Sunday, December 5, 2021

An Autumn Visit to the Dragon King

 --Susan, every other Sunday

Last month, I headed three hours north from Tokyo, to (re)hike the delightfully named Ryu-ō-kyō (which translates "Gorge of the Dragon King") - a three-hour hike through the ancient, winding gorge the Kinugawa ("Angry Demon River") has carved through the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture over the course of millennia. 

I've hiked the Ryuōkyō before, but never at the height of autumn foliage (for which it's justifiably famous) and always alone.

This time, the autumn leaves were at their peak, and I was hiking with my son (a rare occurrence, because while he loves nature, he's not generally up for the "leave at 6am and hoof the trail all day" way I spend my weekends).

Autumn leaves at Ryuōkyō

The trail begins not far from a lovely waterfall--the largest of the half-dozen that flow down into the gorge at intervals along the trail.

The hills surrounding the falls were ablaze with color - although the Kinugawa was at low ebb. November marks one of the lowest points in its annual flow. The rocks on either side of the river will be entirely submerged when the spring thaw melts the snow on the surrounding mountains. 

I am the shadow to the right of the group, about 3/4 of the way across the shadow the bridge casts into the gorge.

My son, talking with his girlfriend via Zoom

We stopped for photos at the bridges, and at one point my son made a zoom call to his girlfriend, so she could enjoy the colorful foliage too. It's pretty thought-provoking to stand in a natural channel carved by time and water, which historically was so difficult to reach that only a few people in Japan ever even laid eyes on it, and watch someone share it virtually, in real time, with a person a thousand miles away, in another time zone. 

My son, hiking in the gorge

It's a pity Japan isn't pretty in autumn, isn't it...

About halfway through the gorge, we stopped for lunch in a secluded, sandy cove beneath a bridge. I'd made us wagyu-stuffed onigiri (Japanese rice balls), and brought some of the season's first mandarin oranges to go with them--along with chocolate chip cookies, which are always in season. 

Our lunch spot

After lunch, we continued along the trail, past more lovely foliage. Before the hike, my son mentioned that the one thing he had been wanting to see in Japan, but had never yet seen "with [his] own eyes" was a brilliant, flaming red maple tree. I told him I thought our chances were pretty good, but for most of the day, we saw only "partial reds" - trees that were mostly flaming red, but with some leaves that leaned toward gold or orange instead of fully and purely crimson.

Five minutes before the end of the trail, we finally found what he'd been searching for: a tree that was not  only in peak foliage, but entirely decked out in scarlet leaves.

The perfect tree

As we started over the final bridge at the end of the gorge, my son said he was really glad he'd made the hike with me. "It was an adventure," he said--and then hurried to add, "a really great one."

The addendum made me wonder whether he remembered our first hike together--which also happened in Japan, in the summer of 2016. The events of that day were so disastrous that the story ended up as chapter 1 of my nonfiction book, CLIMB--and, at the time, resulted in me promising never to make him participate in another of my "adventures."

Five years and oh-so-many adventures later, I didn't have to make him. He'd asked to come--and the result was a perfect day, and a splendid visit to the Dragon King.

End of the trail - but not the adventures.


  1. What wonderful sights! I'd be up for that even at 6am.

  2. Gorgeous! So nice to see Christopher too!

  3. So there's hope yet that I might convince one of my sons to come along at some point... Beautiful landscapes and colour!

  4. You're quite a mom, Mom!

    And all that glorious foliage!