About Yonako Waterfall (Yonako-otaki [米子大瀑布])
The Yonako Waterfall (yonako-otaki [米子大瀑布]; “Yonako Great Falls”) was a pairing of two tall plunging waterfalls dropping side-by-side at the edge of a caldera drained from Mt Azumaya volcano.
The twin waterfalls are called Fudo Falls (不動滝, or “motionless waterfall”; a common name for waterfalls in Japan) and Gongen Falls (権現滝, or “Buddha Avatar waterfall?”).
As you can see from the photo above, permanent waterfalls dropping in this manner are quite rare, especially for waterfalls this big.
According to the signs that we’ve encountered, the Fudo Falls drops 85m or 89m while the Gongen Falls drops 75m or 82m (the differing numbers depend on which sign you believe).
So it’s no wonder why this pair is considered to be one of Japan’s Top 100 Waterfalls as gazetted by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment in 1990.
Situated within the Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park near Suzaka City (which is on the eastern outskirts of Nagano), we had to earn our experiences with the Yonako Great Falls.
However, the high elevation of the mountains harboring both the falls and the trails (Mt Azumaya is 2354m high) ensured that the temperatures remained relatively bearable for our visit that took place in July 2023.
To quantify what was meant by “bearable”, the temperatures were in the low- to mid 20s Celsius on the trail (even cooler when we started at around 6:30am) while Nagano roasted in the low- to mid-30s Celsius.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the circular caldera responsible for the Yonako Waterfalls is easily seen on satellite and relief maps.
Mt Azumaya is the stratovolcano responsible for the caldera, but along the rim of the caldera were other peaks such as Mt Nekodake, Mt Urakura, and Mt Kimyo).
In fact, there’s a bonus waterfall called Kimyoudaki (draining from Mt Kimyo) though access to that one has been impacted by rock falls.
Summary of the Yonako Great Falls Hike
While there are a few ways to experience the Yonako Waterfall, we’ll describe the way my Mom and I did it, which was a counterclockwise loop hike that was at least 6km total.
This distance doesn’t count some of the detours that we took (to the bottom of Fudo Falls and to Kimyoudaki Falls), which probably added an additional kilometer to this total.
If you’re not up for the roughly half-day excursion, then it’s possible to hike about 1.2km (or 2.4km round-trip) to get up to a distant view of the Yonako Great Falls before turning back.
However, I have to warn that doing it this way probably wouldn’t be the greatest return for your efforts, especially when you factor in that you’ll be gaining over 200m over that distance.
I’ll get into this later in the trail descriptions, but you have to go in the opposite direction (clockwise) of what the signs suggest you should be doing (counterclockwise).
While I generally advocate for getting the hardest parts of a trail done and over with first when you have the most energy, with the benefit of hindsight in this instance, I actually agree with what the signs have suggested.
The main reason why is that you have a brutally long and steep climb at the beginning before some up-and-down hiking the rest of the way.
That said, there’s really nothing stopping you from doing the entire loop hike in reverse (some people would rather see the falls from afar before getting closer to them).
However, I think the authorities also want to prevent that overcrowded feeling when this place does get busy, especially on the weekends or during the koyo (Fall Colors) typically in mid-October.
As for time commitment, my Mom and I took over 3.5 hours on this excursion at a very slow pace (since her knees weren’t in the greatest shape).
I’d imagine for most people, this excursion should take around 3 hours and maybe less if you’re quick and you don’t stop very often.
Finally, I also want to mention that this trail can get a little rough in spots (particularly in the beginning and the very end which are the steepest parts of the hike).
Therefore, if there’s bad weather, it’s probably not a good idea to do this hike due to the hazardous footing conditions as well as the low likelihood of seeing anything given the low cloud cover.
Yonako Great Falls Trail Description – Hiking up to the Old Temple
From the Yonako Great Falls car park (see directions below), we proceeded on the hike as we passed a restroom building as well as a bunch of trekking poles left by the trailhead.
So you know this trail is no joke if people are lining up old trekking poles by the trailhead!
After about 200m from the trailhead, there was a fork in the trail where the signs kept us on the right fork instead of making the steep climb on the left.
Now if you’re only going for the minimal amount of hiking to see both of the Yonako Great Falls together, then you can go up the left side until you get to the lookout before coming back.
However, we kept going on the right, and after another 100m we reached a suspension bridge that only allowed one person at a time.
I noticed a sign that said that there used to be a red bridge here called Okumanbashi Bridge, but it was destroyed by a typhoon that hit East Japan in 2019.
Therefore, this suspension bridge replaced that Okumanbashi Bridge.
Beyond this bridge, we then started a rather long kilometer stretch where we climbed pretty moderately alongside the Yonakogawa River and a handful of intermediate waterfalls (both natural and man-modified).
Throughout this stretch of the trail were bear bells set up so you can ring it to try to minimize the chances of a bear attack.
Eventually, we got up to a stream with a bridge going over it as well as a teasing glimpse of one of the Yonako Great Falls, which was the Fudo Falls.
From this point, we followed a trail-of-use further upstream until we got a clean look up at the waterfall after some 100m from that bridge (or 200m round-trip).
Back on the main trail, we crossed over the bridge and then hiked another 400m that was mostly uphill leading up to a few buildings that was once the original location of the Okunoin Temple (it was moved to Suzaka).
Yonako Great Falls Trail Description – Hiking Around The Old Temple
At the Old Temple (roughly 1.6km from the car park), the trail split in a few different directions – to Fudo Falls, to Gongen Falls, and to continue the loop.
It’s said that Gongen Falls is also referred to as the “Black Dragon Waterfall” while the more “delicate” Fudo Falls can also be referred to as the “White Dragon Waterfall”.
Anyways, we decided to keep to the right and follow the signs leading us up some 400m (or 2km from the car park) to the lookout for the plunging Fudo Falls.
At this lookout, we managed to get a nice morning rainbow seen at the waterfall’s base while also getting a profile view of the lower cascades of the falls.
After having our fill of this spot, we then followed the trail keeping right at the forks, which ultimately led us another 400m to the lookout for the Gongen Falls.
Unfortunately, the view of the Gongen Falls was only partial due to a lot of foliage obstructions during our Summer visit.
However, I’d imagine that this view might improve in the Autumn when the leaves might start falling and opening up some of the obstructions.
Once we had our fill of the Gongen Falls, we then returned to the Old Temple area.
At that point, we then proceeded to continue the loop hike (which wasn’t trivial to find, by the way, given some trail work that was going on during our visit).
We knew we were going the right way when we went across a bridge with an attractive cascade that had a natural waterwheel on it.
After going past the bridge, we ascended up to some kind of road and contraption where apparently supplies could be pullied across the ravine to the old temple.
Yonako Great Falls Trail Description – Hiking The Road
At this point, the trail continued by going up the unpaved road that is only meant for locals and staff.
After roughly 200m up the road, we got to a sign about the Yonako Great Falls, and from this spot, we could look back and start getting a nice double waterfall view.
Continuing further up the road another 100m (the path was flanked by lots of wildflowers during our visit), we then reached a trail spur.
The path going 50m across a meadow to the right led to a bench and a more elevated view of the Yonako Great Falls pairing, and in my mind, this could very well be the best view of both falls seeing together.
Back on the road, we then walked another 400m (or 700m from the end of the road) towards another trail junction.
The loop track continued to the left while the continuation of the road on the right went towards the Kimyoudaki Falls.
Yonako Great Falls Trail Description – The Kimyoudaki Detour
During our July 2023 visit, it turned out that we only learned about this detour through some signage at the trailhead.
However, there seemed to be a noticeable absence of signs mentioning the Kimyoudaki Falls (though I did spot a faded one near this trail junction), and I thought that was strange.
Well, after we walked the road about 400m towards a bridge, we then saw a barricade warning not to go any closer to the Kimyou Waterfall.
I did a little investigating to see what the trouble spot was, and it turned out that there were metal steps leading closer to the base of the Kimyou Falls.
However, these steps were unstable as they had been battered by rock falls.
Therefore, I had to be content with partial views of the 60m waterfall as the foliage around its stream was pretty thick.
And as a result, our detour to the Kimyoudaki Falls was rather short and anticlimatic (and thus it made sense why the authorities tried to de-emphasize this third waterfall as part of the Yonako Great Falls Loop Hike).
Yonako Great Falls Trail Description – Completing The Loop
Back at the trail junction with the Kimyoudaki Falls detour, we then hiked about 100m to a shelter with a distance view of the Yonako Great Falls pairing.
This turned out to be the nearest lookout for both waterfalls from the car park, but it definitely left a lot to be desired compared to the lookouts we had seen earlier on.
After having our fill of this lookout, we then descended the trail through some overgrown parts before reaching an extensive stepped descent over the remaining 1.2km of the loop hike left.
We definitely had to be careful with this stretch of the trail because it can be quite hard on the knees.
But at the same time, we saw a handful of hikers go up this way, and each of them were breathing heavily and sweating profusely given the long and persistent climb (we at least got to go downhill).
Eventually, we got back down to the main trail fork where we started the clockwise loop, and we ultimately went the remaining 200m back to the car park.
According to my GPS logs, Mom and I went a little over 7km, including all the detours taking over 3.5 hours.
We were glad that we had the early start because when we were finished, the day heated up pretty quickly (which meant it must have been another 10 degrees Celsius warmer down at Nagano)!
The Yonako Great Waterfall resides in the Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park near Suzaka in the Nagano Prefecture, Japan. It may be administered by the Nagano Nature Conservation Office. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, you can try visiting the Ministry of the Environment website.
The Yonako Great Waterfall resides in the Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park to the southeast of Suzaka just to the east of the city of Nagano, which is also the center of the prefecture by the same name.
There are many ways to get from Nagano to the suburb of Sakata (after all, Nagano is a pretty big city) so I’ll get into the detailed directions from Suzaka.
In our instance, the drive between the JR Station in Nagano to the suburb of Suzaka took us roughly 20-30 minutes going along the Route 58 then some local roads.
We’d eventually reach the Road 406, where we turned right and then turned left at another road signed for Yonako Great Falls causing us to leave the Road 406.
From there, we pretty much followed this local road to its end some 13km later.
Overall, coming from JR Station in Nagano, this entire drive took us a little over an hour.
If you’re coming from Central Suzaka, then using the intersection between Route 406 and Route 403 as the starting point, head east on the Route 406 for 550m before the 406 turns right.
Continuing on the 406, we’d then drive another 4.5km before turning left to leave the Road 406 at a signed local road leading to the Yonako Great Falls.
At that point, we’d drive the remaining 13km or so to the road’s end, where there’s an unpaved car park and trailhead.
For some geographical context, Suzaka was about 12km (over 30 minutes drive) east of Nagano (JR Station to be exact), 77km (over an 1 hour drive) northwest of Karuizawa, 76km (over an hour drive) south of Joetsu, 75km (over an hour drive) northeast of Matsumoto, 60m (about 1.5 hours drive) west of Kusatsu Onsen, and 231km (over 3 hours drive) northwest of Tokyo.
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