One of the many wonderful benefits of purchasing a JR East rail pass for the Tohoku area is that it allows you to get off the beaten travel track and discover some of this regions more rural hidden gems. One such town is Naruko Onsen, a charming town that offers relaxing spas, wonderful local crafts and great regional cuisine. Easily reachable in just one painless change of train, this pretty mountain spot is worth a stop over if you find yourself in the area.
Not only is it filled with beautiful views, but the hot spring town has a seriously impressive history, too. Legend has it that the hot springs appeared around 837 AD when Toyagamori, a nearby volcano, erupted. Today, there are over five hot spring areas and four hundred hot spring sources to explore, meaning that there is no way you will leave this town feeling anything but well soaked and thoroughly relaxed. Most hotels and ryokans in the town have their own on-premises spas, allowing you the option of happily retreating from the outside world whilst staying in your accommodation of choice.
Settling on just one place to stay, however, may be more of a challenge than you think! There are ample places to choose from, ranging from budget and basic, to high-end and totally luxurious. Don’t be surprised, however, if they fill up over the autumn and winter months. Naruko Onsen is already a firm favourite amongst people native to the Miyagi Prefecture due to its sensational seasonal changes. In October, the valley becomes a breath-taking vision of gold and reds as the leaves change colour, whilst winter transforms the area in to an icy wonderland. The best way to take in these incredible natural sights is by walking the many easy treks around and from the train station. There is a pleasant loop around the town that offers you some wonderful panoramic views of the sweeping valley, and is littered with pretty shrines, curio shops and public foot and hand spas. Not far away is the famous Naruko Gorge, which gains many visitors due to its striking steep drop that is adorned with gleaming trees. Having visited in the late summer, I can confirm that it is just as special a sight no matter what the season.
If you find yourself feeling peckish, you need not worry. Friendly little restaurants are to be found all over the town, and offer simple but wholesome country food. During my stay, I devoured a dish of hot soup with soba noodles, adorned with fragrant local herbs. It was heavenly.
Before you catch your train onwards, don’t forget to grab a souvenir! The local stores are packed with handmade crafts such as pretty kokeshi dolls and beautiful woven baskets. These make wonderful gifts or great keepsakes, and are well worth taking away with you.
Discovering Naruko Onsen was something I never imagined I would do whilst on this tour of Japan, but I feel truly privileged to have passed through this beautiful place. As I get ready to head back to Tokyo, I feel recharged, relaxed and reconnected with nature. I think, perhaps, this unexpected stop over may be my favourite memory from my time in Japan. It just goes to show that choosing the road less travelled is always, always the right choice.