“The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise,” wrote Mark Twain. The same can be said for Japan’s Tenryu River, which early Nara period records referred to as the “Violent Tenryu” due to its fast, turbulent waters.

The river flows south from Lake Suwa in Nagano Prefecture through Japan’s Southern Alps and into the Pacific Ocean near Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture. Before reaching the Alps, the river winds its way through Nagano’s Ina Valley. There you will find the breathtaking scenery of Tenryukyo Gorge, whose steep cliffs straddle the emerald green river.

During the autumn the tree-lined cliffs provide a panorama of color, with the red and gold reflecting in the river’s rippling waters, making Tenryukyo Gorge one of Japan’s more popular fall foliage destinations.

Tenryukyo Gorge

Japan’s Top Autumn Foliage Views

Absconding from Tenryukyo Station immediately brings you to the Tenryu-Okumikawa Quasi-National Park just outside of Iida city in southern Nagano. One could stay on the train and enjoy the scenic 90-minute ride along the gorge.

The best ways to enjoy the trees are by hiking under them or taking in the shoreline view by boat. There is a leisurely two-kilometer hiking course that follows a nice loop, taking about an hour. The route offers many views of the gorge itself and at about the halfway point hikers cross a long suspended bridge that offers one-of-a-kind views.

For ¥2,900 for adults and ¥1,450 for kids visitors can take the popular boat tour. Hop in one of these traditional long, wooden boats, operated by two people, with a tour guide identifying points of interest along the way. Unfortunately, there are no English tours, but even without understanding the language one can easily enjoy the experience.

Tenryukyo Gorge

Interpreting Nature

True to the river’s reputation, the kanji characters for Tenryukyo are heaven, dragon and gorge, which derive from a notable rock shaped like a dragon ascending into heaven.

Around the same time Mark Twain was waxing poetic about the Mississippi River, famed calligrapher Meikaku Kusakabe wrote names and descriptions for 10 other natural rock formations that can be viewed throughout Tenryukyo Gorge, including Ryukakuho, the spine of the dragon said to be dwelling under the Tenryu River.

The boat tour is the best way to view these rock formations. In addition, the boat operators dress in traditional fishing attire and demonstrate fishing techniques that locals have followed for centuries. The boat ride lasts for an hour and then you are returned to the starting area by bus.

Tenryukyo Gorge

Hot Springs and Royal Accommodations

Finally as the evening comes and the temperature cools down the Ringo Foot Spa located cross the river from Tenryukyo Station is perfect for warming up and easing any aches, pains or tension. The foot bath, open until 5pm from the end of March through November, can be enjoyed for a small donation of ¥100. Offering a view of the gorge, this is one last chance to take in the beauty of the fall foliage.

Stay the night at the gorge at the luxurious Ryukotei Hotel – where Emperor Akihito stayed when he visited the area. All rooms offer views of the gorge, the rock formations, the river, and of course, the foliage. A room, including meals, costs ¥25,000 for one guest and ¥18,000 for two guests. Nearby Iida offers several hotel and ryokan options for budget travelers.

Tenryukyo Gorge is a popular tourist destination throughout the year, as the bevy of coniferous trees add a touch of green to the winter scenery. In spring the cherry trees come alive with pink blossoms. In the summer, it is said the shaded walking trails are cooler than most parts of Japan.

Still it is the fall when Tenryukyo Gorge is at its most spectacular. Whether viewing the fall foliage by foot, boat or train, your soul will leave satisfied.