Photo: Courtesy The North Face

Sawanobori | Why Climbing Waterfalls is Sacred in Japan

One of Britain's best climbers went out to give it a try

by Chris Sayer
Aug 5 2019, 9:30am

Photo: Courtesy The North Face

If mid-nineties pop music taught us anything, it’s that chasing waterfalls is a bad idea. Be it in the form of TLC’s wise warning, or the very real threat of disturbing a bronzed Australian Adonis attempting to woo a ‘mysterious girl’ with his soggy set of rock-hard belly bumps, the charts of two decades ago really hammered home how plummeting torrents are better left well alone.

But in the Japanese wilderness, where no Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation cassette has ever reached, things are different.

Photo: Courtesy The North Face
Photo: Courtesy The North Face

The art of sawanobori – or stream climbing – has been practiced in the most densely forested parts of the country for centuries, its roots reaching back to a time when travelling between mountain villages would see locals navigating the length of river, instead of laboriously hacking a passage through thick tropical vegetation. Far more than just canyoning in reverse, it required the skilful traversing of ravine walls, wading and swimming of gorges, and, most spectacularly, the climbing of waterfalls.

Flash-forward to 2019, and the introduction of modern mountain roads and passes haven’t slaked the thirst for tackling Japan’s cascading monoliths. Nor the sense of spirituality that comes with a summit.

Photo: Courtesy The North Face
Photo: Courtesy The North Face

While it’s still relatively unheard of in the West, if you enter any outdoor shop in the country you’ll find a section dedicated to sawanobori pursuits - offering felt-soled shoes, wetsuits, woollen gloves and guiding information to anyone looking scale these natural wonders and get closer to the sacred deities that, according to Shinto beliefs, dwell in these powerful deluges.

“I’m not a particularly sensitive person,” says The North Face athlete James Pearson, who, last year, along with a team fellow rock climbers, decided to pitch his years of professional climbing experience – honed in the Peak District - against this age-old and out-of-the-box form of his sport for the first time. “But I definitely sensed the raw power of being in those waterfalls.” It comes across impressively in the film Pearson and his team made about the trip, centred around their main climb of the 350-metre Shōmyō waterfall, Japan’s tallest.

Photo: Courtesy The North Face
Photo: Courtesy The North Face

“For me, [the water] is where the spiritual element of sawanobori comes from. I just felt… small. And humbled, by the power of nature. Being there with that weight of water, and that sound, everything is moving around you, and it feels alive. You sense that Mother Nature is there, and just how powerful she is in comparison to us. She lets us play and dabble. But if we get too close, go too fast or lose any respect in the slightest, she won’t hesitate in wiping us out.”

On top of the historical and spiritual elements, there’s a practical reason for making Japan the site of your first dip into sawanobori, instead of, say, pulling your old wetsuit out of the loft and running for the rivers of Snowdonia, or the gorges of the Alps. Not only will you find professional guides and dedicated experiences, but the summer water temperatures mean wearing a thinner (and far less restrictive) wetsuit.

Photo: Courtesy of The North Face
Photo: Courtesy of The North Face

On top of that, where Europe’s majority granite rock-type becomes restrictively smooth and unclimbable with millennia of water attrition, Japan’s volcanic rock maintains small features, just big enough to act as foot- and hand-holds that’ll help you win your battle against the falling walls of water, and bring you to the front door of Japan’s hidden divine beings.

James Pearson’s new movie, Sawanobori is out now. If you want to try it yourself, a half-day sawanobori tour on the island of Yakushima costs approximately 8,000 yen pp through