Naruko, a small town in the rural north of Miyagi, bordering Yamagata, seems unremarkable for much of the year.
It is known mostly for Kokeshi (painted wooden dolls traditional to this region) and an abundance of high quality onsen resulting from a local volcano thankfully quiet for more than a thousand years. Even the local train station features free foot baths outside, a novelty place to eat lunch or soothe tired feet.
Filled with hotels to cater to those seeking to escape the stresses of everyday life in a bath, there’s no shortage of places to soak yourself for a weekend or an hour.
Yet once a year, the region fills with seasonal tourists chasing koyo – autumnal leaf viewing beloved to the Japanese. Through mid October to early November, the region is awash with a vivid mix of yellows, greens, oranges and dark, burned reds.
The local hotspot beloved by Japanese and foreign tourists alike is Naruko gorge, a hundred feet deep and surrounded by deciduous trees at their absolute best in Autumn. It is best reached from Naruko Onsen station, a little more than an hour on foot. A bus is available from the station, but given that both bus and roads will be full to capacity in Autumn, you may find it more pleasant to walk (and not much slower).
My favoured walking route begins with the Kokeshi Museum (at which point the scenery becomes noticeably more dramatic) and along a footpath following a similar route to the road, gently curving around the lip of the gorge. A more scenic route remains sadly barred following ill weather and the great 2011 earthquake.
The signature view of the walk, as framed in numerous posters, postcards and similar tourist bait, is from the far end of the gorge, looking back through a sea of beautifully coloured trees to the tall Ofukazawa bridge. From here, the path descends to the foot of the rocky cliffs for a time, finishing with a gentle ascent.
Naruko Gorge makes for a pleasant day out, though it lacks the breathtaking scale of Okunikko or Fujigoko to the south. Those of you interested in taking the trip won’t be disappointed, especially given the many affordable and high quality onsen open to the public until at least 10pm – an excellent conclusion to a walk of any length.