About Bandokoro Waterfall (Bandokoro Otaki [番所大滝])
The Bandokoro Waterfall (Bandokoro Otaki [番所大滝]; Bandokoro Great Falls or just Bandokoro Falls) was one of three notable waterfalls in the Norikura Kogen (Norikura Highlands) of the Japan Alps between Matsumoto and Takayama. Julie and I remembered our visit here as one of our more adventurous public transport escapades as a combination of the language barrier, infrequent bus options, and costliness of the local lines turned an expected day of visiting the many waterfalls here into a half-day of visiting just this one waterfall. Seven years later when I visited this area with my parents, I learned my lesson and self-drove this part of Japan. So the following description will reflect this more sensible perspective as self-driving in the Japan Alps area was quite manageable and in our minds not significantly more expensive than trying to make it work by mass transit (not to mention the added flexibility of not being slaved to someone else’s timetable).
Of course lost in the logistics of getting to this waterfall was that this was a really impressive waterfall as it was some 40m in height and 11m in width that tumbled in a trapezoidal shape. In our first visit during May of 2009, the Koonogawa River (小大野川) was in high flow so the waterfall threw up a lot of mist right up at the lookout platform you see pictured at the top of this page. When we came back in October of 2016, the river was in less flow but the waterfall itself still retained its pleasing shape. There was even some hints of koyo (Autumn colors) as the typically cool weather of the Norikura Highlands was more conducive to the changing of the leaves before the rest of the country at the lower elevations (we were probably 2-3 weeks early for the rest of the country to experience the koyo).
The hike to the Bandokoro Waterfall was pretty straightforward from the parking area (there was a restroom as well as bus stop by the main road near this car park; see directions below). On the far side of the parking area, we followed a fence that gently sloped to our right (past a trail that steeply descended steps to our left) then led down a more gentler series of steps and switchbacks. On our latest visit, that stair-stepped path on our left went further upstream of the Bandokoro Falls, but it was closed due to rock falls and landslides. I recalled when Julie and I last did that other trail to the left, it followed the Koonogawa in a pleasant riverside trail passing by a pair of other small but fairly picturesque waterfalls – Bandokoro Little Falls (番所小滝) and Chiyomi Falls (千間淵滝). It would eventually bring us back to the main road (Road 84) further to the west of the Bandokoro Falls car park.
Anyways, continuing to the right on the main waterfall trail, it continued to descend several steps and switchbacks with railings to hold onto for balance. After roughly 5-10 minutes of engaging in this descent (knowing full well that we had to get all this elevation loss back to return to the car park), we eventually reached another trail junction right before the lookout shelter for the Bandokoro Falls. Given the steep terrain of this gorge, this lookout was the only place to properly experience the falls. And as mentioned earlier, when the Koonogawa was in high flow, it would be hard to get a clean look at the falls given the spray that would blast the side facing the waterfall itself. Despite the closures of the other trails in the immediate area during our latest visit, it seemed like Autumn was a more pleasant experience here. In addition to the koyo, we were even able to notice some hints of basalt formations providing us clues to the waterfall’s geologic past as well as helping us better understand why the falls existed here in the first place as the hard rock layer was surely supplied by the lava that once flowed through here.
Speaking of trail closures, the continuation of the trail at the junction by the lookout shelter led further downstream towards a dam facility. When Julie and I last did that trail prior to its closure, we didn’t go past the small dam so we can’t say anything more about where else that trail went. Anyways, when all was said and done, our out-and-back excursion to the lookout of the Bandokoro Falls from the car park only took us 35 minutes, and that included the time spent taking pictures and just enjoying the scenery at the falls.
Since we managed to visit the Bandokoro Waterfall both by self-driving as well as by public transport, we’ll desribe both methods in this section. However, we’ll start with the self-driving option since I strongly believe that this was the way to go given our public transport misadventures in this area back on our first visit here.
From Matsumoto, we drove west on the Route 158 from the JR Station at the city center for around 32km. As we were deep into the scenic mountains skirting the Azusako (Lake Azusa), the 158 passed through a series of tunnels, but in one of the openings between tunnels was the turnoff going to our left onto the Road 84 into the Norikura Highlands (or Norikura-kogen or 乗鞍高原). We then followed the Road 84 for a little over 6km (going up a pair of switchbacks en route) to the signposted turnoff for the Bandokoro Waterfall parking area on our right. Overall, this drive took us about an hour.
As for the public transportation option from Matsumoto, we took an early train (I don’t think it was part of the JR line) to the Shin-Shimashima Station. From there, we caught a bus that went from Shin-Shimashima Station to the Bandokoro-dake Stop. I guess typically the route we took would continue to the National Vacation Village and ultimately to the Shirahone Onsen Spa area, neither of which we reached as we were content to see the Bandokoro-daki.
It turned out that after visiting the Bandokoro Waterfall, I think we had to either catch a different connecting bus at the National Vacation Village to get to the Norikura dake passing by the two other waterfalls we wanted to go to or do some serious walking given the inconvenient bus schedules.
In any case, our itinerary turned out to be the following:
- Caught 6:00 train (not on JR network) from Matsumoto to Shin-Shimashima Station
- Caught 7:00 bus (I think) from Shin-Shimashima Station to Bandokoro-daki stop
- Arrived at Bandokoro-daki stop at 8:00 and started walking
- Caught 10:18 bus back to Shin-Shimashima Station
- Around 11:20, waited for train back to Matsumoto and arrived there at 12:00
As for the drama regarding our bus situation and language barrier, the misunderstanding was that we got a discounted fare that included both the train ride from Matsumoto as well as the bus ride that went up to the Shirahone Onsen Spa. But along the way, we thought we could get off the bus at the Bandokoro Stop, then either walk or catch other buses continuing uphill towards the other two waterfalls in the Norikura Highlands. Unfortunately, the discount bus tickets we got only worked for one or two buses in each direction and their schedules were such that it was impossible to visit all the waterfalls while still being able to return to Matsumoto on the same day.
The moment we caught buses outside of the sanctioned timetable given on our discount tickets to Shirahone Onsen Spa, they confiscated our ticket, tried to return some money (which was far less than what we paid) and we were supposed to pay the remaining fares as we went on the buses from here on out (the a la carte bus fare costed us 1150円 per person). We thought we were getting ripped off, but in hindsight, they were making us pay an a la carte rate plus a penalty change fee for switching out of the discount ticket.
Sound confusing? Well, imagine trying to figure this out with the language barrier. The workers didn’t speak English and all we had was a phrase book that only got us so far. Further complicating the issue was that the visitor center (where there would more likely be an English speaker) was away another 2.9km walk further uphill from the Bandokoro car park and bus stop.
Anyways, for geographical context, Matsumoto was around 3.5 hours by train from Tokyo. Naoetsu was As for the context by self-driving, the direct route passing through Kofu en route was said to be 221km or about 2.5-3 hours. Going in the opposite direction, Matsumoto would be 85km or under 2 hours drive east of the charming city of Takayama.
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