The fire of autumn blazed on the beech, maple, sakura and sumac trees of the valley, requiring many stops to take the perfect photo. Fallen leaves crunched under my steps, the rustle of the wind and the rushing of the Sanjo River filled out the sound-scape, and the Christmas tree scent of pine sap hung intermittently in the forest air mingling with the damp smell of fallen leaves. Another of Nara’s and Japan’s autumn foliage locations was already living up to my expectations.
Southern Nara Prefecture is home to the highest mountains in Japan’s Kansai Region. One of the best locations for taking in that rugged and mythical landscape, and getting a decadent helping of Japan’s fiery autumn colors, is Mitarai Canyon in Nara's Tenkawa-mura. The Sanjo River flows from the town of Dorogawa Onsen (at an elevation of over 820 meters/~2,690 feet) through the mixed pine and deciduous forests of the Mitarai Canyon to where it meets the Amanokawa a few kilometers above the town of Tenkawa Kawa-ai. Adventure movie suspension bridges, metal walkways, paths carved out of cliffs, good old-fashioned dirt tracks and a few stretches of sidewalk and road form a ~11 kilometer hiking trail connecting the hot spring town of Dorogawa Onsen with the mountain village of Tenkawa Kawa-ai. The trail is well maintained and well signed (many of the signs are bi-lingual), and bus stops serve both entrance points, allowing one to hike up or down. I hiked up from Tenkawa Kawa-ai and found that the trail is, with the exception of the climb from the confluence of the Sanjo and Amano Rivers to the top of the Mitarai Waterfalls, a relatively flat and easy hike. Including the time I spent snapping pictures, exploring areas along the trail and just enjoying the area, it took about 3 hours to complete the hike. The autumn foliage, the fish visible in the clear mountain rivers, the landscape, the fresh air and the hot springs and other attractions of Dorogawa Onsen made the hike one of the most worthwhile outings I've had in a while.
Buses are the only way into or out of Mitarai Canyon (without a car). Nine buses per weekday (10 on weekends and holidays) make the ~45 minute to 1 hour trip to the lower entrance at Tenkawa Kawa-ai, and 6 buses per weekday (7 weekends and holidays) make the slightly longer trip to Dorogawa Onsen. On weekdays there are 6 return trips from Dorogawa Onsen and 9 from Tenkawa Kawa-ai, 7 and 10 return trips on weekends and holidays respectively. The fare to Tenkawa Kawa-ai is ￥1,110 each way and the fare to Dorogawa Onsen is ￥1,280. Information about the bus route is only available in Japanese at present, below are the relevant kanji and link to help you on your trip.
しもいち口駅=Shimoichiguchi Station, 天川川合=Tenkawa Kawa-ai, 洞川温泉=Dorogawa Onsen (large luggage requires a \200 for the bus)