“Many a calm river begins as a turbulent waterfall, yet none hurtles and foams all the way to the sea.” ~ Mikhail Lermontov
The dense tangle of exotic jungle canopy covering Okinawa may not inspire thoughts of peaceful relaxation in some, but after trekking to Hiji Falls, one might change their mind! No need to grab a machete and hack your way through the undergrowth in search of nature’s bounty Indiana Jones style. One of the most accessible and famous nature trails on Okinawa leads to a treasure, Hiji Ōtaki (Great) Falls (比地大滝).
Hiji waterfall is located in the northern Yambaru area of Okinawa, where there are fewer people and the land remains covered by natural forests, largely unexploited. Human encroachment has yet to take hold in this part of Okinawa, and thank goodness. The natural surrounds here are a welcome change from the urban sprawl of the south.
The modifier Ōtaki in the Japanese language is composed of three kanji characters: the first, ō (大) meaning “large,” the second ta (多) meaning “many,” and the third ki (喜) meaning “happiness.” However, in loosely translated local vernacular English, the falls are generally referred to as “Hiji Great Falls.”
The trailhead, where an entrance fee (¥500) must be paid, is a little over a mile inland from the island’s western coast. From this starting point, where restrooms, a restaurant, and plentiful parking can be found, a casual walk to the falls is about a mile and a modern and attractive nature trail and boardwalk, taking about 40 minutes one-way. On the way you’ll pass a dam that’s been recently rebuilt, now cleverly disguised to resemble a much more natural rock facade and waterfall spillway.
Although at first you may worry about all the amenities and concrete which initially line the path, after passing the dam the sidewalk quickly gives way to dirt, and the natural beauty of Okinawa begins to slowly unfold all around with each and every step. The trail and boardwalk are well maintained, but be forewarned: there are quite a few steep sections with many stairs along the way. One of the trail’s highlights is crossing a suspension bridge that spans the Hiji River valley over 60 feet below! And once across, you are wholly enveloped by the jungle, surrounded by tall, swaying bamboo, fanned by massive ferns and ancient-looking trees, complete with trunk-twisting vines.
This is not a serene or silent stroll, however. Mother Nature here is abuzz with all-things life: song birds, the ever-present chirping of the cicadas, and the growing rush of the Hiji River compose a cacophony befitting the soundtrack to such a Far-Eastern adventure. Finally, after traveling up and down staircases and across bridges, the crashing water of the falls dominates, best consumed from a wooden viewing platform at the terminus of the trail. Here the 85 foot tall “Great” falls is found, nestled remotely in the forest and cascading into a pool-like clearing rift with rocks and boulders of all sizes, far removed from even a hint of the ubiquitous urbanization that seems ever-present elsewhere on Okinawa. Given this scene, one can almost sense the presence of Kijimuna, the mischievous Okinawan fairies of folklore (see my related blog here).
Although the water seems to beckon out for a swim, there are barriers all along the trail stating that swimming is forbidden and that the pool at the base of the falls has been the site of numerous injuries. However, there is a river trek to another lesser-known falls on Okinawa, something we have been saving for more hot and humid weather this summer. Stay tuned for that flirtation of our Far East Fling soon! Regardless, The Great Falls of Hiji can provide a much-needed calming respite to what can otherwise be, for many of us, a hurtling, turbulent, rather foamy life, sometimes, all the way to the sea.
Not only does this outing provide for a wonderful morning drive up the Okinawan coast along Highway 58, this particular place is easy to find – a rarity on Okinawa. Instead of turning left at Okuma’s intersection, turn right and follow the signs to the falls. Campground facilities are available for overnight stays of about 2,000 yen/night (~$20), offering picnic tables and elevated wooden decks for tent set-up. Finally, there are a few things to know before you go: there is no water along the trail, and bringing fluids in the summer is a MUST. The trail is largely shielded from the sun, but in the summer the humidity will be HIGH. Most importantly, be prepared for stairs, quite a few of them, and please note there are many uphill portions in BOTH directions!