Mother nature never ceases to amaze me. There is so much raw beauty in the world that sometimes it’s easy to see where fantasy writers come up with their inspiration for magical lands. Certain places on this earth that feel like they’ve been plucked right out of some far away mythical land; Takachiho Gorge is one such place.
Takachiho Gorge (高千穂峡, Takachiho-kyō) is a narrow chasm cut through the rock by the Gokase River. The nearly sheer cliffs lining the gorge are made of slow forming volcanic basalt columns which resemble the scales of a dragon.
Do you know the scene in from The Lord of the Rings where the fellowship is paddling down a beautiful river with steep cliffs on either side? Remember that moment of utter awe at the grandeur as they float through the entryway guarded by 2 statues? That is what entering Takachiho Gorge in our little rowboat felt like.
But before I get carried away singing the praises of Takachiho, let’s backtrack to the beginning.
We awoke very early that morning, gobbled up the delicious and beautiful breakfast our hostel provided, and made a beeline to the boats at Takachiho Gorge. We parked our car in the small parking lot next to the boat rental company for 500yen. Over time I have learned that one of the keys to enjoying traveling in Japan is to figure out the most popular tourist activity (or the place you are the most excited about) and get there eeeearly, before the hoards of tourists descend and transform a tranquil environment into a chaotic pandemonium.
For us the activity we were the most excited about was the row boat experience through the gorge. I knew that if we didn’t get there early we would spend our precious 30-minute time allotment fighting to manoeuvre through throngs of boats. Not appealing in the least. I wanted to feel the magic of that gorge, and appreciate its splendour without stress. The boat rental, if you go early, is definitely something I would recommend.
Boat Rental Information:
- Hours of operation: 8:30-5:00pm (last boat rental time 4:30pm)
- Cost: 2000 yen per boat for 30-minutes (maximum of 3 people per boat)
- Open every day (unless water levels are dangerous)
The company is pretty strict, we were made to don dorky life jackets, only one person could man the oars they explained, they also made us promise to not switch seats, told us what time to return and because we were 4 people we had to rent 2 boats (1000 per person is still a steal in my opinion for the experience). I personally appreciated this no-nonsense experience as it made getting on the boat a very quick process, 5 minutes tops! If you don’t speak Japanese don’t worry you’ll be fine.
We saw packets of duck food for sale and each boat decided to purchase some. I have no shame in admitting I love feeding ducks now as much as I did as a small child. It’s the little things in life right? Lizzy and I climbed into the boat after debating who would row; we ultimately decided, although I felt guilty she’d do all the work, that because my camera was nicer I should be the one to take the pictures.
We hopped into the boat and instead of heading straight to the gorge, we got a little distracted by our new feathered friends who swam over like miniature greased lightnings to quack ‘good morning’ to us. They knew where breakfast was to be found the smart things. I won’t lie that at the beginning our attention was solely focused on feeding those adorable ducks.
Once the food was gone, with identical gleeful grins on our face, Lizzy paddled us off to have our adventure. “Captain Lizzy” did a great job navigating. When our 30-minutes was up far too soon I felt very sad to leave Takachiho Gorge behind. Luckily there was lots more to be excited about that day. Next we walked the length of the river up to the Takachiho Shrine which was a really nice 15-20 minute walk.
That big tree got us pretty excited for Yakushima. What can I say I like big trees and I cannot lie….sorry that was a really terrible joke, I just couldn’t resist.
After a quick exploration of the temple grounds we walked back the way we came (we needed to get back to our car) and hunted down the #2 recommended viewpoint of the Takachiho Gorge (#1 is inside the gorge on the boats). It’s from up above which is really nice.
After the Takachiho Gorge, we went to explore the birthplace of my favourite legend and a very famous “power spot” in Japan.
According to legend, the sun goddess Amaterasu was upset by her brother’s cruel pranks. So she decided to hide herself away in a cave, she refused to come out, thereby denying sunlight to the world. Worried for the sake of the world, the other gods and goddesses searched high and low to find her hiding spot. Eventually they found her cave, but she refused to come out. The gods and goddesses tried everything they could think of to lure her out, it was to no avail, until one of the goddesses decided to dance in a ridiculous way which made all the other deities laugh. Amaterasu grew curious about what they found so funny and at long last decided to come out, thereby returning her light to the world.
About ten kilometers outside of central Takachiho, the Amano Iwato Shrine (天岩戸神社, Amano Iwato Jinja) was built near the cave where legend says the sun goddess tried to hide. Although tourists cannot enter the cave there is a nice pathway along the river leading to a shrine built nearby this cave into the rocks. I can say without a doubt that the Amano Iwato Shrine is one of my absolute all-time favourite shrines in Japan. The reason why is that it was like no other shrine I have ever seen in this country. Also, I had read that this shrine is one of the strongest “power spots” in Japan, but it wasn’t until I was there that I understood what people meant. I’m normally not superstitious…and I can’t describe the feeling properly, but what I will say is that a visitor cannot help but feel a strong aura of power.
Perhaps this feeling came from the awe looking at the thousands of tiny stones stacked upon one another (called “iwasaka”) by worshippers that were everywhere you looked. An iwasaka was made in ancient times during worship to invoke the presence of a deity.
Heather and I had a real blast scampering around the river taking pictures of these tiny stones. Eventually though, there are only so many photos you can take, we hopped back in the car to return for dinner at our hostel. We all packed our bags for Yakushima as we were leaving early the next morning, and then I napped a little while my friends relaxed as I had come down with a bad cold by this point after Nagasaki’s rain. I really have terrible luck when it comes to planning major hikes.
That evening, I had read on Japan-guide.com that there was a special dance performance held every night at the Takachiho Shrine from 20:00 to 21:00 for 700 yen. The dance performance done by masked dancers reenacts the legend of the sun goddess, and is about 1 hour long. It’s purely instrumental so don’t worry if you can’t speak Japanese! If you’re a foreigner the people at the front door also will give you a sheet of paper explaining the story in English. It is held at the Yokagura performance hall, just a few steps from the shrine’s main building. If you drive to the shrine, there’s a large parking lot from which all you have to do is follow the tiki torches. Be sure to get there about half an hour early as it’s a small venue that fills up fast, and you definitely want to be close to the front! We got there at 7:30 and got great seats.
Here are a few shots from the performance! I had a serious obsession with those masks; aren’t they just incredible?!
The final scene of the play was by far my favourite as it was interactive with the audience. The story is about a man and wife who decide to enjoy drinking sake one night, things get a little tipsy and they approach people in the audience with a wiggle of their eyebrow (if you know what I mean *wink wink*) to the shock and anger of their partner.
The wife approached a really cool dude in the audience who made everyone laugh playing along. He was such a good sport, even smiling as I took his picture and he gave me a wink! I’m not kidding when I say I’ve never laughed that hard at a play in my life. It really helped that the guy was directly in front of me so I had the perfect front row seat to the hilarity.
Uh oh! And there came the husband to whisk his naughty wife away back to their bed.We left the performance in high spirits with huge smiles.
I really recommend Takachiho because as you can see on the map everything is relatively close together so it’s easy to see the major highlights in one day. Plus while you’re here it really does feel like you’ve stepped into a page straight out of a Japanese legend. I hope everyone who visits Takachiho can enjoy exploring the legends of the area as much as I did!