Beyond Kyoto: A Waterfall in Wakayama

Wakayama is one of my favorite places in Japan. Located Just south of Osaka, this inaka (countryside) prefecture is known for its mikan (tangerines), mountain ranges, and rocky coastlines. In the Kansai region, Wakayama would probably win the award for most rugged and rural. One of the major tourist destinations here is Koyasan, which I've blogged about before But there are countless of other undiscovered gems in this prefecture that are largely off the map for most tourists. In an effort to explore Wakayama further, I recently visited the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula to see one of Japan's most impressive sights: Nachi Waterfall.

I understand why many tourists don't come here. The train ride from Kyoto was just shy of 5 hours, which in itself is a commitment that many visitors don't want to make when on a tight vacation schedule. However, it was well worth the overnight stay, and when coupled with a few other location attractions, the Nachi region makes for a wonderful destination.

The waterfall itself is the main draw here, and it really is an impressive marvel of nature that far surpassed my expectations. Located in a forested valley about 20 minutes drive from the coast, the setting is magnificent and evokes a strong feeling of wilderness and the power of nature that surely had an impact on the ancient people who set up religious sites there. At the waterfall's base, there is a small Shinto shrine complex surrounded by massive cedar trees covered in centuries of moss. The view looking down the slippery, mossy steps as you descend the base of the falls is awe-inspiring, and makes you feel as though you're shrinking in size as you approach the towering cliff.

From the viewing platform at the closest point to the falls, you get a good look at the shimenawa sacred rope hanging over the spot where the water rushes over the edge before plummeting 133 meters. This rope marks a holy spot connected to the Shinto gods living in nature, who have been worshiped in this location since prehistoric times.

One Shinto image towers over the rest at Nachi: Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow. This important Shinto symbol (for it's not really a god or spirit per se) is very visible at the waterfall shrine, imprinted on all sorts of religious trinkets and items for sale at the shrine shop. It was this crow that led the mythical first emperor Jimmu from the area near Nachi Falls to Nara, where the seat of imperial was established. Yatagarasu appears in other Shinto stories as well, often as a symbol of rejuvenation or guidance sent from the gods to benefit mankind. And the image of this three-legged bird is evident in the waterfall itself. Three individual streams of water pour over the lip of the cliff before joining into one powerful torrent. Yatagarasu has clearly left his footprint on the land that he first appeared in.

The Shinto element at Nachi is strong. The spirits and gods living in nature are making themselves known in the primeval forest and flowing waters. But there's another religious element at work here. Buddhism has a strong influence at Nachi as well.

The interplay between Shintoism and Buddhism since the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century is long and complex (and highly debated by scholars). One thing is clear: neither of these religions have ever existed independent of each other in Japan since they first met. Various eras have seen these faiths mix and cooperate, while they were forcibly separated in other times. Currently, we can say they are fairly clearly defined as individual entities, but the history of cooperation and blending between Shintoism and Buddhism is alive and well in this remote corner of the nation.

A lengthy hike up the mountain brings you to Seigantoji Temple. This Buddhist houses a statue of Kannon, the deity of mercy and compassion, and gets very busy with pilgrims beginning a famous 33-temple pilgrimage. When I visited, there was a large group of several dozen elderly pilgrims clad in white being led in prayer by the local priest. Their chanting of the Heart Sutra prayer fit the solemnity of the dark hall, voices rising with firmness as they confirmed that existence is emptiness beyond our mental understanding. Only through acceptance that this world exists as both as we interpret it and as it actually is (and never the twain shall meet) can these pilgrims begin to lift the veil on a broader understanding of existence. And if it doesn't come in this lifetime, that's fine. There's always the next. And the next. And the next...

Directly next to Seigantoji Buddhist temple is Nachi Taisha Shinto Shrine. There was a time in history when this was not uncommon. Shrines and Temples often existed in the same complex and worked in tandem to worship the Shinto kami gods of Japan and the foreign Buddhas that came from India via China and Korea. These deities were sometimes seen as one and the same, a clever way for these religions to reinforce themselves with each others' power and heritage.

One of these ancient gods is still living on the mountain overlooking the falls. In between the shrine and temple is a large camphor tree, said to be over 800 years old. The shimewa wrapped around the trunk and offering of sake at the roots denote this tree as as a Shinto god. Through a gaping hole in the base, you can climb up into the hollow body of this god and emerge reborn from the trunk with an amazing view of the Nachi valley below you.

Here's the best part of the whole Nachi experience: I didn't see any foreign tourists the entire time. This is a location that is still very much off the map for most visitors to Japan. The travel time to get here is long, lodging is not abundant, and there aren't a ton of other things to see in this corner of Wakayama. Still, Nachi should be on your list of must-see spots in Japan, especially if you want to get in touch with the more spiritual aspects of the countryside.

Nachi Can be reached by the Kuroshio express train from Kyoto. The ride to Kiikatsuura Station takes about 4.5 hours. Sit on the right side of the train for impressive coastal views, and be sure to bring lunch and drinks with you because there's no food service or vending machines on the train.