Chasing waterfalls: Your guide to the ancient Japanese art of sawanobori

British climber James Pearson reveals everything you need to know about the sport’s latest and most exhilarating frontier: sawanobori, the Japanese art of scaling mountain streams...

3 mins

What is sawanobori?

(The North Face/Matty Hong)

(The North Face/Matty Hong)

The literal translation of sawanobori is shower climbing (sawa-nobori) which gives a pretty good indication of what is involved. 

It’s a sport that involves climbing up waterfalls, an anathema to most climbers. Climbers are notoriously some of the pickiest people when it comes to “conditions” and sawanobori takes them right out of their comfort zone.  

Centuries before sawanobori became a sport, it was a way of life. In Japan, the mountains have always been covered in dense vegetation, meaning that since ancient times, the Japanese have had to follow streams to travel from one village to the next. Climbing up waterfalls was an integral part of that.


Why try sawanobori?

Climbing is a sport that relies heavily on the friction between yourself and the rock, and this is what makes sawanobori such an exciting challenge for modern climbers. Add water to the mix, or even humidity, and things quickly become more complicated.

I've personally arrived at the crag, only to turn around again and go straight back home, before even touching the rock. When the weather feels especially hot and muggy, you know there is just no point trying – better save your precious skin for another day.

What makes sawanobori so special?

(The North Face/Matty Hong)

(The North Face/Matty Hong)

You mean, other than the fact that you're climbing up a waterfall?  Firstly, it’s the places it takes you - some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful places I've ever seen, a few of which have only ever been seen by a handful of human eyes.  

The connection you feel to Mother Nature is another. You are really aware of her raw, sometimes brutal power and that if you show too little respect, she could wipe you out in a heartbeat.  

The third thing is the teamwork. Unlike regular rock climbing, which can require very little teamwork, in sawanobori you need to help your friends along. Standing on somebody's shoulders, then pulling that somebody up are equally as valid as using your own hands and feet.  

What it really boils down to, however, is that you are climbing up a waterfall. How mad is that?

How to try Sawanobori (safely) yourself

(The North Face/Matty Hong)

(The North Face/Matty Hong)

If you’ve ever done canyoning, you have a rough idea already. Canyoning involves starting at the source of a river and following it towards its end. You travel downstream, wading, swimming, jumping sliding or rappelling. 

Sawanobori is similar, but in the other direction. Replace the jumping and rappels with scary sketchy climbs and you just about have it.  

Sawanobori is a little more difficult because of several factors, including the difficulty and danger of the climbs, the power and speed of the current and the conditions you have to face during the ascent. Some waterfalls are close to sea level and bask in glorious sunshine all day long, whilst others are hidden in shadows and fed from melting snow-caps.

(It goes without saying that, before you try it yourself, you need to make sure you do your homework - and consult with a local sawanobori or climbing expert, to ensure you're properly prepared.)

What safety kit will you need?

(The North Face/Matty Hong)

(The North Face/Matty Hong)

Sawanobori is climbing, but it is also a water sport, meaning you have to take inspiration from both worlds when it comes your kit.

A climbing harness, rope and protection will keep you safe but you'll also be wearing a wetsuit which is something you've probably never worn at the crag.

You'll also need a pair of sawanobori climbing shoes, which unlike rock climbing shoes have a sole made of rough felt instead of sticky rubber.  

Finally, you’ll need a collection of waterproof pouches, swimming goggles and maybe even arm bands if you are as bad at swimming as I am.  If you feel the cold, get yourself a decent Gore-Tex outer shell which will add another layer of protection from the cold and wet. 

Where can you try Sawanobori?

(The North Face/Matty Hong)

(The North Face/Matty Hong)

I travelled to Japan because, as far as I know, it’s the only place that practices this unique style of climbing. But in reality, you could climb up any waterfall you like.

Having said that, the rock itself seems to play a big part in how 'realistic' your chances are. Quick setting volcanic rocks, like basalt, seem to give the best climbing conditions, as even when polished by the river there are holds (in the form of air pockets in the rock) that you can use.  

A lot of the canyons in the Alps are granite, which with the passage of millions of years of water, become incredibly slick and impossible to climb. Great for sliding down whilst canyoning, not so good for sawanobori!  

We based ourselves close to the city of Toyama in Japan as our main goal for the trip was the tallest waterfall in Japan, Shomyo Falls, but there are plenty of other spots around.

Once again, before you give this a try yourself, seek out a local sawanobori expert and ask their advice.

James Pearson is a North Face athlete and the co-author of Climbing Beyond: The World’s Greatest Rock-Climbing AdventuresPublished by Aurum Press, you can order you copy on Amazon now.

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