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Naruko Gorge: Peak Colors

A JR Rikuu East Line train crosses the Naruko Gorge

This year's autumn color season is now into its second half as western Japan is beginning to see its trees changing color. Kyoto, one of Japan's best autumn color spots, is also just starting to change, as Sam reported last week.

Meanwhile, while the season has wrapped up in northeastern Japan's higher elevations, lower elevation areas in the Tohoku and Kanto regions are now seeing some of their best fall colors.

Today I headed to the lovely Naruko Onsen in Miyagi Prefecture, just a 2-hour local train ride west of Sendai, to visit one of the Tohoku Region's most popular leaf-watching spots. The remote hot spring town of Naruko Onsen is home to a deep gorge which is enveloped in color-changing trees that usually hit their peak color in early November.

I caught an early train this morning to check out the leaves there for myself. And I'm happy to report that the colors there were at their peak today.

Approaching the Ofukazawa Bridge from Naruko Onsen
Welcome to Naruko Gorge

After arriving at JR Naruko Onsen Station, I decided to catch a bus to the gorge area itself. The Naruko Gorge is situated between two stations: Naruko Onsen and Nakayamadaira Onsen. While walking from either station is doable, cutting the 45-minute roadside walk from Naruko Onsen down to a 10-minute bus ride is a nice convenience. Buses run between the two stations and the gorge only during the autumn color season (from early October to mid November), and cost around 230-340 yen one way.

After arriving, I was greeted by some spectacular fall foliage. The area had clearly reached its peak recently and should retain some nice colors through the rest of this week.

The Ofukazawa Bridge surrounded by some glorious peak autumn colors
Lots of leaf-watchers out here today
View of the Naruko Gorge from the Ofukazawa Bridge
Looking down
Heading down into the gorge
Don't go chasing waterfalls
The end of the short trail that leads down into the gorge from the Narukokyo Resthouse
The colors have definitely hit their peak, and will likely stay colorful through this week
Dango chasing waterfalls
Just because

After exploring the main gorge area, I decided to make the walk back to Naruko Onsen. There were a handful of nice vantage points of the gorge along the way, in particular one just beyond the Ofukazawa Bridge.

In the past, instead of the roadside sidewalks I used today, a hiking trail along the gorge floor used to connect the Narukokyo Resthouse to the Naruko Onsen town area. After years of rockslides, unfortunately, the trail has been closed indefinitely, leaving accessible only a small portion just next to the resthouse.

However, on my way back I found that the opposite end of the former trail has just had the very small portion immediately next to the trailhead reopened this year. While this reopened segment (no more than 300 meters long) doesn't offer much to see at the moment, fingers are crossed it's a possible sign of further openings to come.

Tohoku autumn colors at their finest
Another look into the gorge (the foot bridge is part of the now-closed hiking trail that used to run the length of the bottom of the gorge)
The tiny portion of the closed gorge hiking trail that has been reopened this year (up to the green barriers in the distance)

Back in town, I explored a bit around the rustic old streets of Naruko Onsen. The small hot spring town is famous not only for its high-quality onsen water and bathouses, but also as a craft center for kokeshi dolls: traditional hand-crafted wooden doll native to the Tohoku Region, often painted with a child's face in simple colors.

I was lucky enough today to encounter a craftsman in his workshop as he was working. The dolls are clearly a source of pride, and you can see (and buy) them all around town.

Walking through Naruko's nostalgic streets
Fun fact: kaki (Japanese persimmons) in French is kaki
A kokeshi doll shop
A kokeshi craftsman at work
Naruko's pride
A good place to make good memories

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