The Sound of Water (III): Waterfalls and Gorges (Sandankyo)

When a river gains enough power, it wages a battle against rocks and mountains, thus creating waterfalls and gorges. The teeth of water are soft, but they cut deep into the rocks, and their battle songs are sharp and loud. Japanese gorges are small in scale compared with the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Valley, but nonetheless they are superb in their beauty. Besides, no other country in the world has so many gorges, and each of them has a different physical shape and structure.
Sandankyo is a granite gorge in the north of Hiroshima prefecture. Granite is hard, so it puts up brave resistance against water. You enter this gorge via a suspension bridge hanging over a foaming river, which raises not only a frightening noise but also a wind that rocks you from below. This wind is most welcome in summer and makes you realize that you are entering a very different world from that of your daily life. A sharp ascent soon begins and every time you stop to breathe, you enjoy a different view. At one point, the river runs through a channel that looks like a narrow gutter, angry because it is confined. In spring thaw, this is where the river shouts as loudly as a full-blown jet engine before it plunges into a deep pool. A short walk from here takes you to a granite precipice where two small waterfalls come down side by side, making very soft music. That is probably why these waterfalls are called the ‘Two Sisters’. Thirty minutes’ walk on a relatively easy slope takes you to another cascade called ‘Akadaki’. This name derives from the unusual colour of its rocks – subdued red. One time, I was so thirsty that I had a sip from this waterfall. The clear water was very tasty, but I detected some mineral, which I could not identify.
Another thirty minutes’ walk takes you to a most scenic spot called ‘Kurobuchi’ — a huge dark pool, surrounded by walls of granite. If you want to walk further up the gorge, you will have to climb up one of these walls and then down to the river on the other side. But there is a boat service for those who do not fancy this. If you tug a rope at your end, a boatman will emerge from a hut at the other and row you up the river. The pool is so deep and dark that you cannot see the bottom. It must be the lair of giant fishes, or a hideout, perhaps, for a kappa or a dragon. This is the only spot in the whole gorge where silence prevails. I can never forget the gentle tapping of the oars when the boatman rowed me up the river.
An hour’s walk from here takes you to a point where two branches of the river meet. There used to be an inn at this point, and once when I stayed there, I could not sleep at all because the noise of the river kept me awake all night. If you walk up one of the branch rivers, you will soon come to ‘Nidandaki’, a waterfall that used to leap down in two steps. Now it has only one step for a typhoon destroyed its upper level. Again, you have to use a boat to reach this spot, but this time, you must ascend the river by pulling yourself along on a fixed rope. Just before you get to the waterfall, you pass through a crevice in the granite with a narrow opening at the top. This spot is called ‘Sarutobi’ for the opening above is so narrow that monkeys can easily jump across. The dramatic change of light as you leave this crevice and come into sight of the waterfall is something I can never forget. If you go up the other branch of the river, you will eventually arrive at the waterfall that gave the whole gorge its name, since this waterfall leaps down in ‘sandan’, three steps. The first step is a single leap of water, but the second step consists of two small, short cascades. The final step is a waterfall of amazing width and height. You can hear different things in its sound, as complex and varied as an orchestra. Alas, they built a dam above this waterfall, and ever since then, it has sounded as if it were weeping, and its rocks are now covered with ugly moss. The deep pool I mentioned earlier has been affected, too. When I last saw it, its colour was no longer so black. I suppose that the river must have lost its power and the pool now filled with stones. And this is not the only loss: the train service to the gorge was abolished about ten years ago. The bus may be faster, but we no longer have the luxury of enjoying river scenes from windows in a train.

The waterfall says,
‘Hop, step and jump’, leaping down
From the granite rock.

From a dark crevice
To the sun-lit waterfall —
My eyes blinded out.

This reddish cascade,
Does it gush out from the womb
Of the heated earth?

The smell of brook trout
Cooking on the charcoal fire,
Too hard to resist.

On the old platform,
I wait for the local train
That never arrives.


10 Responses to “The Sound of Water (III): Waterfalls and Gorges (Sandankyo)”

  1. John Dougill Says:

    The haiku seem to issue out of the haibun all in a flow! Of the five haiku I like the last two best, partly because the smell of brook trout is indeed hard to resist and partly because local trains never do seem to arrive… somehow they ring true.

  2. What a wonderful mural of images and sounds. I like the focus on sounds and the depths they reveal. Depth is a key feature of this piece, in fact the writing colorfully portrays every dimension. I like in particular the second and third haiku because, especially in tandem, they evoke very visceral – even horrific – feelings that delve even deeper.

  3. Richard Donovan Says:

    “Blinded out” in the second haiku is a wonderful invented phrasal verb that perhaps combines “blind” and “wash out”, as in an image that is overexposed and washed out, or even “put out”, as in poor Oedipus. The haibun contains many such moments of awe in the presence of water’s terrific power.

    “Sarutobi” reminds me of the passage in “Monkey: Journey to the West” where Monkey leaps through a waterfall into the Water Curtain Cave, and in so doing becomes king of the other monkeys. I felt the narrator of the haibun is leading us on a journey that, while not as arduous as Monkey’s trek to India, is similarly full of mysterious voices and the watery lairs of dragons.

  4. Quite enjoyable. Part travel information, part personal experience. Well-described features of Sandankyo, particularly the waterfalls within. I felt the descriptions brought out the life, and, or, the personalities of those waters. I was moved by the dam’s affect on the last of those waterfalls described, and its sad response.

  5. It reminds me of my own experience of visiting a waterfall “Shirai no taki” at the suburb of my city in Ehime. The haibun is created based on full uses of his five senses. So I can see, hear, smell, taste and feel the place and atmosphere. And the description flows like streams that run through the gorge. Finally, each haiku is like a waterdrop sprashed out of the basin of the waterfall. I can feel the negative ions.

  6. Richard Steiner Says:

    I lived in Hiroshima for two years quite some time ago. With a couple students, we visited Sandankyo one afternoon. The train was running then. We didn’t make it up as far as Nobuyuki lead us thru his haibun, but the imagery he has painted brought back memories of that trip. Even in summer, it gets dark quickly there, so we had to turn and make our way back. It is another world. The smells, sounds, no-sounds, colors, (especially in the autumn) are unlike elsewhere. What was missing then, and also missing from Nobuyuki’s haibun, was the sound of birds. Were there any? Not even a crow made a comment about our visit. No crows. Occasionally I will go mountain walking. In Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu; not steep challenges, more easier climbs or walks. On none of them have I ever heard any bird songs. Are there any birds in Japan other than crows and sparrows?

    in deep gorges no sound
    of flight, save the empty wind’s

    Nevertheless, another mighty fine offering from the granite-sharp pen of Nobuyuki Yuasa. So descriptive were his path words, my feet hurt.

    • Rather than comment myself, allow me to step on your bandwagon, Richard… Yes, it’s strange that the birds of Japan are generally so quiet. Have always thought that myself. The British birds would be screaming and whistling all the way to the final falls.

      • Dear friends,.
        Thank you very much for your encouraging comments. Yes, bird songs are not really a part of the natural drama of Sandankyo. I have heard uguisu and hototogisu in early summer, and minminzemi (cicada) in late summer and early autumn, but I do not remember hearing anything else very much. I saw kawagarasu (dippers) throught the year, but their songs are so inconspicuous. I feel like writing a haibun on bird songs in Japan one of these days. (Sosui)

  7. I don’t believe we ever got a ‘Waterfalls & Gorges 2’ from you, Nobuyuki, so I have removed the ‘1’ from the title here.

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