Kumamoto, Kumamoto Pref. – Stewing in the cicada-serenaded soup of summer can be a trying time in Japan. During the hottest months, it would be easy to give up hope and melt away into a mess of sweat to emerge again only in autumn. There are many years I would have done just that, if it were not for the savior of summer, the greatest of August antagonists: clear, cold mountain rivers.
On a particularly hot and sweaty weekend, I decide to cool off at the flagship of Kyushu’s swimming spots: Shishigawa Gorge, deep in the mountains of Miyazaki Prefecture. It has everything one could want from a swimming hole — except for a rope swing, but we’ll forgive it this one shortcoming.
I arrive at the tiny parking area late in the morning and though the sun has yet to reach its peak, the day is already far too hot. It is a quick walk to the first of the gorge’s cascading turquoise pools and though I plan to climb upstream to even more picturesque locations, the temptation to swim becomes too much: a preliminary dip is in order. At the pool’s edge I take off my shirt, submerge myself in the crystalline waters — my feet reaching unsuccessfully for the pool’s ridiculously deep bottom — and begin to relax.
“Don’t stay here, it gets better upriver,” I have to remind myself after a few minutes in the water, urging mind and body to move onward to the better spots.
A trail follows the river upstream, but I opt to walk up the rolling granite channel. I pass other pools, skirting some and briefly dipping into others. Eventually I come to a pair of pools, their curved banks elegantly crafted by years of erosion.
The lower pool is shallow and reflects every color between blue and green as it shines radiant beneath the sun. At its back edge flows a naturally occurring waterslide. Above this is the upper of the two pools — deep and circular — backed by a beautifully symmetrical curtain of water. This is the spot I’ve been looking for.
I climb up along the edge of the pool and dive in. The water is cool and refreshing. After scrambling back out I dive in again, this time from a higher ledge, before swimming across the pool and through the waterfall. Where the fall meets the basin, a lip of rock extends into the recess behind the water, and I hide in the dappled light before moving beneath the falling curtain to wash the week’s stresses straight from my memory. It is for this rejuvenation and resuscitation that I drove three hours into the mountains of Miyazaki.
If I’ve learned one thing from a decade of exploring Kyushu, it is that the island is a swimmer’s paradise. Beyond the already well-known swimming spots, my trusty map book (I never explore using a cell phone —- map book or stay home) has revealed serene, under-frequented gems such as the Shishigawa Gorge. I have discovered hidden swimming oases that are probably known only by the people who paved the nearby roads, or the long-gone youths that once swam in those rural rivers before Japan’s shift to the cities from the countryside.
Summers in Japan are survivable, and even enjoyable if you can combat the broiling temperatures. For anyone unaware of Japan’s liquid life rafts, my advice is to start searching, either on your own or through friends and acquaintances, for a spot or two that will bring you back to life.
Chris Ott has spent 10 years exploring Kyushu looking for the island’s best swimming spots. He has compiled his favorite spots as a Google Map, which can be accessed at goo.gl/xqoabo.