By Erik Smith
Land of Fire - Land of Water. The scenery associated with these two contrasting titles is part of what captures the hearts of visitors that come to Kumamoto Prefecture. Located in central Kyushu, the region draws close to 60 million visitors each year with its natural beauty and onsen resorts, and the numbers are continuing to grow as extension of the shinkansen (bullet trains) and the introduction of LCC airlines make access even easier. Minamata, the last stop on the Kyushu shinkansen before entering Kagoshima, is a small town rich in water resources, including an ocean-front onsen resort, a quaint mountainside onsen village, multiple rivers, and drinkable mountain water springs. One river close to the mountain onsen town of Yunotsuru (湯の鶴温泉) features a collection of seven waterfalls that is becoming a popular hiking trail for tourists looking to work up a sweat before heading to the baths.
Of the seven waterfalls along the river, five can be visited using the (partially) maintained hiking trail that is a 20 minute walk from the center of Yunotsuru Onsen Town: the lush and mossy Zatou-daki, the smooth and sleek waterslide Noren-daki, the straight and tall Ko-taki, the mighty, cascading Oh-taki, and the giant staircase Hako-daki. Volcanic activity that ended long before the time of man has given each waterfall a unique shape and created fascinating rock faces and boulders along the river valley, similar to rock formations found at the famous Giant's Causeway in Ireland or the closer Takachiho Gorge in Miyazaki Prefecture.
After soaking up the scenery, you can return to Yunotsuru Onsen Town for a dip in one of the hot springs and enjoy a nice meal at a humble cafe or luxurious Japanese inn. Those who prefer to keep their clothes on can rest their sore feet at a free, outdoor foot onsen located next to the inn called Kikuya (喜久屋).
In the spring and fall, guided trekking tours of the waterfalls are available through either Japan Rail or the city tourism promotion bureau. The trail is NOT maintained in the late summer months, and quickly becomes overgrown with grass and infested with snakes. It is not advisable to attempt to hike the entire trail during the summer, but several of the waterfalls(Zatou, Noren, and Ko) can be accessed easily by car even when the trails are in the off season. Small picnic tables are also located beside Ko-taki and Oh-taki, perfect places to stop for a picnic lunch on your hike.
Hikers coming by Shinkansen can get off at Shin-Minamata Station and grab a discount taxi ticket from the Minamata Tourism Bureau to get to Yunotsuru Onsen (¥1000 each way, split between you and your buddies, of course). Those taking the local train, the Orenji Tetsudou, can hop off at Minamata Station and grab an Orange Minakuru Bus headed for Kagumeishi or Manpa (頭石-招川内, ¥300). Challenging all five waterfalls takes about 4 to 5 hours (round-trip) so we recommend taking the 9:05 A.M. bus up and catching the last bus back at 4:00 P.M. Happy hiking!
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