Gorge-ous Naruko: A beginner's guide to Miyagi Prefecture's top autumn spot (Part 1)
When I was planning for my first autumn trip in Japan in 2018, I was so excited that I didn’t know where to start. Should I head up to Hokkaido to get first dibs on autumn at the scenic Daisetsuzan National Park in early September, or should I head down to see the famous fall foliage backdrops in Kyoto some time in late November and early December? Fret not, autumn-newbies! I’ve done the hard work of research and planning, so let me take you through my decision-making process and my journey to Naruko Gorge—one of Tohoku’s top autumn foliage spots in Miyagi Prefecture.
Why Naruko Gorge?
I knew I wanted to base myself in Tokyo, but to avoid the holiday crowd for my annual shopping fix, my travelling dates were narrowed down to the end of October and early November. That’s how I picked Tohoku—Japan’s northeastern region—since this period coincided with this region’s best autumn colours.
There are plenty of brilliant spots to view Tohoku’s autumn leaves in its full glory, such as Mount Hakkoda and Oirase Stream in Aomori Prefecture, or Bandai-Azuma in Fukushima Prefecture. But I had two requirements: it should be easily accessible by public transport (shoutout to JR East Pass) within 4 hours from Tokyo, and also a nearby city centre where I can stay the night at. Luckily, there was a perfect place for my picky itinerary, and that was Naruko Gorge (鳴子峡 Naruko-kyō).
Jaw-dropping beauty of the Ofukazawa Bridge over Naruko Gorge from the Naruko Gorge Viewpoint. (Image credit: JNTO)
Naruko Gorge is easily one of the top autumn spots for one to enjoy viewing autumn leaves in Tohoku, and it’s surrounded with plenty of natural hot springs in the Naruko Onsen Village. The gorge is located in the mountainous region of Osaki City in Miyagi Prefecture, slightly further up north from Sendai City.
I researched and found out that the best time to visit Naruko Gorge while being able to catch the Resort Minori Joyful Train was the last weekend of October 2018. So the planning began, and here was my to-do list:
- Check for the best train routes from Tokyo to Naruko Gorge and back to nearest city centre Sendai
- Check for the “Momiji-gō” shuttle bus schedule (only available in autumn)
- Check the timing of the famous JR Rikū/Resort Minori train for that iconic train-peeking-through-trees photo opportunity
- Check the weather forecast app
- Pack my trekking shoes
- Visit the Naruko Kokeshi Museum
- Visit a hot spring facility in the onsen village
- Book a one-night stay at Sendai to rest for the night
I thought I had it all figured out; nothing was going to stop me from having the best autumn adventure. Unfortunately...
... vs. Reality
It rained the entire time during my visit to Naruko Gorge. :( (Image credit: JR Times / Sue Lynn)
...no weather app in the world could predict the weather 100%. Halfway through my journey, it started to pour throughout the region and I realized half of my planned itinerary could not come to fruition. I also regretted not packing extra layers of clothing. But I didn’t let that dampen my spirits; you can’t change the weather, but you can bring along an umbrella and carry on with the trip—so that was what I did.
Let the autumn-venture begin
As mentioned earlier, I was heading to my destination from Tokyo. In fact, below's a screenshot of the train schedule I had planned to take weeks before the trip which I fortunately managed to follow throughout. Personally, I recommend using HyperDia to check all your train and shinkansen routes in advance as the trains in Japan are ALWAYS on time. My personal tip to anyone who’s intending to travel between cities is to always stay nearby a JR station. That way, you can save on commuting time and wake up slightly later. I’m not usually a morning person, but oh, the things I would do for Naruko...
From Tokyo, at the time of that day, the fastest route to Naruko Gorge while catching the Resort Minori Joyful Train was via JR Furukawa Station. By shinkansen, it took me slightly less than 2 hours from Tokyo Station. For both the shinkansen and Resort Minori train tickets, you can reserve your seats online or at the ticketing offices in major JR stations. Fortunately, with the JR East Pass (Tohoku area), my journey between Tokyo to Naruko-Onsen and Sendai were fully covered! While most people would ride the Resort Minori from its terminal Sendai Station, you can also board it at Furukawa. At Furukawa Station, I had about 25 minutes to buy myself some snacks and check out the local souvenirs of Miyagi before I strolled over to the next platform for the Resort Minori.
The famous trainspotting photo-opportuniy of the Resort Minori creeping through Naruko Gorge. (Image credit: JR East)
The Resort Minori departed at 10:14am sharp and that was when it hit me: I was finally going to see Naruko Gorge! Even though the train ride comprised mostly of me looking out the wide windows at the gloomy sky and praying to the Sky Gods for it to stop raining, I was constantly admiring Miyagi's countryside as the train traversed through rice fields after rice fields.
The stations along Resort Minori's route were decked with such signs in commemoration of the Joyful Train's 10th anniversary. (Image credit: JR Times / Sue Lynn)
At 11am, I arrived at Naruko-Onsen Station and was warmly welcomed by a group of old folks holding up a banner that read ”ようこそ鳴子温泉駅へ / Welcome to Naruko-Onsen Station”. While I would have loved to take photos with the cute obāchan and ojīchan, I had a bus to catch at 11:10am to get to Naruko Gorge Viewpoint. The "Momiji-gō" (momiji means autumn foliage in Japanese) shuttle bus only operates during autumn between Naruko-Onsen Station and Nakayamadaira-Onsen Station at intervals of 60–100 minutes. Trekking to the viewpoint is a viable option—the trek up to the viewpoint is around an hour from Naruko-Onsen Station—but I wasn't going to take the risk of getting lost in this rainy weather.
According to this time table, if I missed the 11:10am bus, I would have to wait another hour for the next bus... (Image credit: Yusaya)
The bus ride up to the viewpoint took less than 10 minutes and around ¥220 (as of 2018). At 11:17am, I alighted at the bus stop called Narukokyo Narukoguchi (鳴子峡鳴子口) and boy, was I awestruck! I was merely a few steps away from the viewpoint.
To be continued...
Read the second part of my autumn adventure to Naruko Gorge here!
Header image credit: JR Times / Sue Lynn