Waterfalls: Japan’s Hidden Wonders

By Shawn Bolker

When one thinks of Japan, waterfalls don’t often come to mind. Instead, most envision scenes of the bustling train stations in Tokyo, sprawling Buddhist gardens of Kyoto or picturesque views of Mt. Fuji. Although it may be hard to imagine, Japan is actually rich with waterfalls.

Of Japan’s entire archipelago, only 27% is relatively flat land. Most urban areas are concentrated in these limited areas of level ground allowing the mountainous portion of Japan to be far less populated. It is within these mountainous, rural areas that waterfalls abound. According to the World Waterfall Database, Japan contains over 2,000 waterfalls that are above 15 feet tall! Upon first glancing at this statistic, I was floored. However, upon visiting Japan’s rural areas, the high number of falls listed began to make more sense. The combination of steep topography with fairly high annual rainfall makes Japan a waterfall lover’s heaven. Over the course of my time in Japan with the Mt. Fuji study abroad program, we were fortunate enough to visit several incredible waterfalls. Here are a few I would strongly recommend:

Nachi Falls

As the tallest single waterfall in Japan, Nachi Falls is quite a sight to behold. Here, the Nachi River plummets 436 feet over a rugged wall of basalt amidst the mystic broadleaf forests of the Kii Peninsula. Several nearby shrines and a Buddhist temple make the visit to Nachi Falls a profoundly spiritual experience. The falls have been a holy site since the 4th century and have remained a popular place of religious pilgrimage.

According to legend, the falls were first discovered by Ragyo Shonin, an Indian Monk. Upon practicing austerities here, Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, appeared before him at the falls. He built a hermitage here in honor of her that was found hundreds of years later by Emperor Kazan in 988. Struck by the image of Kannon, Kazan completed 1000 days of spiritual training under the falls. After this intensive period, Kazan witnessed a vision of Kannon in the form of a dragon as deity Kumano Gongen. She instructed him to remap the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage route to include Nachi Falls.  Kumano is still believed to reside at the top of the waterfall.

Nachi Falls is located near the tip of the Kii Peninsula just outside of the town of Kii-Katsuura. Although it is fairly straightforward to access the falls by train and bus, one must prepare for an epic journey if travelling from any of Japan’s major cities. Osaka is the nearest big city and Kii-Katsuura is a nearly four hour train ride from there. Once at Kii-Katsuura, it is an easy 20 minute bus ride from the train station to the falls and getting to the waterfall from the bus stop requires minimal hiking. Although this may seem like too much traveling for just a waterfall, the area around the falls is also stunning with several shrines and glorious ocean views on clear days. If the opportunity arises, do not miss this waterfall!

Shiraito Falls

While Nachi Falls is tall, Shiraito Falls is wide. The countless springs that source the falls are spread out in a way that makes the waterfall seem nearly endless. One could spend hours gazing at all the small tributaries and cascades that make up these intricate falls. Tucked back in a steep, basaltic alcove, the falls provide a chamber effect that immerses visitors. Luckily, Shiraito Falls is much closer to Tokyo and a mere stone’s throw from Mt. Fuji. One can easily take the bus or drive half an hour from the nearby town of Fujinomiya to the falls. The walk itself is paved and can be done with ease.

Otodome Falls, another thundering cascade, can also be witnessed on the walk to Shiraito Falls. Although only partial views of this falls can be seen, it is still quite a sight — kicking up rainbows on sunny days. The name “Otodome” means “stopping sound.” This name comes from a legend about the Soga brothers (two samurai warriors) who plotted near the falls to avenge the murder of their father. At first, they couldn’t hear each other over the roar of the falls but the waterfall soon paused, allowing the brothers to continue their discussion.

Kaneyama Falls

Kaneyama Falls was a surprise waterfall that we happened upon while visiting the Mt. Fuji Museum in the town of Fujiyoshida. Although not as tall or impressive as Nachi or Shiraito Falls, Kaneyama Falls is still worth visiting. Here, spring water emerges from the northern base of Mt. Fuji and tumbles 30 feet into a deep, turquoise pool. Such flowing surface water is rare on the north side of Mt. Fuji because of the area’s porous, scoria ridden soil. These falls are also exceptional because most runoff on the north side of Fuji doesn’t emerge from the ground until it is well under any of the five lakes that surround the volcano’s northern base. To access Kaneyama Falls, one must simply follow signs that point towards a “falls” behind the Mt. Fuji Museum. In a few hundred meters, the falls come into view. It would be awesome to swim in the crystalline pool beneath these falls on a hot day. There is even a rope swing!

Although these falls are incredible, I’ve barely scratched the surface with regards to the sheer number of waterfalls in Japan as well as their deep cultural history. A waterfall or two is the icing on the cake of any vacation and the multitude of falls in Japan are definitely worth seeking out. If you ever get the chance to visit Japan, do not — – by any means — – miss out on all the beautiful falls the country has to offer. Standing beneath a towering waterfall in Japan’s lush countryside is an unforgettable experience. Don’t hesitate! Go!

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