The Otonashi Waterfall (Otonashi-no-taki [音無の滝]; also Otonashi Falls; translated as the “Soundless Waterfall”) was a waterfall that I was only made aware of after doing a double-take on our first trip to Japan by looking through an old Lonely Planet book. It referred to the falls in the context of a visit to the very atmospheric and zen-inducing Sanzen-in Temple on the northeastern outskirts of Kyoto in the suburb of Ohara. So when we had an opportunity to come back to this part of Japan, I jumped at the chance to see and experience a part of Kyoto that wasn’t the usual tourist haunts like the Fushimi Shrine, the Nijo Castle, the Kinkakuji Shrine, the Kiyomizu Dera, the Gion District, etc. While the waterfall itself was probably only 10m tall and was somewhat underwhelming, the reward for willing to go out here and pursuing this obscure attraction was not only the peaceful experience of doing this hike, but also excuse to experience the atmosphere of the famous Sanzen-in Temple.
We’ve seen literature claiming that the hike from the Sanzen-in Temple to the Otonashi Waterfall was as little as 10-15 minutes in each direction, but in our experience, it took more like 45-60 minutes round trip (or close to 30 minutes in each direction). According to my GPS logs, the hike was on the order of 750m or so in each direction or 1.5km round trip. The path was gently uphill initially on a narrow paved road skirting the southern boundary of the Sanzen-in Temple complex then towards the end of the pavement, it passed by a few more atmospheric smaller temples and shrines before getting onto a more conventional dirt trail around 400m or so from the shops fronting the Sanzen-in Temple complex (just past the last of the smaller temples and shrines along this narrow road; one of which I believe was called the Raigo-in Temple).
The trail went amongst a pleasingly naturesque landscape of tall trees and mostly silence other than the sounds of leaves rustling against the breeze. Shortly after the trail crossed over a small bridge then ascended on the other side of the gurgling stream past a manmade dam or wall then uphill for another 100m or more to the miniscule Otonashi Waterfall. It appeared that the trail we were on kept continuing on to the left of this waterfall, and according to my maps, it would have eventually reached the Daiosan Mountain at over 600m I believe. The interpretive signs by the falls was completely in Japanese so I couldn’t readily tell what else was special about it (I was especially keen to understand why they called this the “Soundless Waterfall”).
Finally, we should mention that since our visit happened in the mid- to late afternoon, my Mom and I actually visited the Sanzen-in Temple first because we knew it had limited opening hours. The same was true for the smaller shrines and temples on the path to the Otonashi Waterfall. However, the waterfall itself did not have such a restriction. And sure enough, all the shrines and temples were open when we started the hike around 3:30pm, but we definitely noticed that the smaller temples and shrines were closed after 4pm when we were making our way back to the car. So that’s something to keep in mind if you’re on a time constraint and you happened to be in a similar situation as us.
The Otonashi Waterfall and the Sanzen-in Temple were readily reached by both self-driving (which was what we did) and by public transportation (which we studied and intended to take but didn’t when we still had time to drive here before returning the rental car in Osaka). So we’ll describe both methods of reaching the Sanzen-in Temple starting with the self-driving option first.
So from the interchange of the Chugoku and Meishin Expressways in eastern Osaka, we drove northeast on the Meishin Expressway for at least the next 26km. The Japanese GPS included in our car rental had us take the most direct route, which meant getting off the expressway at the Kyoto-Minami IC exit, then driving north on the Route 1 (taking us through some heavy traffic and congestion in Kyoto’s city center) before reaching the Route 367 on the northeastern outskirts of the city, then continuing on the Route 367 along the Takano River (or Takanogawa) for about 7km after the road had bridged over the river in the first place. There was an obscure unsigned turnoff on our right that we could have taken or driven another 600m to a signed turnoff to our right. There were lots of car parking spaces along this turnoff (some charging 500 yen or more), but we opted to keep driving the narrow local road before eventually turning left up a narrow and climbing alleyway leading to the closest car park to the Sanzen-in Temple, where we paid 400 yen to park there.
In hindsight, instead of leaving the Meishin Expressway at the Kyoto-Minami (Kyoto South) IC, it might have been better to drive further on the Meishin Expressway for 10km to the Kyoto-Higashi (Kyoto East) IC exit, then follow the Route 143 before turning right onto the Shirakawa Dori, then following that throughfare north to the Route 367 and following that route as described earlier to Ohara and the Sanzen-in Temple. This was the way we went on the return drive to Osaka, and it took us about 90 minutes (even with some traffic in Eastern Kyoto) to drive the 62km distance to the Meishin-Chugoku Interchange.
Finally, since we did study the public transportation option, we can say what we could have taken the number 17 bus from Kyoto Station direct to Ohara (taking about an hour and leaving every 20 minutes). A faster way would be to take the Karasuma Subway Line to Kokusaikaikan Station (taking 20 minutes) then the number 19 bus (taking about 20 minutes but leaving every 40 minutes) to Ohara. The very useful 1-day Kyoto City Bus pass wouldn’t work for these options as Ohara was considered outside Kyoto’s city limits, but the slightly more expensive Kyoto Sightseeing pass would cover the subway part and then require paying the remaining bus fares out of pocket.
And for some geographical context, the Sanzen-in Temple in Ohara was about 20km (about 45-60 minutes depending on traffic by driving or over an hour by public transportation with some additional walking) from the Kyoto Station. Kyoto was also 53km northeast from Osaka (about an hour drive or by train), 40km north from Nara (about 45 minutes drive or an hour by train), and 136km west from Nagoya (about 2 hours drive or under 90 minutes by train).
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