One of best places I have visited in Japan is Namegawa Gorge (滑川渓谷) in the Saragamine Mountain Range Prefectural Natural Park (皿ヶ嶺連峰県立自然公園) near the small city of Toon, located in the Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku. A short one-hour drive from where we live in Imabari, my fiancé and two work colleagues went one Sunday for a restorative adventure that we will always remember.
Namegawa Valley is known among Ehime locals but is off the beaten track for tourists. You will require a car to get here. The road itself is rather narrow but drivers are cautious and there are places to pull over. On the drive there are some amazing views when you emerge out of the forest and below you get peeps of the beautiful clear water of the Namera River running through the gorge.
The road is clearly marked so continue on following the signs and they will lead you to a small car park at the foot of the trail. The only toilets are here and a small shop if you wish to use the facilities before beginning.
There is a sign by the carpark showing the layout of the trail and the sites along the way.
I would recommend going up first as we did; it leads to the most impressive waterfall and only takes around half an hour at an easy pace. The path follows the river which runs down a unique monolithic rock bed, crossing back and forth over bridges and including a couple of small ladders. It is very well maintained, just be cautious as it can be slippery in some places so take care with kids.
For us, the hike took much longer because we stopped so often to admire the stunning scenery. Despite the extremely hot summer the forest was so green and there was a fair amount of water running through the gorge, making the most peaceful sound. It truly felt like a fairytale setting straight out of the Ghibli universe; we expected to come across Totoro at any second.
The way the running water has carved out the river bed is spectacular; the rocks are smooth so it looks like you could slide all the way down. There are a number of calm pools of various depths and sizes along the whole walk which are perfect for swimming, but be warned the water is rather cool even in summer!
Namegawa Valley offers a great experience in every season; because of the depth and location of the gorge it remains shady and cool all year round. This makes it a welcome respite from the summer heat, while during autumn you can enjoy the beauty of the colorful leaves, and in winter you will see many icicles in the waterfalls and the riverbed.
Because of the unusual erosion of the rocks the valley is called the Dragon’s Belly. The main waterfall at the top of the hike is called the Dragon at the Back; the hollowed out gorge is reminiscent of a huge slumbering dragon.
Because there wasn’t too much water flowing down the riverbed we were able to walk around the waterfall and look into the deep pool beneath it. We found a flat rock nearby where we could spread out our delicious picnic lunch made by our Japanese mum, our lovely work colleague. Sitting in the cool, munching on homemade food while listening to the splash of the waterfall was an absolute delight.
On the way back down the path we stopped so that my fiancé, Bruno, could go for a swim in the many water holes. Us ladies were a little less ambitious and were content with going for a paddle. We got a lot of stares from the Japanese people walking past which suggests that not many people are brave enough to get into the chilly water but I strongly recommend giving it a try!
We arrived back at the start and took the other path that climbs down via a ladder into the gorge. You will retrace your steps and come back up the same way to get back to the carpark. It is worth it; there are a number of smaller waterfalls and great photo opportunities you won’t want to miss.
While Namegawa gorge may seem out of the way, if you are able to make the effort to get to this magical and memorable place you will be blown away. It is a perfect example of the unique natural beauty that Japan has to offer.
Namegawa Gorge Information
- Location: Myoga, Toon, Ehime Prefecture 791-0322
- Access: Accessible only by car. Turn off Highway 11. Small parking lot available.
- Hours: Open every day