We began hearing tales about Sandankyo Gorge soon after moving to Hiroshima, toward the end of the 20th century. The more we heard, the more it assumed an almost mystical aura. For a start, the ravine had remained virtually unknown, tucked away in the mountains like Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” until 1910, when photographer Nanpo Kuma discovered it and began spreading the word.
Popularity ensued, but despite this, the natural wonderland of sheer cliffs, dense forests and crashing waterfalls was still largely unspoiled, friends assured us. It is now part of the Nishi-Chugoku Sanchi Quasi-National Park and one of just six Japanese ravines and gorges to be classified as a national Special Place of Scenic Beauty.
Moreover, Sandankyo is home to the fabled Japanese giant salamander. This autochthonous amphibian — the second-largest salamander in the world — grows up to 1½-meters in length. If, like us, you love all creatures that creep, crawl and slither, you’ll understand the excitement we felt when we learned this. Yet in our subsequent visits, we’ve never caught a glimpse of one in the wild.
Inaccessible as it sounds, Sandankyo lies just 35 kilometers northwest of Hiroshima, so we soon became regular visitors. Today, we’re in no hurry, so we take a slight detour to visit the Ini Tanada rice paddy terraces. One of Japan’s 36 most beautiful places (according to CNN Travel), Ini Tanada is also on the list of Japan’s 100 best rice terraces. Here, more than 320 terraced paddies have been carved out of the hillside and the oldest stone wall dates back 500 years. In spring, the paddies are little more than brown stubble, but the way the wavy walls wind up the hillside is mesmerizing.
Sandankyo only opens in late April, after being snowbound for much of the winter, and, as yet, there aren’t too many visitors. At the start of the ravine, there’s a broad parade of little shops and restaurants. In the crisp mountain air, it feels like an old frontier town. From there, a short walk across the big red bridge, past the charming Sandankyo Hotel (soak your weary muscles in its onsen hot spring on the way back), takes you to the path through the ravine — a 13-kilometer trail following the Shiwagi River, a tributary of the Ota River.
The river winds and rushes and splashes over ancient boulders as we tread the path, flanked on one side by a rocky drop to the river and, on the other, by steep, impenetrable forest.
Waterfalls cascade into limpid pools of emerald green, overhung with pine trees. Some of the ravine’s most famous spots have evocative names like Tatsu no Kuchi (Dragon’s Mouth) or Shimaidaki (Sister Falls).
After an hour or so sauntering through this phantasmagorical landscape, we come to the little jetty where a ferry departs. The ride only takes a few minutes, but it’s well worth the ¥500 round trip.
The ferry is a long, flat-bottomed craft, piloted by a cheerful man in a green happi coat. He punts us round the bend in the river, past towering canyon walls where tenacious trees cling, apparently rooted in the rock itself.
The ride is over far too soon and we disembark at a point called Kurofuchi (Black Abyss). This little outpost of civilization is an enchanting spot, dominated by Kurofuchi-so — a rustic teahouse looming on the hillside like the restaurant at the end of the universe. A flimsy bridge linking both sides of the ravine sways gently in the breeze. Outside the teahouse, freshly caught ayu (sweetfish) are grilling over an open fire.
Most passengers from the boat head straight inside, where scrumptious udon noodles and musubi rice balls await. But our attention is distracted by a large glass tank. We go over to take a closer look and find it contains what can only be described as a pair of Japanese giant salamanders. They look like catfish with legs. Their big heads are nearly all mouth. Two of the oddest animals you’ll ever see.
Kurofuchi is far enough for most day-trippers. Once they’ve finished their noodles, they line up to take the ferry back. But if you still have time and energy, there’s plenty left to see, including the three-tiered waterfall that gives Sandankyo its name. You can also take another boat ride through the point known as Sarutobi, where the dark canyon walls are barely 2 meters apart. The entire trail, ending at Hijiri Lake, can take up to five hours, one way.
If you’re in need of an uplifting dose of awe, just catch a bus to Sandankyo from downtown Hiroshima. But be careful — there’s only one express bus a day!
A daily bus leaves platform No. 7 of the Hiroshima Bus Center for Sandankyo Gorge at 8.18 a.m. (¥1,400/80 minutes one way). Sandankyo Gorge is open from late April to late November.