Between Hokkaido and Heaven – Wingspan (ANA in-flight magazine)

Climbing Kamuiwakka Waterfall, Hokkaido, Japan

The name, Kamuiwakka-yu-no-taki, only begins to tell the story. Taki is Japanese for “waterfall,” and Kamuiwakka means “waters of the gods” in the language of Hokkaido’s aboriginal Ainu people.

Here’s where it gets interesting, though: Kamuiwakka is both an earthly waterfall and a very godly hot spring. It’s located in Shiretoko (Ainu for “end of the world”) National Park, which occupies some 38,600 hectares of the Shiretoko Peninsula in easternmost Hokkaido. It’s about as far as one can go on that island, which is about as far as one can go in Japan.

All of which means that Kamuiwakka is not for the casual visitor.

But it is an adventure, from the moment you board the bus for the 45-minute ride from the park’s nature center. The route offers loads of nature-watching opportunities—the park’s famous five lakes, pines and wildlife, volcanic mountains and cliffs, and for a while you run a ridge looking northwest along the Pacific. Bus drivers readily stop for photos, gawking and admiration.

On my recent trip, fog—the kind of fog that sticks to the trees—was setting in as we ascended the twisted mountain road; even the air fell a little slick. Beside the road, tan baby foxes were curled up like oversized cinnamon rolls, and inside the bus were the excited cries of my fellow passengers: “Shika da!” (“It’s a deer!”), “Sugoi ippai!” (“Wow, that’s a lot of them!”) and “Kumaaa!” (“Beeeaaar”). That last one may have come from someone’s imagination—or been cleverly camouflaged by the time I got around to looking for it.

Deer near Kamuiwakka Waterfall

The bus deposited us at the base of the wide waterfall, from where it’s a 25-minute climb on foot to the bath—as I said: not for the casual visitor. This being one of Japan’s great wildernesses, there’s no trail or staircase, so looking at this wall of rushing water you might well ask “Climb what, exactly?”


Climbing SatisfactionYou climb right through the water. It’s not generally very steep or deep—maybe 10 centimeters in parts—but rubber-soled footwear is a must.

And what a sensation it is: the waters are chilly when you first enter, but a few minutes upstream they gradually warm, fueled by hot springs deep inside the earth. Soon you might see steam, especially if the air is as cool as it was on my visit. Don’t like the water temperature? Shift left or right to adjust, and keep moving.

The waters flow over flats, crags and some steep pitches. Certain rock faces are a little treacherous, and basic climbing skills can be helpful, but that doesn’t stop entire families— from grannies and grandpas to six-year-olds and parents carrying kids in slings—from making the trek.

At the top, quite a sight: one final three-meter waterfall empties into some small pools, with folks frolicking from one to the next. You can choose your temperature; some of the waters flow hot—and not just for hot-for-foreigners—others are cool, while others are simply warm and delicious.

On my visit, city types relaxed here with a sense of fun they rarely get to exhibit at home, innocent, vital and full of the satisfaction of having accomplished a challenging climb. This being a family hot spring, there was more modesty than at the typical hot spring, and visitors wore swimsuits.

By the time I finished my soak, I was in a pleasant daze, it was getting late, and the sun was glowing large and orange through the fog. Regretfully I began my descent. The air was growing cooler, but as the water rushed through my sandals I was instantly warmed again.

Waters of the gods indeed.

Kamuiwakka Waterfall, Hokkaido, Japan