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A fulfilling autumn around Naruko Onsen with the Resort Minori

A fulfilling autumn around Naruko Onsen with the Resort Minori

Note: The Resort Minori permanently ceased operations from August 2020.


One of the older Joyful Trains, the Resort Minori (リゾートみのり Rizōto Minori) plies the Riku-East Line (陸羽東線) between JR Sendai Station (仙台駅) and JR Shinjō Station (新庄駅), and is best known for the stunning views that you can enjoy from the train's wide 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, as well as a well-known hot spring resort, Naruko Onsen.


Unlike other Tohoku Joyful Trains like the Toreiyu Tsubasa or POKÉMON with YOU Train which mainly feature interior decorations to spread the joy, the Resort Minori’s main draws are the scenery it passes by and the places it brings you to.


The Resort Minori coming out of the tunnel at Naruko Gorge. (Image credit: JR East)


Train enthusiasts will know the Resort Minori for this image of the train exiting the tunnel at Naruko Gorge (鳴子峡 Narukokyō) in autumn, when the gorge is engulfed in vibrant shades of yellow, orange, and red. Naruko Gorge is located between JR Naruko-Onsen Station (鳴子温泉駅) and JR Nakayamadaira-Onsen Station (中山平温泉駅).


Riding the Resort Minori train

Seat designs on the Resort Minori. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


The Resort Minori is busiest in autumn during the last week of October, where it passes through the stunning Naruko Gorge in its fiery hues of red and orange. As a tribute to this, the seats of the Resort Minori are covered with an orange design featuring autumn leaves and the Ofukazawa Bridge (大深沢橋 Ōfukazawa bashi), from which you can get a fantastic view of Naruko Gorge. (More on the bridge and the gorge later in this article!)


The legroom for every seat on this train is also extremely roomy, giving you ample space for your luggage. Windows are large and wide, providing clear views of the surroundings.


On board the Resort Minori. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


Tucked inside the seat pockets are mini guides providing information on sightseeing spots and hot spring resorts along the Riku-East Line. There are also specially-made kokeshi (こけし traditional wooden dolls) in the shape of train staff!


The Resort Minori train. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


Meaning "fulfilling", "fruitful" or “abundant”, the name Minori came from suggestions from the public, and symbolises a fruitful rice harvest (稲穂実りのある収穫 inaho minori no aru shūkaku), a fulfilling hot spring visit (温泉実りのあるひととき onsen minori no aru hitotoki), and an abundance of beautiful autumn colours in the fall (紅葉実りの秋 kōyō minori no aki). These are all excellent examples of the attractions that a trip on this train offers.


The colours of the train’s exterior are also meant to reflect this. Metallic gold lines along the sides of the train represent golden rice ready for harvest, because the train passes by plenty of rice fields along its route. The lacquered red of the train's body represents the rich colours of autumn leaves.


Our warm welcome upon arriving at JR Naruko-Onsen Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


On certain days, especially during the autumn period, you will be warmly welcomed at Naruko-Onsen Station by local volunteers holding a welcome banner, and sometimes also by Naruko-chan (なる子ちゃん), the mascot character for the Naruko Onsen Ryokan Association.


Exterior of JR Naruko-Onsen Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


Naruko-Onsen Station is the gateway to the Naruko Hot Spring Village (鳴子温泉郷 Naruko onsenkyō), which comprises of five hot spring areas. Right outside Naruko-Onsen 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), where you can dip your hands and warm up in the chilly autumn weather.


10th anniversary souvenirs for the Resort Minori. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


The Resort Minori celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2018, and as of July 2019, over 200,000 people have ridden the Resort Minori. Alas, after delighting fans and loyal riders for 12 good years, it is time to bid the Resort Minori farewell.


The Resort Minori was scheduled to have its final run on 28 June 2020, but due to the COVID-19 situation, this event has unfortunately been cancelled. At of the time of writing, whether or not a farewell event will be held in the future is still under consideration.

*Update: Farewell events were held on 8–10 August 2020. The Resort Minori has since ceased operations. However, you can still ride regular trains.


Many are sad to see the Resort Minori come to an end, but you can still visit the wonderful sights along the Riku-East Line by riding regular trains that ply the same route. Here are the best places to visit from Naruko-Onsen Station in autumn:


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.


Ofukuzawa Bridge and the autumn colours at Naruko Gorge. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


The inspiration for many of the train’s motifs, 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 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. (みのり号 (Minorigō) on the right denotes the Resort Minori train.) 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)

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 area for 5 consecutive days at only ¥30,000. After exploring Sendai, you can also visit the nearby prefectures of Yamagata, Fukushima, Morioka and more!


The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)


Header image credit: JR East


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