About Kamuiwakka Waterfall (Kamuiwakka-no-taki [カムイワッカの滝])
The Kamuiwakka Waterfall (Kamuiwakka-no-taki [カムイワッカの滝]; Kamuiwakka Falls) was a pretty well-known rotemburo (natural outdoor hot springs) deep in the wild Shiretoko National Park on the island of Hokkaido.
Over the years, we managed to experience this thermal springs-fed waterfall in a couple of different ways, and we’ll break them down in this write-up.
But one thing was for certain after our last trip, and that is the Kamuiwakka Waterfall is no longer a rotemburo experience that it might have been in the past as it’s now more of an adventure-type natural attraction.
Experiencing the Kamuiwakka Waterfall by boat
When we first experienced the Kamuiwakka Waterfall back in June 2009, we did it by boat.
We ended up taking a somewhat pricey four-hour tour from the town of Utoro, which encompassed the western coastline all the way up to the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula.
At that tip, we witnessed a lighthouse from a distance before turning back.
The striking thing about the Kamuiwakka Falls experience by boat was that we were able to see its most dramatic sections dropping into the Sea of Okhotsk.
We knew that the Kamuiwakka Stream had special properties for a waterfall thanks to its acidic sulphur-rich water, which colored its underlying rocks yellow while also causing interesting mixture patterns when interacting with the sea’s saltwater.
I don’t think it’s possible to experience the waterfall in this manner by land, which makes the boat tour all the more interesting.
Yet in addition to waterfalls, our boat tour also allowed us to witness (from a safe distance) brown bears doing their thing while also allowing us to witness eagles, sea birds, and even dolphins!
Moreover, the boat tour also allowed us a bit of scenic sightseeing as we managed to witness Mt Rausu rising steeply over the Sea of Okhotsk.
Experiencing the Kamuiwakka Waterfall by land
Prior to the Kamuiwakka Waterfall being regulated under the jurisdiction of Shiretoko National Park as a UNESCO World Heritage Area, accessing the falls was a matter of will and timing.
After all, there used to be shuttle bus that would have taken people to the trailhead on an unsealed road through bear country, which only ran from July 15 to August 15.
However, after some issues with crowds and rockfall dangers with the increased visitation (thanks to the increased notoriety of this area), this has now become a more regulated waterfall adventure experience as opposed to the rotemburo it once was.
And this was ultimately how we wound up booking a visit through the Shiretoko Visitor Center while renting out their sticky spider-rubber shoes and getting a helmet at the trailhead.
In a way, we got lucky even booking this experience as it was a total last-minute decision after the Furepe Waterfall hike was closed due to bear activity (funny how things work out like that sometimes).
In any case, this river walk adventure was only about 1.2km each way according to my trip logs, but it involved climbing up at least four “major” waterfall obstacles as well as stream walking.
There was a fifth waterfall (the one that also had the rotemburo), but roped barriers only allowed us to get up to the fourth waterfall and no further (and they didn’t let us bathe in the warm water of that waterfall’s plunge pool).
As a result, our adventure took between 1-2 hours, and there was one staffer in the river to help with some of the trouble spots.
Speaking of the trouble spots, perhaps the third waterfall obstacle was the trickiest (especially on the way back down) as it involved climbing directly in the cascading waterfall, which is kind of counterintuitive.
The main reason why it’s better to walk in the waterfall rather than avoiding it is that the acidic nature of the Kamuiwakka Stream prevents algae from growing on the bedrock (which would have made things slick).
As for reaching the trailhead, that involved a bit of a 45-minute drive on a narrow, unpaved road (which we’ll discuss more deeply in the directions).
The Kamuiwakka Waterfall Nomenclature
Finally, when we first visited the falls, we didn’t get an answer on what the word “kamuiwakka” means.
However, we did know it’s Ainu, who are the indigenous peoples of Hokkaido and the surrounding islands as well as Northern Honshu.
We suspected the Ainu origin of the word because of the many Japanese sound characters using katakana in its place name, which also hinted to us that the word was not Japanese to begin with.
Years later, we learned from the Shiretoko Visitor Center that the word roughly translates as “water of the Gods” in the Ainu language.
And given the rather unique properties of the Kamuiwakka Waterfall that we’ve discussed earlier on in this page, I guess that kind of makes sense!
The Kamuiwakka Waterfall resides near Shari in the Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan. It is administered by the Shiretoko National Park. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, you can try visiting the Ministry of the Environment website.
There are a couple of different ways to experience the Kamuiwakka Waterfall, and we’ll describe the driving directions for each way.
First, the boat excursion we went on was right within the Utoro township.
I believe all the tour operators on these types of boat tours are based on the docks here, which can be accessed on a fairly obvious road leaving Hwy 334 towards the sea (turning left at the lone traffic light in town).
As for the land-based tour of the Kamuiwakka Waterfall, from the Utoro township, we drove about 5km from the traffic light in Utoro towards the Shiretoko Visitor Center.
Just beyond the visitor center, there was a signed spur road leading to the left, which we then followed for about 8km towards a signed fork in the road.
The road to the left continued to the Shiretoko Goko (5 Lakes) while the fork on the right became an unpaved road leading to the Kamuiwakka Waterfall.
During our visit in July 2023, there was one staffer there checking to make sure you have a booking before letting you proceed (I think that’s one of the ways they regulate traffic here).
Once we got past the staffer, we then drove the remaining 10km on the narrow, unpaved road where we definitely had to watch out for potholes, wildlife, and cliff exposure (especially when there’s oncoming traffic).
We knew we got to the Kamuiwakka Trailhead when we saw parking spaces on either side of a bridge over the Kamuiwakka Stream as well as some temporary buildings acting as a local office.
Besides, beyond this area, the road was gated off so any further driving would only be for authorized vehicles so it’s not like you’re going to drive past this trailhead.
Overall, the drive from the Shiretoko Visitor Center to the Kamuiwakka Falls Trailhead took us about 45 minutes without being too rushed.
For geographical context, it took us a pretty brutally long and slow 5 hours of driving to get from Asahikawa to Utoro by way of Abashiri and Shari. Asahikawa was 137km (2 hours by car or 2 hours by train) northeast of Sapporo. Sapporo was about 9.5 hours by train or 90 minutes by flight from Tokyo. It was also possible to fly to Sapporo from Osaka (under 2 hours) or Kobe (2 hours; this was how we did it on our trip).
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