An Autumn Visit to the Dragon King

On the first weekend in November, my son and I headed up to Tochigi Prefecture to hike the Ryuō-kyō (Gorge of the Dragon King). This was my third hike through the gorge, but the first time for my son, and I hoped we’d timed it correctly for autumn foliage.

As you’ll see, it didn’t disappoint.

We took the 6:49 a.m. train from Kita-senju Station in North Tokyo, which arrived at Ryuōkyō Station just before 9. We only expected the hike to take 3 hours or so, plus whatever amount of time we chose to stop for lunch, but we picked the early train in the hope of avoiding the crowds that can show up at Ryuōkyō in nice weather, especially during autumn foliage (koyo) season.

The shops and restaurants between the station and the trailhead were already open (and selling ice cream) at 9 a.m.–and quite a number of people had already arrived, either by car or on the morning train. My son and I stopped for soft serve (he had Yuba, while I opted for the seasonal chestnut), which we ate as we descended the steps to the falls near the start of the hiking trail.

Although the trees immediately around the falls had mostly lost their leaves, the forest on the hills surrounding the gorge was filled with leaves in every color of red, orange, and gold (as well as brown and green…the trees seemed pretty much determined to do their own thing, at their own pace, this year).

The trail begins on the far side of the southern bridge across the gorge. Most of the visitors to Ryuōkyō hike up the far side of the gorge from the first bridge to the second (a distance of about 1 km), cross the second bridge, and return along a path that leads back to the first bridge–at which point, they head back up the stairs to Ryuōkyō Station. You can barely see the second bridge in the picture above–which I love because the rising sun made it possible to show both bridges in the same picture (although the one I’m standing on is only a shadow on the bottom of the gorge).

On the far side of the bridge, the trail leads through a marshy area filled with cherry and maple trees.

The trail itself alternates between wooden boardwalks, earth, and stone. It’s fairly flat, and simple to walk in sneakers, which is why most visitors choose to walk this part of the trail and then head back to the station.

The picture above shows the view from the second bridge, looking north. This is as far as most visitors go, and the “traffic” on the trail clears out almost completely beyond this point. After crossing the bridge, the majority of hikers turn right and head back to Ryuōkyō Station – but my son and I turned left and continued along the trail, which parallels the right bank of the gorge for another 5 kilometers.

Ryuōkyō is a great place to see columnar jointing – a geological feature that sometimes occurs when molten magma cools in a manner that creates regular, polygonal columns or prisms. Long, regular columns like the ones in the photo above are called colonnades, and its rare to see them up close. This section of colonnade stands right beside the trail, where you can get a great look, and touch it if you want to.

Ryuōkyō has a number of other interesting geological features, including this arched “bridge rock” – which some people say looks a lot like a turtle. If you consider the lump on the far left side as the “head” I can sort of see it, though it takes quite a bit of imagination.

The river running through Ryuōkyō, and responsible for its creation, is the Kinugawa; the gorge sits just a little way upstream from Kinugawa Onsen, and was created by the water wearing down the stone of the gorge over the course of centuries. The gorge gets its name from its winding shape, which people say resembles the sinuous curves of an Asian dragon.

It’s beautiful in any season, but spectacular in autumn.

The river’s water is very clear, and fills the air with a rushing sound as you pass the cataracts. The air in the gorge smells absolutely fresh and clean, and is often filled with the songs of various birds.

Signs throughout the gorge warn hikers to beware of falling rocks. While I haven’t actually seen any falling rocks on my trips along the trail, there have been landslides (mostly in inclement weather) and it’s always important to remain aware of your surroundings when hiking on wilderness trails.

The picture above is the off-piste spot my son and I opted to stop for lunch. About 2/3 of the way to the end of the trail at Kawaji Yumoto, a third bridge (pictured below) crosses the Kinugawa. My son and I left the trail shortly before the bridge and made our way down to a sandy beach in a cove beside the river. A pair of large rocks made perfect natural seats on which to stop and enjoy a meal, surrounded by spectacular sights like the one above.

After lunch we climbed back up to the trail and headed across the bridge.

(Above: the view from the bridge)

Beyond the bridge we climbed a paved incline to the first of a set of “spooky tunnels” that cut through the hills at the north end of the gorge. There is/was a hiking trail that goes up and over the hills themselves, but it’s been closed the last two times I hiked the trail due to extensive typhoon damage caused by Typhoon 19 a few years ago. The tunnels are shorter anyway…

Past the tunnels, the trail becomes a road that curves through a village and then re-enters the trees for a final stretch before arriving at Kawaji Yumoto. I thought most of the “good foliage” would be behind us at this point, but the trees along this last stretch of the river had some lovely surprises in store.

The tree above was my favorite of the day–it was in the process of changing, so its leaves were a rainbow of green, yellow, orange, and crimson. I didn’t adjust this photo in any way — the colors really were that bright.

All too soon (and precisely on time, as we’d booked tickets on a train that left 20 minutes after we reached the station), we arrived at the bridge that spans the Kinugawa at Kawaji Yumoto Onsen, a ten minute walk from Kawaji Yumoto Station.

Ryuōkyō’s views offer great return on effort at any time of year, but particularly in the autumn, when it’s one of the best leaf-viewing day hikes from Tokyo if you time it right. I was a few weeks late in 2019, but this year the weather and the timing both aligned–resulting in an absolutely perfect day.

Hike Info: 

Access/Trailhead: Ryuōkyō Station or Kawaji Yumoto Station (trail can be hiked in either direction – the description in this post begins at Ryuōkyō and ends at Kawaji Yumoto)

Elevation Gain/Loss: 205 m ascent / 154 m descent (There is some up and down along the way, but this is definitely a “hike” rather than a climb – and this is a good one for less-experienced hikers.)

Distance: 5.8 km

Time Spent: 3.5 hours (Including a 45-minute coffee/lunch break. YMMV)

Note to the wise: This is a great hike, and while not strictly “charted” on YAMAP you can track it using the map for Nandairasan (Tochigi). Also: be aware that trains on the Tobu line from Tokyo are “reserved seating only” and often fill up on weekends, so it’s smart to book your seat in both directions in advance.