The hiking trails, dramatic waterfalls and a suspension bridge make the Mitarai Valley one of the most spectacular scenic spots in the Dorogawa Onsen area. Famously inaccessible, it was used as a refuge during battles in the 14th century. Now, visitors flock to see the red autumn foliage, contrasting with the emerald green river.
Tucked deep in the mountains, Mitarai Valley takes a little under 3 hours from Nara City and is best combined with an overnight stay in the nearby hot spring town of Dorogawa Onsen. Take the train to Shimoichiguchi Station and from there, a bus bound for Dorogawa. The stop for Mitarai is Tenkawakawai. Leaving from Kintetsu-Nara Station around 9am should get you into the area a little before lunchtime.
In Tenkawa Village, where the bus stops, there is a tourist information centre for hiking maps, and you can pick up drinks and snacks before taking the easy 30-minute walk along the Tennokawa River to the valley. In spring and autumn, expect to see people hiking the scenic trails, in summer, families picnic by the pools of clear water, and some people even take a dip to cool off.
If arriving in the village early, you might make a slight detour to take in Daibenzaiten-sha Shrine before heading to the valley. It's a 30-minute walk in the opposite direction, but the shrine is unique, combining elements of both Buddhism and Shinto. Dedicated to Benzaiten, the deity of art, music and water, the shrine attracts celebrities and performers. Noh theater performances are held here in July.
From Mitarai Valley, there is a pleasant 4.5km hike leading to the picturesque onsen town of Dorogawa. The trail takes in waterfalls, forest views and interesting rock formations. Alternatively, buses can be caught from the Tenkawakawai stop, taking 15 minutes. Make sure to check the timetable in advance as service is infrequent.
Located across from the bus station at the bottom of the main street, Dorogawa Onsen Visitor Center has maps, timetables and some information on the hike up to Mt. Omine and along the Omine-Okugake pilgrimage route, which leads down to the World Heritage Kumano Sanzan sites in Wakayama Prefecture.
Dorogawa's streets are lined with traditional shops, small eateries and ryokan with hot springs. Lanterns hang outside many of the lodgings, and the view at dusk, as the lanterns flicker on, is magical.
Staying overnight is the best way to experience the relaxing atmosphere of the town. At historic ryokan Koryokuen Nishisei, rooms feature original artworks and antiques and most have enclosed balconies overlooking the traditional gardens. Kadojin, founded 350 years ago, is another well-established inn, particularly picturesque at dusk.
The hot spring water comes from sacred Mt Omine, which draws hundreds of Shugendo pilgrims in white robes to start their journey here every August. The streets are strung with paper lanterns, lending the town a romantic, old time atmosphere after dark, when the stars seem impossibly bright.
Dorogawa's traditional inns usually include dinner in their overnight rates. While there are small restaurants in the town, many such as Seikuro open only for lunch. Soba noodles feature heavily on most menus and this is because of the spring water in the area: good quality water is what makes for good soba.
A short walk from Seikuro, other Dorogawa attractions include Menfudo Limestone Cave and Ryusen-ji Temple. Aside from the natural beauty of the stalactites and stalagmites inside the Menfudo cave complex, much of the fun is riding the monorail train through the forest and up to the entrance. Shaped like a log, the monorail was originally used to transport timber. Ryusen-ji, with its sacred pond and waterfall, attracts Shugendo practitioners, who gather for prayer and meditation.