Nakatsu Gorge: strength of stone versus power of water

Mountainous Japan is home to many spectacular gorges; deep narrow valleys through which tumble fast flowing rivers. Among these, Kochi Prefecture’s Nakatsu Gorge is dramatic, scenic and inspiring, yet relatively easy to access.

The mountains and valleys of Kochi tend to feel higher and steeper than mountains in other parts of Japan and the Niyodo river valley at the point where it is joined by the Nakatsu River is no exception. Just a couple hundred meters up the Nakatsu River from here, visitors can have an easy stroll through Nakatsu Gorge, marveling at the sheer stone walls, the incredibly beautiful colors of the river, and the enormous boulders lying in the river’s bed. In the autumn, that feast to the eyes is augmented by the vibrant colors of changing leaves.

The Niyodo River system is particularly known for its beautiful blue water; clean, clear water tinted blue by minerals drawn from the rocks (most likely granite, a known source of aquamarine). Its tributary, the Nakatsu River, is no exception.

It takes only about half an hour to traverse the walkway through the gorge to Uryu Falls and beyond to Ishi-bashira (the stone pillar), a distance of 2.3 kilometers. Most visitors want to linger longer.

One excuse to tarry is seeking out the images of the gorge’s Seven Lucky Gods, a pantheon that bring fortune and happiness. Most are represented in the gorge by stone statues, easily spotted and recognized. The first, Bishamonten, the god of war, is especially easy to spot, keeping watch across the river at the entrance to the gorge. Next up is Ebisu, god of fishermen and merchants, holding a fish. A little further on, after the path crosses the river, Benten, goddess of music and fine arts, is nestled in a crevice in the rocks.

The next god, Daikoku, god of wealth and abundant harvests, overlooks a pretty little pool where the pathway ascends some stairs. But there is no statue of Daikoku. Instead visitors must seek out his face in the stone, just below a stone rendition of his “mallet of fortune”.

At the top of the stairs above Daikoku, is Fukurokuju, the god of happiness, wealth and longevity. Further upstream stands Jurojin, also a god a longevity, and nearby Hotei, the god of happiness and contentment (there is something wrong with a visitor who is not happy in this stunning environment).

Besides the spectacle of the deep, narrow gorge, with its pink and gray granite walls nearly sheer in places, another amazing aspect of the gorge is the massive boulders that lie on its floor and in the river bed, the water tumbling around them. Some appear to have washed downstream during periods of flood or high water, but others have clearly broken away and tumbled down from the walls of the gorge above at some point in the far distant past.

After passing the statue of Hotei, the gorge narrows substantially, its walls closing in even as the pathway becomes somewhat harrowing. Since the water rises over the pathway during periods of flood, there can be no rails, which could catch debris and then be destroyed by the force of the water. (Several bridges over the Niyodo River are similarly designed.)

Take the right fork in the path to visit Uryu (dragon rain) Falls, a 20 meter ribbon of water, the source of the water that has carved this gorge over 400 million years. Even in the autumn, a low water time of year, there is power in this water.

The area above the falls is a deep pool that is regarded as sacred, hence the rope slung across the top of the falls to demarcate a holy place.

The only way forward is to return to the fork in the trail and take the left fork, up a series of steep stairs that lead to a lookout down over the gorge and then to a roadway above the gorge.

When the trail connects with the roadway, turn right to walk up to the sacred pond above the falls. Turn left to continue up the gorge a bit further to the famed Ishi-bashira, or stone pillar, a spot in the gorge where the water has carved the stone walls of the now very narrow gorge, leaving a pillar of stone intact.

There are two ways to return to the starting point, by walking down the road or by retracing your steps through the gorge. It goes without saying that the former is far more interesting than the latter.

Back at the entrance to the gorge, cross the bridge to reach Yunomori Onsen, a hot spring offering accommodation, day baths, and meals. A nice hot soak in an outdoor pool followed by a refreshing beer from the local craft brewery should be quite welcome at this point.

From Kochi city it takes about an hour by private car or just under two hours by train to Sagawa and then Kurokawa Kanko bus to Nanogawa bus stop, a 10 minute walk below the gorge. Either route takes visitors through beautiful scenery.

© 2020 and Vicki L. Beyer
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