leads to a beautiful red bridge looking back towards the cave entrance.






Across the road from the caves, you will find a large restaurant that features this crazy wall of tubes which spit out soba noodles for you to eat. We didn't try it, but it sure looks fun.





Suggested Photo Kit


- Wide to ultra-wide-angle lens for grand cave images

- Tripod for long exposures (It's dark)


Optional

- Medium length telephoto for compressed images inside the narrow hallways.




6. Jodogohama Beach

Iwate Prefecture




No trip to Tohoku would be complete without visiting the incredible Sanriku Coastline. Here you will find Jodogohama Beach (Pure Land Beach) which is listed in the top 100 beaches in Japan.

It's technically not a great Autumn location but well worth your visit along the way.


The incredible rock formations around the beach designate a calm and protected swimming spot that's popular during the warmer months. Many locals and visitors come here for some R & R by the water, but during our afternoon there, the area was reasonably quiet.





Park at the visitor's centre so you can wander the small museum before heading onto one of the many short walking trails in the area. We decided to take the coastline track towards Jodogohama beach.




This pathway leads past a couple of quiet bays where you can take a small boat to the 'Blue Cave' situated a few minutes' from the dock. You can also opt for the larger ferry ride that makes a giant return trip north along the spectacular coastline and back. It's best to call ahead and make sure there are spots on the boats.




As we had very little time in the area, we decided to spend our time photographing the fantastic rock formations.




Our time in Tohoku was short, and I would consider it a small taste of what the region has to offer. Every few km's we drove, I noted an amazing viewpoint to photograph. I would highly recommend anyone wishing to visit the area to drive and take their time to really immerse yourself into each location.


Here is a selection of images I took that were along our route and didn't necessarily fit under any of these headings. I love Japan, there is just so much to photograph, both in nature and street culture.









Did I mention that we saw only 3 western tourists the entire trip? And that was at a hotel. This region really is a hidden gem that offers more than meets the eye and I truly hope this blog inspires you to get out and explore Tohoku yourself.


Matt.


Tech List


1 x Olympus EM1X

1 x Olympus EM1MK2

1 x M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 Pro I.S.

1 x M.Zuiko 7-14mm F2.8 Pro

1 x M.Zuiko 40-150mm F2.8 Pro

1 x M.Zuiko MC-20 2x Teleconverter

1 x DJI Mavic 2 Pro + Nisi Filters

1 x Sirui A-1205 + Y-11 Ballhead

1 x Shimoda Explore 40 Bag

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Sydney, Australia, 2077

+61 422 408 411

etchdphotography@outlook.com

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