Imagine a valley with a river so clean, it’s one of the last remaining homes to a mystical-like creature: the Japanese giant salamander. Researchers from all over Japan visit Sandankyo Gorge in central Japan to study this near-extinct amphibian. The fully aquatic salamander can grow up to one-and-a-half-meters long and live up to 80 years, but due to its size and lack of gills, it is confined to fresh, flowing water with an abundance of oxygen. Unfortunately, pollution, dams and general urbanization have drastically decreased their habitat and numbers. The giant salamander is federally protected today.
“We see various sizes of giant salamanders here in Sandankyo Gorge, which means it’s a breeding ground and, therefore a very clean, natural environment,” says Hisachika Kobayashi, a nature guide and kayak instructor. The nocturnal creatures are shy and tend to stick to the river floor, plus their mottled camouflage makes them hard to distinguish. If you’re lucky, you might spot one while swimming or kayaking.
For those wanting to get a more in-depth experience (and possibly a greater chance to see these salamanders in action), the non-profit organization Sandankyo Ota River Study Group holds environmental workshops and sawanobori (shower climbing) tours. Learn more here.
Sandankyo Gorge is a little-known outdoor mecca in central Japan, usually overseen by travelers visiting Hiroshima’s landmarks such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Atomic Bomb Dome just an hour away. The gorge is part of Akiota Town, which was designated as Hiroshima’s first Forest Therapy Town in 2012. Today, the residents take great pride in their conservation efforts, from strict fishing regulations to their forest therapy education and programs. In winter, people from surrounding prefectures flock to Osorakan Snow Park, one of the biggest ski resorts in the region.
“Originally, I moved to Akiota for snowboarding—yes, it snows here in Hiroshima!” says Kazuhisa Hamaguchi, a forest therapy and snowshoe guide. “It doesn’t snow as often compared to up north, but when it does—usually twice or three times a year—backcountry snowboarding on Mt. Shinyu almost makes me feel like I’m riding powder in Niseko or Hakuba.”
But what really drew Hamaguchi to stay was the green season.
“The outdoors easily became my backyard,” he says. “From spring to autumn, I can easily go on hikes, enjoy the river, go fishing or camping, and of course, go on shinrinyoku walks.”
Shinrinyoku (forest therapy) is less about hiking to a destination and more about enjoying the journey, walking slowly and immersing yourself in the forest and feeling with all your senses. It started in Japan in the ‘80s and has been praised for its physical and mental health benefits by providing exposure to phytoncides, natural substances released by trees that ward off germs. Research has shown that even just a half hour of forest therapy relieves stress, lowers blood pressure, boosts immunity and alleviates tension and fatigue. In fact, some healthcare systems around the world cover forest therapy as part of mental care.
There are several forest therapy courses in Akiota, the two main ones being Mt. Shinyu, a three-kilometer gradual uphill trail, and Sandankyo Gorge which leads to several waterfalls including Nidan Falls.
“Nidan Falls is special for us because we can get to experience it up close, and also it’s hidden away because there are no walking paths to get there,” says Ryosuke Uchida, a pack raft guide.
To get to Nidan Falls, you’ll have to either pack raft or ride a ten-person wooden boat through a narrow passage. Moving the boat is no easy feat, as the boat master has to pull a series of ropes strung throughout the passage like telephone wires. A standard oar or paddle won’t work here for a boat this size as the river floor is very deep. The trip costs ¥500 for adults and ¥300 for children.
Another recommended forest therapy course starts at Osorakan Snow Park, or rather Osorakan Ecology Campsite in summer. The therapy road is less than four kilometers long. Back at the base, you can enjoy camping, ziplining and a sauna.
Although faced with a decreasing population, Akiota works with elderly craftsmen and farmers to provide cultural experiences and educational workshops for the next generation. Before Akiota Town started placing its efforts on outdoor recreation, it was primarily a farming and logging village, from which arts and crafts arose. Temple and shrine carpenters who worked on Miyajima, Hiroshima’s famous shrine on the water, sourced their wood from this region and passed down woodturning skills. Today, Fumio Yokohata, one of the descendants of these craftsmen, continues a nearly 200-year-old tradition at Yokohata workshop carving spoons. He’s been carrying on the wood carving tradition for 70 years. Visitors can participate in a spoon making workshop and bring back a homemade souvenir (¥5,000 for the workshop). For more information, visit their website here.
Nestled along a road just behind the workshop is Yokohata Farmstay run by a charming couple, Masami and Ryoko Yokohata. Guests can harvest vegetables and learn Japanese cooking using ingredients from the farm. Depending on the season, you can also try your hand at mochi making.
“We want our guests to feel like they’re coming home, in the same way we greet our children and grandchildren when they visit us,” says Yokohata.
Not to be missed is kagura, a Shinto ritual dance often performed at small shrines and festivals. Kagura is a combination of dramatic dances, elaborate masks and costumes accompanied by powerful music, usually retelling a mystical tale with warriors fighting oni (demons). Akiota is still home to sixteen kagura groups.
Sandankyo Gorge and Akiota Town can best be enjoyed over three or four days and recommended for travelers who want to get a bit of outdoors and local culture while passing through Hiroshima or heading down to Shikoku. For more information or to book experiences and tours, visit Akiota Town’s website.
There is a variety of places to stay depending on your budget and comfort level.
This ryokan-style hotel at the entrance of Sandankyo Gorge features locally-sourced Japanese dining and onsen (hot springs). ¥11,650 for one night with two meals.
Ikoi no Mura Hotel
This unfussy hotel at the base of Mt. Shinyu has Western and Japanese rooms and serves Japanese-style dinner (and the occasional Hiroshima oyster). Onsen are available for daytrippers as well. ¥13,750 for one night with two meals.
Irie Minshuku is a simple lodge with home-cooked Japanese food and a shared shower and bath. ¥8,000 for one night with two meals.
Hajimari no Ie
This self-contained, modern house is catered for guests looking for long-stays (one-week minimum stay requested) and is perfect for a “workation.” Equipped with a shared shower, bath and kitchen. Exceptions can be made for business travelers on shorter stays. Inquire Akiota town for prices.
Nukui Dam Resort
This pet-friendly glamping site is located at Nukui Dam and features a dog run park, go-karting, Segways, pizza making and a free voucher for the nearby Tsukigase Onsen hot spring. Accommodation packages start from ¥15,000 per person.
Osorakan Ecology Campsite
Cabins and BBQ facilities are available at this campsite at the base of Mt. Osorakan. Sauna, hot shower and camping rentals (sleeping bags, sleeping mats, blankets and BBQ rentals) available upon request. Cabins start from ¥5,000 per night.
Public transportation in Akiota is limited, so it’s best to rent a car from Hiroshima Airport and drive to Akiota (90 minutes). Alternatively, if you are already in Hiroshima City, take bus #75 heading to Sandankyo Gorge from bus stop 7 at the Hiroshima Bus Center.ϖ