Dorokyo Gorge is a deep valley carved by the waters of the Kitayama River. The gorge sits in the Yoshino-Kumano National Park at the point where Wakayama, Nara and Mie prefectures meet on the Kii Peninsula.
The vertical cliffs at the deepest part of the gorge make it difficult to access…unless you go in by boat. A 90 minute jet boat trip that departs from Shiko, on the banks of the Kumano River downstream from the gorge, solves that problem.
The Kumano River is a major historical travel artery for this area, with pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo (an ancient pilgrimage route) often taking boats downriver from Hongu Taisha to Shingu on the sea coast. The jet boat pier is about halfway between those two and takes passengers up the Kumano River and into its tributary, the Kitayama River.
On the day we visited, the Kumano River was muddy and brown but near the mouth of the Kitayama River we could see a line of clear blue water running along the left bank that turned out to be the waters of the Kitayama River.
Where the two rivers meet the valley is expansive, but soon the mountains began to close in. The blue-green waters of the Kitayama River were clear and placid enough to mirror the rocky river banks.
River boating also makes for very good bird watching. We saw wading birds like herons and egrets, as well as a kingfisher and cormorants. Other water birds included mallards, tufted ducks and Mandarin ducks– the latter in such large numbers that the pilot of our boat slowed down and pointed them out. Unfortunately, I discovered that it is difficult to photograph birds from a moving boat.
As we approached the deepest part of the gorge, the crew opened the roof so that we could appreciate the full impact of the sheer rocky cliffs that formed the walls of the gorge. There was also a running commentary on rocks with various odd shapes (eg, “on your left is lion rock”) but only in Japanese. Some visitors who don’t speak Japanese may find that vexing, but when looking at the beauty of nature, do you really need much explanation?
This deepest part of the gorge is “S” shaped and as we rounded the first bend to the right we could see signs of activity on a rocky bank and a large building that looks like a traditional inn clinging to the cliff above it, with stairs leading upward from the river. High above us is a suspension foot bridge. There may have some hiking up there, but no way hikers could get better views than we have!
We continued upstream. Several threads of white water tumble down cliffs into the river, which then bends to the left. The gorge is narrowing, but ahead we can see it opening again.
The crew identifies a few last rock figures–the god Daikoku and a dog, complete with collar–and then the pilot very deftly turns the boat and we begin our journey downstream.
After passing under the suspension bridge, the captain announces that we’re going to have a break on shore and we pull up beneath that inn we had passed earlier. While some fellow passengers check out the vendors selling the famous river dumplings and items carved of the black rock this area is known for I chat with the pilot and observe that he seems to know the river extremely well. “I certainly do!” he responded proudly. “I’ve been piloting these boats for 40 years.”
Back on the river, it is now late afternoon. The light is vivid and the shadows are getting long. It is beautiful and peaceful as our pilot guides the boat “home”. This is truly the best way to explore a deep gorge like Dorokyo!