Kyoto Prefecture is home to more than just Japan’s old capital. In the area around Kyoto city, you’ll find mountains perfect for day hikes and a beautiful coastline with pristine beaches, as well as forests and towns with plenty of hidden wonders, including some striking waterfalls. Here are five of the prefecture’s best falls.
Kyoto Prefecture is most well known for Kyoto City, the nation’s old capital and cultural epicentre famous for its hundreds of shrines and temples. But the prefecture has even more to offer than might at first be obvious, including a wide array of spectacular natural features. The north of the prefecture lies on the Sea of Japan, where you’ll find beautiful beaches along a serene coastline. The Kitayama Mountains in the east of the prefecture north of Kyoto City make for incredible scenic hikes. And, if you know where to look, you’ll also come across some impressive waterfalls.
The waterfalls in Kyoto aren’t only beloved for their beauty – they’re also sacred to those who practice Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. The importance of waterfalls in Japanese culture is reflected in the traditional gardens of Shinto shrines. Cascades of rocks in both dry gardens and ponds represent Japan’s great mountain waterfalls. These man-made mini waterfalls aren’t merely decorative: as they are ever-changing yet constant, they embody the philosophy of the universe’s permanent impermanence. Waterfalls are also a common subject of Japanese art, most notably in the work of Hokusai, the painter famous for his woodblock print The Great Wave of Kanagawa (1831). Hokusai’s series of landscape prints, A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces, depicts eight waterfalls throughout Japan. Here, we take a similar journey, exploring five of Kyoto’s most picturesque waterfalls.
Kanabiki is located in the forested outskirts of Miyazu City in the north of the prefecture. It has the distinction of being the only waterfall in Kyoto Prefecture to make the official list of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls. The falls themselves are hidden within a lush forest at the top of a stone staircase carved into the side of the mountain. Kanabiki is an impressive 20 metres (66ft) wide and 40 metres (132ft) tall, and water rushes down it with a thunderous roar. As there is always water flowing at Kanabiki, you can visit any time of the year, but summer is the most popular time for locals to visit, when the thick, high-altitude forest provides a cool respite from the heat. At this time of year, you’ll find picnickers relaxing on the benches at the bottom of the falls, which offer picturesque views of the rushing water falling over mossy rocks. To the right of the waterfall at the top of another steep stone staircase is a small shrine dedicated to the gods that protect it. It is said that praying at the shrine will bring financial prosperity. In the past, a fire festival was also held here, but it has since been banned due to environmental concerns. Nevertheless, it is said to have been quite an exciting affair: people would throw oil over the side of the waterfall and light it on fire, thus creating the illusion of a waterfall on fire. Drummers and dancers accompanied the spectacle. While you’re in the Miyazu area, consider pairing your visit with a trip to Amanohashidate, which is just 10 minutes away by train. The pine tree-covered sandbar stretches across the mouth of Miyazu Bay, one of Japan’s official top three scenic views. How to access Kanabiki Falls It is around 20 minutes (1.6km/1mi) on foot from Miyamura Station, and approximately 30 minutes (2.5km/1.6mi) on foot from Miyazu Station. From Miyazu Station, take the Kamimiyazu line bus towards Kamimiyazu and get off at Kanabiki-no-takiguchi, then walk 10 minutes (about 800m/0.5mi).
This waterfall is located in Kyoto City’s eastern Higashiyama area, and is the most easily accessible waterfall on this list. Otowa Falls is found at the base of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera Temple, one of Japan’s most famous temples and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Three separate streams of water fall from it; visitors can use a long-stemmed cup to sip from one of the streams. It is thought that each stream is beneficial in a different way: one brings health and longevity; one success at school; and one success in love. Visitors should choose just one to drink from, as it’s believed to be greedy to drink from all three. It is from this waterfall that the temple gets its name: Kiyomizudera translates to ‘pure water temple’. The area is beautiful in any season, but especially impressive in spring and fall, when the weather is mild and the temple’s trees – sakura (cherry blossom) in spring, momiji (maple) in autumn – show their brilliant colours. The wooden terrace of the main hall within Kiyomizu-dera stands 13 metres (43ft) high, offering a grand view of the temple’s tree groves and the city beyond. The terrace is an impressive construction, as all 400 floorboards and 168 pillars are fitted together without nails. As Kiyomizu-dera is a popular tourist destination, the road leading to the temple is filled with shops and an array of restaurants. How to access Otowa FallsFrom Kyoto Station, take bus #100 or #206. Get off at Kiyomizu-michi bus stop; it’s a 10-minute walk uphill to the temple.
Otonashi Falls is found in Ohara, a small mountain town north of Kyoto, about one hour from Kyoto Station. At approximately 10 metres (33ft) tall, it is relatively small for a waterfall, but what it lacks in grandeur it makes up for in simplicity and scenic beauty. Otanashi is located a short hike into the forest surrounding Ohara town, just a minute’s walk from Raigo-in, an ancient temple. Raigo-in was established in the ninth century by the same monk who brought shomyo (Buddhist chanting) from China to Japan. Although the temple was eventually abandoned, another monk called Ryonin rebuilt the temple in 1109, dedicating it once again to shomyo. Legend has it that when Ryonin was chanting in front of Otonashi Falls, the sound blended with the sound of the falls, and he could no longer hear the rushing water. The falls was thus given its name, which translates to ‘waterfall without sound’. You can still hear the monks of Raigo-in chanting every weekend. Also nearby is Sanzen-in, Ohara’s most famous temple and the town’s main attraction, which lies about a 10-minute walk from the falls.How to access Otonashi FallsFrom Kyoto Station, take the Karasuma subway to Kokusaikaikan Station. Transfer to city bus #19 to Ohara.
Located in Kyotamba, a rural town 90 minutes west of Kyoto by train, Koto Falls flows over one 43-metre-high (141-ft-high) rock, making it the prefecture’s tallest waterfall. The water falls down the rock in many thin streams, which led to its name, which refers to its resemblance to a koto, a 13-stringed Japanese harp. Koto Falls is in the middle of a forest, so you can choose to hike to it, or drive and park in the nearby parking lot, as many people do. It’s best to visit in spring or just after a rainfall, as in late summer and autumn there may not be any water flowing. Just 500 metres (0.3mi) away is the Gyokuun-ji temple complex. It is thought that the temple was first located next to the falls when it was constructed in 1416. It burned down in 1579 and was rebuilt in its current location one year later. The complex comprises multiple buildings and peaceful gardens that are filled with Japanese chrysanthemum and camellias in the summer. There’s also a traditional rock garden that showcases Satsuki azaleas, a light pink flower native to the mountains of Japan. Above the waterfall, you’ll find Kotodaki Park, which features a pond and benches, and makes a perfect place to relax and take in the serene surroundings. How to access Koto FallsFrom the JR Sagano Line Sonobe Station, take the JR Bus (Enpuku line), and get off at Kototaki-michi, a 10-minute walk on foot (10 minutes by bus). A 250-metre (820ft) dirt road connects the parking lot to the falls.
Kuya Falls is found deep in the mountains of Arashiyama on Mt. Takao in western Kyoto City. To access it, you must hike along an incredibly scenic trail that follows the route of a clear river. As the land is mostly flat, with only a few gentle inclines, the hike is suitable for beginners. Kuya Falls is located at an altitude of 280 metres (919ft) and is 15 metres (49ft) high. The falls is named for the Buddhist priest Kuya, who founded a shrine here in the 10th century and practiced meditative chanting by the waterfall. You can still find ascetic monks chanting and meditating here. The waterfall is surrounded by exquisite Buddhist imagery: a stone torii gate and stone lanterns stand in front of it, while a statue of Buddha sits nearby in a small mossy cave. The area is most popular in the autumn, when fiery leaves decorate the forest’s trees. It is also lovely in summer, when the greenery is especially lush, and the forest offers a welcome escape from the fierce heat and humidity of the city. How to access Kuya Falls From Kyoto Station, take a JR bus from the JR3 stop bound for Toganoo or Shuzan. Get off at Yamashirotakao bus stop; there, a sign points to the start of the trail.