As I sit on the edge of a 20m waterfall with a crowd of my friends cheering me on from below, I think to myself, “What on earth am I’m doing?”.
I am about to canyon the fifth of the Nanatsugama-godan-no-taki, a beautiful five-tiered waterfall on the Yamanashi River in the Nishizawa Gorge. If you’re not familiar with the term canyoning – it is a relatively new sport that gained its popularity in the 1990s. It involves abseiling, jumping, sliding, and swimming down a river through a canyon.
The majority of visitors who venture to the Nishizawa Canyon are hikers enjoying the breath-taking scenery of the valley. Most of them would probably never think of viewing the valley while swimming down the river, and would be surprised to know that the Yamanashi river is one of the best in Japan for canyoning and also whitewater kayaking.
The Nishizawa Valley is in Yamanashi prefecture, which is located in the middle of Honshu. This prefecture is a powerhouse for tall mountains, pristine forests, national parks, lakes and hot springs. Most people who visit this area want to climb Japan’s highest and most sacred mountain, Mt Fuji. The Nishizawa Valley is near Mt Fuji, and is an off-the-beaten-path gem unknown and often overlooked. For this very reason I immediately accepted when my friends offered me a spot on their canyoning/kayaking adventure to this unique rural area of Japan.
The trailhead to the Valley begins at the back of the Nishizawa Keikoku Gorge car park, which is about two and a half hours from Tokyo by car. Our crew of kayakers and canyoners gathers here to put on wetsuits, organise our gear for the day, and begin the two hour hike to the first waterfall. The trail is well maintained and a fairly easy hike, but there are some steep uphill sections that can be challenging, especially if you are lugging up a kayak and a paddle.
The five-tiered Nanatsugama-godanno- taki is the starting point for the canyoning/kayaking run. Since this is my first time canyoning I think my friends are joking when they tell me that this is the first waterfall we are going down. “No seriously, where are we really going to start canyoning?” I ask in disbelief. Luckily I have four smaller waterfalls to warm up on before taking on the 20m one. They range from two to 10m. “You’ll be fine,” says my friend Hide, “they look bigger than they are!”
I finally work up the courage to push off the 20m waterfall, the one I’ve been sitting on top of for the last 10 minutes in sheer fright, and as I do I can hear my friends chanting my name from down below. The first 10m of the waterfall are through a mini chute, and it is completely dark. The last 10m are a straight free-fall, and I am disoriented by the burst of bright sunlight when coming out of the chute. I lose my co-ordination and land bum-first into the pool. Luckily I am wearing 7mm of the thickest neoprene wetsuit I could find, so I don’t feel a thing.
I’m underwater for a few seconds before my lifejacket shoots me up to the surface. I pop out of the water, out of breath, terrified, and screaming, and before I can process what just happened I hear myself yell, “Let’s do that again!”
If you don’t have a car but would like to visit the Nishizawa Valley you can get there from Tokyo Station. It takes approximately 90 minutes on the JR Kaiji Express to get to the Shioyama Station and then hop on the Yamanashi Sangaku Kotsu Bus and it takes about 60 minutes from there to the entrance of Nishizawa Keikoku Gorge.