One thing that has blown me away about the past year in Japan is the concept of seasons. Coming from Los Angeles, seasons are still a pretty new concept to me. LA really only has hot, cool, and on fire. Moving to San Francisco really didn’t change that much, except I traded dry for damp and hot for mild. Still not four seasons. Turkey was cold and dry when I arrived, had a spring that lasted about a minute, and then came the endless hot, humid summer.
After one year in Japan, I can finally say I’ve experienced all four seasons in one location! Each has their own beauty and charms, but I must say autumn was particularly lovely. Just as cherry blossom viewings are popular in spring, a traditional autumn activity is to go and view the vibrant colored leaves. I fortunately went on two such excursions this past November, with a drive on the Hakusan-Shirakawago White Road and a visit to Natadera temple in Komatsu.
As I’ve said before, renting a car as a tourist in Japan is pretty easy. so a group of us rented a car for a day trip up to Hakusan, one of the “famous three” mountains in Japan that also includes Mt. Fuji and Tateyama. Between Hakusan and Shirakawa-go village runs the “White Road”, a scenic toll road known for having beautiful leaves in the autumn. The White Road is a simple drive along a beautiful mountain road, with many turnouts and parking lots for scenic overlooks and forest hikes. Unfortunately for us, it was a holiday, so everyone and their mother had had the same idea for a day trip, which led to some major congestion along the road. But we did manage a spectacular forest hike down to a valley to see one of the most stunning waterfalls of my life!
As with many of the mountain areas of Japan, this one had some thermal activity going on. Next to the waterfall was a foot bath where weary hikers could soak their feet, and next to the foot bath was an open-air onsen . . . with a lot of very naked men relaxing in it. Now, the concept of bathing with strangers in Japan is nothing new, but the Japanese are a very outwardly shy and conservative culture, so I was quite surprised and delighted at this. I’m not sure if the onsen was coed (which is legal but very, very rare) but that day it was packed with old men!
We made a few more stops at some scenic points, then continued through the road with the intention of going to Shirakawa-go, but somehow I missed the exit and we ended up in Gokayama, a small historic village with traditional gassho-style farmhouses that is a UNESCO world heritage site. A word to the wise: if you drive on the White Road all the way to the Shirakawa-go exit it gets very steep and windy. I’ve had my share of mountain road drives and usually I love them, but I was terrified at one section where the drop-off was particularly steep (a fact I shared with my passengers after we were down the other side!) In Gokayama, we had some hearty forest soba noodles and wandered around the houses and farmlands in the dusk, and relaxed in a public bathhouse with a gorgeous outdoor bath before heading back to Kanazawa and returning the car.
It was a gorgeous day, a nice escape into nature, and I love the film photos I took that day. I was experimenting with a different film stock, Fuji Venus 800, and the result is pretty dreamy. It was a really long day though, with lots of driving, so I was pretty exhausted by the end of it. I highly recommend this scenic drive as a day trip in the autumn – just don’t go on a holiday like we did!