Sounkyo Gorge, Viewpoint and Waterfalls
The previous day we had managed the high-level mountain hiking excursion in the Daisetsuzan National Park in reasonable weather despite a poor forecast, so we weren't too surprised when we awoke to wet weather after a good forecast! It seemed a bit like home.
We had wanted to climb a lower hill of 1145m on the north side of the valley, and maybe get as far as the 1369m summit beyond. After breakfast we walked down through the village in the rain, and crossed the road to a parking and picnic area where a signboard indicated that the path should start from. However, the only possible route had a rope across it and a sign indicating it was closed. There were plenty of other amusing little notices, illustrating aspects of the life of trees. The rain had eased off by now. We returned to the pavement along the main road and walked east along it, checking for other ways up the steep hillside through the forest. One promising track led us to a camp site with good facilities which was totally empty, and there was no sign of a route up the hill.
We continued along the main road, with the river to the right (south) and steep wooded slopes on either side. Clouds drifted around the crags high above the forest. To the left a stream descended the hillside over what looked like high wooden barriers, maybe to prevent rock slides blocking the road. Soon after, the road went off into a tunnel, and we followed the old road on the right along the river bank. After passing under a concrete shelter protecting the road, we reached a large car park with several large coaches standing, and a path running alongside the river took us to a viewpoint looking across at high waterfalls cascading down into the river. This was the famous Sounkyo Gorge with the Shooting Star Falls and the Milky Way Falls. Plenty of other visitors were enjoying the scenery and many cameras were clicking away. One carmeraman had what looked like a large movie camera set up filming a couple. A friendly man was happy to take a picture of the two of us with the waterfalls above our heads!
By this time, the weather had cleared up and we were in bright sunshine. A mobile van was offering a wide choice of bikes for hire, enabling us to cycle back to the bike hire shop in Sounkyo rather than walking. We seized the opportunity, but first cycled further along the old road to reach the best views of the colourful volcanic rock columnar formations hanging down over the river, as featured on several Sounkyo postcards. This was just half a mile (1 km) or so from the car park. Two Japanese women with a small child came along on bikes after us to share the view.
When we got back to the car park, we realised there was a footpath leading up steps to a higher viewpoint facing the waterfalls. We left the bikes and climbed up the steps - lots of them - past one viewpoint and then to another, about 130 m or 400 feet from the car park. It took about 15 minutes of breathless climbing. This provided us with a spectacular view through fir trees across to see the full height of the falls emerging from the rocks above. This was another Sounkyo postcard picture!
The cycle ride back to Sounkyo was an easy 15 minutes. We returned to the picnic area for lunch, and saw another couple of Westerners trying to locate the start of the footpath up the hillside. We asked at the Tourist Office, and were told that the path had been blocked by a rock slide, so it would have been a good idea to have asked before setting out! However, they confirmed that there was a path from the top of the village to another gorge nearby.
After a much-needed cup of coffee at the cable car station, we decided to seek out this path, which was marked on our map. We worked out we needed to cross the bridge facing the cable car station, and follow the road round past a couple of big hotels and the youth hostel. Soon after a sharp bend where the road crossed a stream, we found on the right the start of a track into the woods. We tucked the bikes away behind a shed, and set off, unsure if this was the right path. It led through tall undergrowth.
Catriona was concerned there could be bears in these quiet woods, and as we didn't have bear bells to alert them to our presence, we started singing a variety of nursery rhymes and pop songs! However we didn't have any difficulty in reaching the bank of a large stream splashing down over large rocks, and stopped to admire it.
The track continued up the side of the stream through the woods, and we decided to continue. Several sections were quite steep, but the track was reasonably clear and easy to follow. It took us to two more stopping points on the rocks with the waters crashing down around us - each one more dramatic than the previous one. Maybe an hour after setting out we reached the third stopping point. It was tightly enclosed between vertical cliffs, with rock formations stretching high above us similar to the ones we'd seen earlier in the main river gorge. The sky seemed far away. The stream emerged gushing out from a narrow gap in the rock face in front of us, and there were the remains of tree trunks and branches smashed on the rocks around us, presumably left by a storm. This looked like the end of the track, except maybe for rock climbers. We spent some time taking in the awesome setting, and taking photos. The distant sky was getting darker, and we began to feel raindrops, so decided it was time to head back.
It was a quicker descent, maybe half an hour back to the bikes. We passed the other couple we'd seen at the picnic area, making their way through the woods. As we started cycling again, the heavens opened, and we were thoroughly soaked with warm rain as we pedalled frantically back to the village. The National Park Visitor Centre was open and we headed in there, leaving the bikes in the rain and peeling off our wet jackets. It was an ideal place to sit and enjoy another hot drink whilst drying off, watching the raindrops on the windows. We were grateful that we had stayed in the valley and managed to enjoy the gorge and waterfall scenery. If we had found the path up the hillside as originally planned, we might have had a miserable descent in the rain. Sometimes things just turn out fine, and we had enjoyed a taste of both the mountain tops and the gorges during our two walking days in Daisetsuzan National Park.
Next morning before leaving we called in for a second time to the woodcarver's workshop next to our guest house, and bought some delightful carvings of the owls that are a symbol of the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido. Finding presents that can easily be carried around in a rucksack for a fortnight isn't easy, and these were genuine local craft products.
Variations: For the Main Gorge, we could have hired the bikes in Sounkyo and cycled there and back, avoiding the 45-minutes beside the road. Or we could probably have caught a bus there and back - with just a short walk to see the rock formations and to climb the steps to the viewpoint.
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