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[Hidden Wonders of Japan] Yonako Falls, a Spiritual Getaway Nestled in Ancient Mountains

The majestic Yonako Falls, counted among Japan's top 100 waterfalls, is a must-visit destination for anyone exploring northern Nagano Prefecture.



From the left, Fudo Falls and Gogen Falls. To the right, the "black waterfall" can be seen. It sometimes appears after rainfall. Taken in June from the Yonako Mine site in Suzaka City, Nagano Prefecture. (© Sankei by Shigeki Harada)

The sheer scale of Yonako Falls is enough to take one's breath away. Located in Suzaka City, Nagano Prefecture, Yonako Falls is around 100 meters (0.06 mi) in height and a kilometer (0.6 mi) wide, with multiple cascades of water flowing down a rocky cliff. 

Despite its elevation of around 1,400 meters (0.9 mi), it's easily accessible. In fact, it's only a 30-minute trek from the trailhead. When visiting northern Nagano Prefecture, including Nagano City, Yonako Falls should be on your list of top destinations.

Yonako Falls is also interesting because of its historical and cultural significance. As a sacred site, it was once revered by Mokujiki ascetic practitioner Tansho. Before World War II, it was a mining site with around 1,500 people residing in its vicinity.

The Black Waterfall

From the observation deck, which is also a former mining site, you can enjoy a spectacular view of Fudo Falls (height: 89 meters) and Gongen Falls (82 meters), originating from Mount Neko and Mount Azumaya, respectively. Mount Azumaya is mentioned in the book One Hundred Mountains of Japan (1964) authored by mountaineer Kyuya Fukada. "Yonako Falls" is the collective name for the two waterfalls. Sometimes, after rainfall, a mystical "black waterfall" appears to the right of Fudo Falls.

Suzaka, where Yonako Falls is located, flourished as a hub of sulfur production used for gunpowder since prewar times. The isolated mountaintop town once had a small elementary school branch and a tennis court. 

Kiichi Ueno, now 89 years old, worked in Suzaka as an electrical engineer. He says there used to be a ropeway stretching to the urban area for receiving goods. "Items ordered in the morning would arrive at the shop by evening," he recalls. While the buildings have been demolished, the past is captured in photos of sulfur ore and shop signs.

The Two Waterfalls

Fudo Falls and Gongen Falls are objects of religious reverence, explains a representative of Yonako Fudoji Temple, the caretaker of the waterfalls. Kiyosada, the disciple of Taicho, who was the founder of the Hakusan faith, climbed Mount Azumaya around the year 718. After that, ascetic practitioners purified themselves in the waterfalls before ascending the mountains. During the Edo period, there were 33 hermitages near the waterfall basin, including the inner sanctuary of Yonako Fudoji Temple. 

Fudo Falls (© Sankei by Shigeki Harada)

Appearance in the TV Series 'Sanada Maru'

Yonako Falls gained nationwide recognition in 2016 when it appeared in the opening scene of the TV series Sanada Maru. Under the name "Yonako Waterfalls Group," Yonako Falls was designated as a national scenic spot along with the surrounding waterfalls.

However, the waterfalls were closed off in 2019 after the trail collapsed due to damage caused by Typhoon Hagibis. It took three and a half years of investigations to assess the risks of landslides and ensure safety measures before they were finally reopened to the public in late May 2023.

For its reopening, the trekking path was renovated by Sherpas from Nepal. The parking lot restroom at the trailhead was also renewed. A bridge damaged by the flood was replaced with a beautiful suspension bridge.


A Place of Ascetic Practice

Those with time, energy, and an interest in religion or history should take a detour to the Stone Buddhas of Mount Kimyo. It is a spiritual site about an hour's walk from the observation deck. It is here that Mokujiki ascetic practitioner Tansho resided for about 12 years in around 1611. He diligently carved Buddha statutes while abstaining from grains and other foods. As a result, there are numerous stone Buddhas for you to see. From here, you can also view the two waterfalls from the front and experience a connection to the ascetic practices of 400 years ago.

"The founder of Mokujiki was Tanzei [1552–1613], but it was through the efforts of his disciple, Tansho, that the Tanzei school flourished," explains Kenji Miyashita, an expert on Nagano's history and culture. "The Stone Buddhas of Mount Kimyo can be considered the origin of the Tanzei school." 

Tansho, who endured arduous training, later carved a massive Buddha statue in Matsukawa, Nagano Prefecture. Subsequently, the statue was moved to Takanawa, Tokyo, where it served as the foundation for the establishment of Nyoraiji Temple.

The Stone Buddhas of Mount Kimyo, including numerous statues carved by Mokujiki ascetic practitioner Tansho. (© Sankei by Shigeki Harada)

This autumn, the lodge Nekodake Sanso will open a cafe at the base of Fudo Falls. The lodge was recently renovated through crowdfunding efforts. 

Thus, Yonako Falls continues to evolve, ensuring that it remains a favorite travel destination for repeat visitors. 

Getting There

The Yonako Falls Parking Lot, serving as the trailhead, is a 40-minute drive from either the Joshin-Etsu Expressway Suzaka-Naganohigashi Interchange (IC) or Suzaka Station. The forest road en route is closed during winter (from mid-November to late April). On weekends and holidays during peak autumn foliage season, there are restrictions on the number of private cars allowed. In such periods, a paid shuttle bus service operates from the Yukku LAND hot spring facility located at the foot of the mountain. For details, contact Shinshu Suzaka Tourist Association (026-215-2225).


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Shigeki Harada

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