Sanbon Waterfall (Sanbon-daki [三本滝])

Norikura Highlands / Matsumoto / Takayama, Nagano, Japan

About Sanbon Waterfall (Sanbon-daki [三本滝])


Hiking Distance: 1.8km round trip
Suggested Time: 45-75 minutes

Date first visited: 2016-10-20
Date last visited: 2016-10-20

Waterfall Latitude: 36.11855
Waterfall Longitude: 137.59393

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The Sanbon Waterfall (Sanbon-daki [三本滝]; Sanbon Falls or Sanbondaki) was a three-segmented waterfall that was one of the more unusual waterfalling experiences that we’ve had in Japan.

From reading the kanji signs pertaining to this falls, we had already guessed that the waterfall had something to do with being in three pieces.

Sanbon_Falls_058_10192016 - Sanbon Waterfall or the Sanbondaki Waterfall
Sanbon Waterfall or the Sanbondaki Waterfall

We interpreted the kanji to mean the triple falls or that each of the three segments of the falls came from different sources (and converged in this one spot).

As for the characteristics of the waterfalls, each of them was said to have a height of 50-60m.

However, it was hard for us to get a real handle on them as it was very difficult to try to capture the waterfalls in a meaningful photograph without some dicey scrambling and bouldering.

The rightmost waterfall, which slid down a sloping bed of a former lava flow, was said to be named Kuroisawa Falls.

The middle waterfall, which had more of avertical plunge, was called Honsawa Falls.

Sanbon_Falls_063_10192016 - One of the early bird photographers standing on a rock between the middle and leftmost of the Sanbondaki Falls
One of the early bird photographers standing on a rock between the middle and leftmost of the Sanbondaki Falls

This particular waterfall flowed on the Koonogawa or Koono River, which was the main river system that was responsible for other waterfalls in the Norikura Highlands like Zengoro Falls and Bandokoro Falls.

The leftmost waterfall of the Sanbon Waterfalls trio was said to be called the Mumei Falls, which ran on a watercourse that was not officially named.

Perhaps what was more surprising about these waterfalls was their notoriety.

Case in point, we encountered quite a few people photographing this waterfall even though we thought we had gotten an early start in the day.

Indeed, it seemed like a pretty popular photographic subject with tripod-wielding photographers perhaps seeking out their money shots before the crowds would inevitably arrive.

Hiking to the Sanbon Waterfall

Sanbon_Falls_005_10192016 - The start of the hike to the Sanbon Waterfall or the Sanbondaki Waterfall
The start of the hike to the Sanbon Waterfall or the Sanbondaki Waterfall

Although we noticed that there was more than one car park for the Sanbon Waterfall, we started our hike from the highest car park (see directions below).

We chose this trailhead because it happened to be the one yielding the shortest walk.

This car park also happened to be where shuttle vehicles could take us up (for a fee) to the top of Mt Norikura for a 360-degree panorama.

Anyways, our hike ended up being about 1.8km round trip and took us a little over an hour to do.

Sanbon_Falls_013_10192016 - Mom and Dad hiking past an open area on the way to the looping part of the hike to the Sanbon Waterfall or the Sanbondaki Waterfall
Mom and Dad hiking past an open area on the way to the looping part of the hike to the Sanbon Waterfall or the Sanbondaki Waterfall

The hike started off by meandering gently downhill through a clearing to the right of the large wooden building backing the car park.

We then reached a junction where it turned out that this was the beginning and end of a loop hike taking in the Sanbondaki.

Keeping right at this junction (so we were hiking counterclockwise), the clearing eventually closed in and we found ourselves hiking through a pleasant forested area as the trail continued to make its gradual descent.

Along the way, there was another trail junction where we kept left to continue to the Sanbon Falls.

Sanbon_Falls_019_10192016 - Mom and Dad hiking the loop trail to the Sanbon Waterfall (or the Sanbondaki Waterfall) in a counterclockwise fashion
Mom and Dad hiking the loop trail to the Sanbon Waterfall (or the Sanbondaki Waterfall) in a counterclockwise fashion

I did briefly check out the other trail to see where it went, and it ultimately got me to a spot where I managed to get a view of some smaller cascades on the Koonogawa River before I turned back.

Anyways, the main waterfall trail then started to go up some steps before traversing a suspension bridge right above a pretty tall intermediate cascade.

Just on the other side of the bridge, the trail then bent around some giant rocks before finally terminating at the head of the ravine where the three waterfalls of the Sanbondaki converged.

During our visit, we happened to show up when there were deep contrasts between the brightly lit up area towards the top of the falls and the shadowy areas towards their bottoms.

Sanbon_Falls_038_10192016 - Context of a suspension bridge perched above one of the impressive intermediate waterfalls on the Koonogawa River en route to the Sanbon Waterfall (or the Sanbondaki Waterfall)
Context of a suspension bridge perched above one of the impressive intermediate waterfalls on the Koonogawa River en route to the Sanbon Waterfall (or the Sanbondaki Waterfall)

Such conditions weren’t conducive to taking meaningful photographs due to the high dynamic range between the light and dark zones.

So if I had to do this all over again, I’d either visit late in the afternoon or very early in the morning when everything would be in shadow.

Either that or I’d show up on an overcast day when the lighting would be even under the clouds.

On the return hike, we kept right at the junctions to complete the loop.

Sanbon_Falls_078_10192016 - Finally arriving at the Sanbon Waterfall (or the Sanbondaki Waterfall), but the contrast in lighting made picture taking at this time very difficult
Finally arriving at the Sanbon Waterfall (or the Sanbondaki Waterfall), but the contrast in lighting made picture taking at this time very difficult

This branch of the trail involved going up a lot of steps so I’d imagine that we made the right choice in doing the loop hike in a counterclockwise manner.

In general regarding loop hikes, I’d recommend gradual descents (to save the knees) and shorter but steeper ascents (so the pain of going uphill isn’t prolonged).

Authorities

The Sanbon Waterfall resides in the Norikura Highlands near Matsumoto of the Nagano Prefecture, Japan. It is administered by the Ministry of the Environment. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, you can try visiting their website.

Sanbon_Falls_004_10192016 - Looking across the building at the parking lot for the Sanbondaki Waterfalls, which I think also supports the shuttle for going up to the top of Mt Norikura
Sanbon_Falls_008_10192016 - Mom and Dad starting on the trail to the Sanbon Falls, where signs tell us it's about 900m to the falls, but 50 minutes return walk
Sanbon_Falls_018_10192016 - Once we got out of the clearing, we then chose the path to our right (doing the loop counterclockwise), which passed through a pleasant forested area that kept us out of the sun
Sanbon_Falls_024_10192016 - My parents could read most of the kanji (since it shares some of the same traditional characters as that of Chinese) so they knew which way to go at these junctions. I actually took a brief detour to get a sense of where the other path went here
Sanbon_Falls_028_10192016 - I took a brief look at where a side trail went (deviating from the Sanbondaki Falls) and managed to get this view of one of the intermediate cascades further downstream on the Koonogawa
Sanbon_Falls_035_10192016 - On a suspension bridge en route to the Sanbondaki Waterfall, this was the view downstream over a couple of drops of an intermediate waterfall on the Koonogawa River
Sanbon_Falls_037_10192016 - Direct look at one of the other intermediate cascades on the Koonogawa en route to the Sanbon Falls
Sanbon_Falls_046_10192016 - Finally making it up to the Sanbondaki Waterfalls. This was a look up at the rightmost Sanbon Waterfalls called Kuroisawa Falls
Sanbon_Falls_050_10192016 - This was Honsawa Falls - the middle falls of the Sanbon Falls series, which I believe was the main waterfall as it was directly on the Koonogawa
Sanbon_Falls_052_10192016 - Here's a different look up at the rightmost waterfall or Kuroisawa Falls
Sanbon_Falls_068_10192016 - One of the photographers scrambled to get a closer look at Honsawa Falls - the attractive middle waterfall of the Sanbondaki Falls
Sanbon_Falls_081_10192016 - Another look at the attractive middle falls of the Sanbondaki
Sanbon_Falls_088_10192016 - After having our fill of the Sanbondaki Waterfalls, we approached the suspension bridge right at the brink of one of the intermediate cascades on the Koonogawa once again
Sanbon_Falls_090_10192016 - Context of the view crossing over the suspension bridge with an intermediate waterfall tumbling to the left on the return hike from the Sanbondaki Waterfall
Sanbon_Falls_093_10192016 - It was a cool and crisp morning when we did the Sanbon Falls hike so when the sun continued to rise on our way back out, we welcomed the warmth of the oncoming day
Sanbon_Falls_095_10192016 - Mom and Dad continuing to finish the loop hike to the Sanbondaki Waterfall as we now started to approach the trail junction on the far end of the loop
Sanbon_Falls_099_10192016 - The last section of the Sanbondaki loop hike involved going up a bunch of steps. The people coming down were doing the loop hike in the opposite direction than how we did it
Sanbon_Falls_101_10192016 - Dad going up the steps while Mom was way ahead on the return hike from the Sanbondaki Waterfall
Sanbon_Falls_102_10192016 - Mom continuing up the steps on the final home stretch of the loop hike from the Sanbondaki Falls
Sanbon_Falls_104_10192016 - Finally back at the car park for the Sanbon Waterfall and Mt Norikura

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We drove to the Sanbon Waterfall from Matsumoto so this is how we’ll describe the driving directions.

We first drove west on the Route 158 from the JR Station at the city center for around 32km.

As we were deep into the scenic mountains skirting the Azusako (Lake Azusa), the 158 passed through a series of tunnels.

Norikurakogen_002_10192016 - This was the National Park Vacation Center, which can also be an alternate trailhead for the Sanbondaki Waterfalls, but it would be a longer uphill hike to get there from here
This was the National Park Vacation Center, which can also be an alternate trailhead for the Sanbondaki Waterfalls, but it would be a longer uphill hike to get there from here

However, in one of the openings between tunnels was the turnoff going to our left onto the Road 84 into the Norikura Highlands (or Norikura-kogen or 乗鞍高原).

We then followed the Road 84 for about 17km (going past the National Park Vacation Center en route) to the end of the public access part of the road.

This was where there was the car park for the Sanbon Falls (or Sanbondaki Falls), which had a fairly big lot next to a large wooden building.

The hiking trail began to the right side of the building.

Sanbon_Falls_003_10192016 - The car park at the trailhead for the Sanbon Waterfalls (or Sanbondaki Waterfalls) high up in the Norikura Highlands
The car park at the trailhead for the Sanbon Waterfalls (or Sanbondaki Waterfalls) high up in the Norikura Highlands

Overall, this drive would take us a little over an hour.

It was roughly 15-20 minutes drive past the Bandokoro Falls.

To give you some geographical context, Matsumoto was around 3.5 hours by train from Tokyo. As for the context by self-driving, the direct route passing through Kofu en route was said to be 221km or about 2.5-3 hours. Going in the opposite direction, Matsumoto would be 85km or under 2 hours drive east of the charming city of Takayama.

Examining all three segments of the Sanbon Falls from the end of the official trail


Checking out some more intermediate cascades downstream of the main falls as seen from some suspension bridge


360 degree sweep from a footbridge on an alternate trail examining some cascades just downstream of the main falls

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Tagged with: nagano, norikura, highlands, matsumoto, japan, waterfall, matsumoto-jo, matsumoto castle, shirahone onsen, kogen, japan alps, zengorou, sanbon, bandokoro, takayama, top 100



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Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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