A fulfilling autumn around Naruko Onsen
Tohoku's Riku-East Line (陸羽東線) is best known for the stunning views that you can enjoy from the train windows in autumn, such as golden rice fields and colourful fall leaves. The train passes by one of Tohoku's best autumn foliage viewing spots, Naruko Gorge (鳴子峡 Narukokyō), as well as a well-known hot spring resort, Naruko Onsen (鳴子温泉). Naruko Gorge is exceptionally stunning in autumn when engulfed in vibrant shades of yellow, orange, and red. It is located between JR Naruko-Onsen Station (鳴子温泉駅) and JR Nakayamadaira-Onsen Station (中山平温泉駅). Did you know? Many train and photography enthusiasts come here just to take photos of the train passing through the tunnel, like the photo above!
In this article, we will introduce the must-sees and must-dos around Naruko Onsen during autumn.
JR Naruko-Onsen Station
Exterior of JR Naruko-Onsen Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
This area is busiest in autumn during the last week of October, when the stunning Naruko Gorge erupts in fiery hues of red and orange. You will start your autumn journey from JR Naruko-Onsen Station, from where you can reach all the places mentioned in this article by bus or by foot. Naruko-Onsen Station is gateway to the Naruko Hot Spring Village (鳴子温泉郷 Naruko onsenkyō). Right outside the station are free-to-use ashiyu (足湯 footbaths), which are onsen for the feet. Try them out if you have extra time while waiting for the train or bus!
Kokeshi doll decorations and teyu around JR Naruko-Onsen Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
A short walk away leads you to the free-to-use teyu (手湯 handbaths), onsen for the hands where you can dip your hands and warm up in the chilly autumn weather.
Captivating colours of autumn at Naruko Gorge
- Take a 15-minute bus ride from JR Naruko-Onsen Station or a 5-minute bus ride from JR Nakayamadaira-Onsen Station to Narukokyo Nakayamadaira Guchi Bus Stop (鳴子峡中山平口) via the Momijigō bus (紅葉号), a special bus service that only operates during the autumn season.
- Alternatively, you can take a 30-minute walk from either JR Naruko-Onsen Station or JR Nakayamadaira-Onsen Station.
Ofukazawa Bridge and the autumn colours at Naruko Gorge. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Naruko Gorge is one of the Tohoku Region’s most famous momijigari spot. Just like how hanami (花見 flower viewing) is a popular activity during the cherry blossom blooming period, in autumn there is momijigari (紅葉狩り autumn foliage viewing).
With vast, unspoilt nature and majestic gorges, Japan's north-eastern region of Tohoku is well-known for its magnificent momijigari spots. One place in particular that constantly tops Tohoku’s “Best autumn leaf viewing spots” and “Places I want to visit” lists is Naruko Gorge.
From Ofukazawa Bridge, you can get a good view of Naruko Gorge and the tunnel (circled in red) from which the trains pass through. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Naruko Gorge can be viewed from either Ofukazawa Bridge (大深沢橋 Ōfukazawa bashi) or the area around the Narukokyo Resthouse (鳴子峡レストハウス). Standing on the Ofukazawa Bridge, you can get good views of the gorge below, as well as of the resthouse (top right in the rightmost photo above). From the resthouse, you can get a good view of the bridge and the gorge below.
Timetable to estimate when trains will pass through the tunnel. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Near the viewing platform outside Narukokyo Resthouse, there is a timetable for when trains will be travelling between Naruko-Onsen Station and Nakayamadaira-Onsen Station. Photographers and railway fans position themselves with a good view of the tunnel, and wait for the train to appear.
Map of the walking paths at Naruko Gorge. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
There are a number of viewing decks and short walking courses along Naruko Gorge, with one of the most popular walks being the one along the Ofukazawa Promenade (大深沢遊歩道 Ōfukazawa yūhodō).
Hiking along the promenades at Naruko Gorge. (Image credit: JR Times / Sue Lynn)
The 2km course takes about 50 minutes to complete, and brings you through layers and layers of enchanting colours, accompanied by the soothing sound of the adjacent stream. Just be careful while you walk, as there might be snakes and insects among the fallen leaves. (I almost stepped on a well-camouflaged brown snake!)
Striking orange foliage and blue waters at Katanuma
- Hike for 1 hour or take a 10-minute taxi ride from JR Naruko-Onsen Station to reach Katanuma.
Katanuma in autumn. (Image credit: photoAC)
Formed by a volcanic eruption over 1,000 years ago, Katanuma (潟沼) is a naturally acidic lake with a pH level so low that there are no fish living in the lake. The lake's waters are seen as a brilliant bright blue on clear days, but can change to look like a deeper blue or emerald green depending on the weather. From May to mid-October, the lake is a popular spot for stand up paddling (SUP) and boat rides.
In autumn, the trees surrounding the lake turn a fiery orange, creating a fantastic contrast with the water. A must-do in autumn is the short 1.3km hike around the shores of the lake. The path is paved and easy to walk, and you will be surrounded by a forest of stunning autumn colours.
A rejuvenating hot spring getaway at Naruko Onsen
- Naruko Onsen is right around JR Naruko-Onsen Station.
- From JR Sendai Station, take a 15-minute bullet train ride on the Tohoku Shinkansen to JR Furukawa Station (古川駅). Transfer to the JR Riku-East Line and take a 45-minute ride to JR Naruko-Onsen Station.
The hot springs at Naruko Kanko Hotel. (Image credit: Naruko Kanko Hotel)
Just a short walk from JR Naruko-Onsen Station is the hot spring town of Naruko Onsen, the largest of the five areas making up the Naruko Hot Spring Village. The waters of the hot springs at Naruko Onsen are said to have healing properties, and being only a short train ride away from Sendai makes this area a popular weekend getaway.
Enjoying a relaxing night at Naruko Kanko Hotel. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
I first visited Naruko Onsen in 2011 while I was on a disaster relief program for the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and it was one of my first ever onsen experiences in Japan. Experiencing things like sleeping on a futon in tatami rooms, devouring the scrumptious kaiseki dinner, and soaking in the hot springs after a day of debris clean-up was such an amazing feeling, and sparked a newfound love for onsen.
Since my first onsen visit, I have come back to Japan many times just to relax at onsens. Rotenburo (露天風呂 outdoor baths) are especially wonderful in cool weather like that of autumn, and I am sure many people feel this way too!
The other four areas making up the Naruko Hot Spring Village are Higashi-Naruko Onsen (東鳴子温), Kawatabi Onsen (川渡温泉), Nakayamadaira Onsen (中山平温泉) and Onikōbe Onsen (鬼首温泉).
Kokeshi-painting at the Japan Kokeshi Museum
- 10-minute bus ride from JR Naruko-Onsen Station, or 5-minute bus ride from Narukokyo Resthouse, via the Momijigo bus.
Giant kokeshi at the entrance of the Japan Kokeshi Museum. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Kokeshi are limbless wooden dolls, and have been traditionally handmade for over 150 years. Woodcraftsmen initially made kokeshi as toys for children, featuring simple colours like red, green and black. Kokeshi originated in the Tohoku Region, and the Japan Kokeshi Museum (日本こけし館 Nihon Kokeshikan) in Naruko has one of the largest collections of kokeshi. Here you can browse the variety of kokeshi on display, and buy some back as souvenirs.
Getting ready to paint our own kokeshi. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
For an extra special souvenir, how about painting your very own kokeshi? For ¥1,100, you can paint your own kokeshi at the Japan Kokeshi Museum. Since the museum was so near to Naruko Gorge, I knew I had to make time on my trip to try out this fun activity. You start off by using black ink for the face and hair, followed by red for the lips and main decorative floral features, and finally green for the leaf designs.
Coating the kokeshi in wax (left), and the finished kokeshi dolls (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
When I went, the whole process took about an hour, and at the end a local craftsman helped to coat our kokeshi in wax, which would help to make it shiny, as well as help to preserve the colour.
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are visiting Naruko Onsen, Sendai and the Tohoku region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥20,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Sendai (~¥23,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass. After exploring Naruko Onsen and Sendai, you can also use the pass visit the nearby prefectures of Yamagata, Fukushima, Morioka and more!
NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). For more information, please check here.
Header image credit: JR East