River Rats: Trekking to Tadake Falls

I'm my own lifeguard at Tadake Falls!

I’m my own lifeguard at Tadake Falls!

Hiji Falls?  Yep, a grand meandering nature trail which follows a snaking river to a delightful waterfall.  But where the river cannot be enjoyed as it is roped off in most locations.  And where swimming is not allowed, supposedly made too dangerous due to rocks and freshwater parasites.  Ah, the intersection of both American and Japanese cultures of fear.  Want to get wet and trek up a river through the jungle and enjoy climbing behind, in, and even up to a high and pounding waterfall?  Then Tadake Falls must be your next off-road adventure on Okinawa.

Most of the riverbed looks like this.

Most of the riverbed looks like this.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, trekking with our Japanese friendsTadake Falls, which I have also found on some maps written as “Tatake,” offers magnificent river trekking.  There’s not just an unprepared trail here, there is no trail.  No, the trail is the river running through the dense Okinawan rain forest.  And that means in various points there is deep water to wade across, rocky constrictions to scramble across, and even a rope swing or two along the way for the more daring to try!

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, happy in the Okinawan jungle

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, a river runs through itJody and I decided to try the trek on a summer weekday morning in August, the height of the Okinawa oppressive summer.  Thinking that the crowds would be smaller and that we would be beating the high heat and humidity of the afternoon, we set out early.  WRONG!  Although the falls has been historically a somewhat hidden treasure on Okinawa, the increased tourism to Okinawa, combined with a number of recent articles about the fall trek in the American periodicals on the Island has turned what surely was once a quiet, tranquil hike into a still enjoyable journey, just with a slew of Japanese and American like-minded visitors.  And one inherent with problems finding parking.

There are some really rocky stretches!

There are some really rocky stretches!

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, navigating the streamOh, did I mention that the trail here is the river?  Unlike at Hiji Falls, itself a worthwhile visit and hike, come prepared to get wet – that’s the whole point!  Water shows are a MUST since the path is totally improvised and quite rocky.  And although we lathered up with sunscreen before embarking on our latest adventure, it really wasn’t needed, at all.  The path is almost completely shaded by the jungle’s canopy, encroaching overhead from both sides of the river.  And although our visit was during the sweltering Okinawan summer, the shade combined with a forested breeze and the downright cold river water kept us calm, cool and content.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, beginning our trek

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, fall colorsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, dragonfly friendIt takes about 30 minutes or so to get from the trek’s starting point to the falls.  That is unless you stop to enjoy nature in all her wondrous ways.  Or perhaps you decide to try a rope swing into the river’s refreshing water (but be wary of the Tarzan-esque vines found everywhere!).  Or maybe you stop just to float for a break in one of the deeper pools fed by a mini-waterfall found along the way.  The hike is not hard, and often easier for unflinching, lower-center-of-gravity humanoids we call kids.  Just take your time and watch your footing.  Although you don’t have to be an athlete to journey to the falls and back, I would not suggest this particular adventure for anyone with back, knee or foot problems, or those who are unsure of themselves on their feet.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, trekking through the river

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, managing the rocksOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, jungleMake sure you take your leisure along the way.  Make time to appreciate nature’s beauty that here folds around and over you like a thick, green umbrella.  While the walk is predominantly shaded, tantalizing glimpses of bright blue sky can be spied through the canopy’s gaps.  Colorful leaves in the water, brilliant and not bashful dragonflies, and thousands of gemstone-like rocks offer innumerable distractions along the way!  The riverbed is mostly firm, coarse sand and pebbles, but there are areas of soft sand, and still others that consist of jagged and sharp rocks.  Although there is a warning about the river and its potential hazards at the head of the trail, the river was quite low, with very little current.  Most of the river is no more than knee-deep, maybe waist at a couple of points, and the deepest parts can be completely bypassed on land if you do not wish to swim.

Mini waterfall and pond along the way.

Mini waterfall and pond along the way.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, peaecful waterfall and cairnsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, Kevin jumping for joyEverything changes, however, once you round a river bend to the right and arrive at Tadake Falls!  Water comes cascading down with force from a cliff sixty feet overhead.  The water turns into a showering spray at the base, pushing away a cushion of air that is surprisingly powerful.  In front of the waterfall is a large pond, perfect for swimming and lounging.  Its comfortably sandy bottom has a fairly steep slope, and quickly reaches a depth where wading is necessary.  In front of this pool across from the falls you will find some nice areas to set up camp or a picnic, in sandy patches or on rocky ledges of your choice.

Watch your skirts - there's a Marilyn Monroe like updraft from the falls!

Watch your skirts – there’s a Marilyn Monroe like updraft from the falls!

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, climbing around the fallsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, Kevin jumping for joyThe fall’s water hole itself gets deep as you near the falls, but be careful – there are “hidden” rocks underneath in the areas to the falls’ left and right.  If you approach the falls from its sides, you can find a slippery rock ledge that will take you fully behind the falls.  And, as you look at the falls from across the pond, a rock pinnacle to the left allows for catapulting jumps into the falls’ pond!  The water is a cold spring-fed 70 degrees, and can be quite a shock, but one which quickly passes as you acclimate.  There is also a trail that leads up to fall’s source, but it is almost impossibly steep (and unprepared).  We did see a number of people take this excursion; Jody and I were happy enough to stay and enjoy the falls from down below.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, victory at the falls

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, tall fallsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, jumping for joyDo yourself a favor and pack a few things for the trip.  Wear a bathing suit and water shoes for the trek.  I do not recommended scuba booties unless they are the kind with rubber tread that offers some traction; the felt kind so common here would be very slippery on the slick rock found all along the river.  Snacks and drinks are really nice to have at the waterfall, but of course you’ll have to trek them in and out.  Sunscreen was not really necessary, and neither was bug spray – put both on if you are the paranoid type, they won’t hurt.  Taking any or all this will necessitate a waterproof bag or the need to bypass on land the deeper parts of the river.  But what you really want is a place to leave/lock your keys, towels for when you get back to the car, and a change of clothes makes the long trip back home much more comfortable.  To top off an adventuresome morning, stop by Café Captain Kangaroo for one of their unbeatable burgers.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, Jody's attention signage at the falls

DIRECTIONS:  Do yourself a favor and take the Expressway all the way to the end, and then the Nago bypass tunnel, which will save you a TON of time and frustration avoiding 58.  It will still take you about an hour to get there.  Taking a right on 58 once out of the tunnel, and note then you hit the Family Mart (on the left) where the turnoff for Yagachi Island is found.  About 7 kilometers further down the road, you’ll reach the “Henan” bridge, which you’ll know from the colorful blue and red pillars covered in hearts on either end.  You can take either the road just before or just after this bridge – they meet up at the same place once inland, but there is a small sign for the falls just before crossing the bridge, one you’ll probably notice too late to make the turn!  Follow a curvy road for almost 3 kilometers, and stay on the “main” road.  You’ll think you are lost, but keep going; you’ll know when you have arrived at the falls.  A large “warning” sign serves as the head of the trail, and while there are a few parking spots there (4 or 5 cars at the most), you’ll most likely have to keep going straight and park along a long stretch of the road running along the river.  Parking options here are VERY limited, and some people had to walk quite a distance just to get to the river.  If you have any question about whether you are in the right place, look for Japanese wearing brightly colored full-size life vests.  Then simply follow them!

Map Tadake Falls

Hiji Ōtaki, The Great Falls of Okinawa

“Many a calm river begins as a turbulent waterfall, yet none hurtles and foams all the way to the sea.” ~ Mikhail Lermontov

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Waterfall, the falls at the destination 2

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, boardwalk through the jungleOkinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, tall and lonely stairwayThe 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).

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, nature-walk


Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Kevin shooting during his nature-huntOkinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, peaceful jungle waterfallHiji 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.

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, future butterfly

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Otaki means big waterfallOkinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Selfie on the suspension bridge, the halfway pointThe 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.”

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Jody poses at Hiji Giant Falls

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, selfie at the fallsOkinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, tree fleur de lisThe 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.

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, paper tickets

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Kevin shoots back!Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Great Falls guide mapAlthough 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.

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Okinawan shrine and tomb along the way

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, grasshopper along the wayOkinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, suspension bridge at the halfway pointThis 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).

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Okinawa's highest falls

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, lost in translation it doesn't say anything aobut crossing the ropeOkinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, sunlit nature walkAlthough 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.

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, couple's selfie at the falls

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Kevin on one of the many staircases

There are no bathrooms, either!

There are no bathrooms, either!

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!