The previous day when we visited the atomic bomb dome followed by the Shukkeien Garden we had covered most of the city sights in Hiroshima, hence we had originally planned to get out of the City.
Our initial choice was to head to the castle and wooden arched Kintai Bridges, about an hour drive from Hiroshima, but after going though some brochures at our Airbnb apartment we decided to visit the Sandankyo gorge instead. The drive there took us nearly 1.5 hours, but the scenery made more than up for it. The roads seemed to take us deep into the “Hokkaido of Western Japan” as the locals call the area around Mount Osorakan. Driving, we passed lush green rice fields, thick forests and quaint villages on the hillsides with plenty of things for Jerome to spot from the car window.
There are three places to get into the gorge, we chose the bottom of the gorge in order to be able to walk as far as our legs would take us and then stroll back down on the return. Accessing the top parts stretches the drive another 30 minutes.
Once we had parked our car at the car park near the information centre at Shiwagi, Yamagata district, we checked our route on the big map sign and took one of the free leaflets. We also took our back pack, filled with drinks, plus a small picnic as we did not know if we would be able to find any food or drink on route. In addition our towels and swimming costumes as we one of the delights of the mountain streams is swimming in the cool water on a hot day.
There are restaurants at the beginning of the gorge and some small shops in case you need to fill up on either food or drinks, but it maybe best to bring some with you.
We orientated ourselves on the map and decided that it would take us around 2-2.5hours to walk to the top waterfall, our goal for todays walk.
If you have smaller children with you, I would recommend taking it as far as you feel comfortable with, but would definitely recommend walking to the first boat stop as every child would surely love to ride the boat across the pool in the river. The winding path can also be appealing to children and there is plenty of opportunity to throw stones into the river water.
The Sandankyo gorge must be one of Japan’s most beautiful and scenic gorges. The Shiwagi River winds for over 13 kilometers through the forest and rocks. We crossed the first bridge over the river, the riverbed here was wide and the water shallow, Children played and swam in the water. We started to slowly walk along the well-paved path, not sure I would recommend using a pushchair to go very far, as it is rather steep in places.
The clear emerald green river floating next to us, we were excited to see this work of art Mother Nature had created over thousands of years. Depending on the depth and speed of the water the green turned deeper or lighter shades, in contrast to the lush green trees and the bare, grey rocks that surrounded it. Now and again the water would gush over the rocks like a waterfall. Even though it had been another hot and humid day in Hiroshima here in the depth of the gorge we could feel the coolness of the water. The boys were already thinking about where they might be able to get down to the river and the right pool of water to have a swim in.
We passed surprisingly few people considering it was a Sunday and still Golden Week. After about an hour we arrived at the first boat station Kurobuchi. Here the gorge is deep and narrows, the path climbs high to one side or you can short cut across the lake with the boatman. We decided to get a one way ticket, 300Yen for adults, 250Yen for over 12 year olds (return 500Yen for adults, 300 for over 12). The boats run from April to November from 9-16:30 daily, if the weather permits. The last boat runs from Kurobuchi Zhang at 16:10. We boarded the little boat, waited until it was filled and then the guide took us by punting across the naturally formed lake through high rocks surrounding the gorge on this part to Kurobuchi Zhang. It is a gorgeous 10 minutes of quiet on the water.
At this end we found a restaurant serving basic food like udon, grilled fish on sticks and their speciality, cold noodles which you dip into the fresh river water, apparently among the cleanest of all waters in Japan. We stopped here to have lunch, Jerome, as always, eating his favourite udon. We sat overlooking the lake down below, watched children who threw stones into the water and other people had a picnic. Here we also found a very essential toilet across the river’s small suspension bridge.
After lunch we walked on towards the top falls and the second boat ride. The path still wound along next to the river, we crossed a few bridges until we got to the second car park, located around two thirds of the way up the river. Here a sign informed us that if we wanted to see take the second boat ride through the gorge we needed to hurry as they stopped at 15:00 for the day! We had exactly an hour to get to Sarutobi before the last boat went. We rushed, trying to walk as fast as possible and literally got there at 14:55. The guide seemed fairly relaxed about us arriving just before his closing time and told us to get into the boat. We were not the only ones turning up this late; there was another couple of Japanese who shared the boat with us in the end.
The guide pulled our boat along ropes attached to the rocks. The entry through the gorge here is very narrow, with high rocks topped with thick forest and the boat is the only way in. At some point we could barely see the sky. The beauty of the gorge here was breathtakingly stunning. The boat slowly glided through the deep green water with the sheer cliffs on either side. It was absolutely peaceful and calm until we could hear the roaring of the waterfall at the other end. Here the gorge opened out again, we could see some other people already waiting for the boats arrival. By the falls, we got off the boat while the guide took the other people back to Sarutobi. We climbed onto the rocks, trying to get the best view of the gorge and the waterfall, taking loads of pictures. After around 10 minutes the empty boat returned to collect us.
Back at Sarutobi we were very pleased with ourselves that we had managed to get the last boat, there were still people turning up but the guide sent them away. We celebrated with some welcome snacks and drinks before starting back down the gorge.
As mentioned earlier the boys had kept an eye out for a spot to swim in the clear cool river water. About half way back down we carefully scrambled down the steep riverbank to a natural pool in the riverbed where the water had collected and went in for a refreshing swim in the blue green clear water. Swimming in a mountain stream in the summer heat is a great alternative to a swim in the sea or pool. Sadly, our lazy swim was disturbed by a nasty, obnoxious horse fly that kept buzzing around our heads and wet bodies when we got out. We tried to chase it away with our towels but without luck. Insects are a fact of life in Japan but it forced us to move on rather quickly rather than sitting around by the water.
When we got to the first boat station at Kurobuchi Zhang we saw that the restaurant was already closed up for the day and no tourists were around anymore. Walking the steep path up the side of the gorge we were surprised when the staff of the restaurant went zooming by on their motor scooters, who would have thought you could ride a motor bike up this mountain path! I guess they do it every day and know the dangerous parts but I was glad I was not on the back of one even with tired legs!
We did not meet anyone else on our way back to the parking lot and by the time we got there everything was shut up apart from the ryokan.
We jumped back in our car and drove back towards Hiroshima to the JA Toguchi branch where we had spotted a big playground and Jerome wanted to stop. Jerome desperatly wanted to go onto the roller slide there. Jerome had fallen in love with these unique slides a few years before on Shikoku, where we had first encountered them. They look like a normal slide but instead of having just a flat metal sheet where you slide down, the roller slides are made of lots of thin rolling rods, which make it for a superfast slide. I recommend wearing proper trousers though as I experienced this time with my thin dress that it can hurt if you go down on your bottom. If you are very brave try sliding down on your feet while kneeling. These slides are much more fun than normal ones, for children and adults alike. Of course all at your own risk!
All in all it was a fun day away from the masses of tourists, experiencing the beauty of nature. I would definitely recommend making the detour and visit Sandakyo gorge if you are in Western Japan. It must be especially spectacular to visit in fall when the leaves change colour. The Sandankyo Ryokan at the start of the gorge could also make for a perfect traditional Japanese overnight stay in a stunning location if you have the time.