KOCHI -- Ryugado Cave, a nationally designated natural monument in the Kochi Prefecture city of Kami, opened a new sightseeing course on April 29 as part of its 90th anniversary celebrations. Ahead of its general opening, the Mainichi Shimbun tried out the new path, and discovered an extraordinary opportunity for adventure in western Japan with natural sights beyond this reporter's imagination.
"It's really completely dark inside, so we'll only have the lights to rely on," said my guide on the new West Main Cave Course and Water Cave Course, who is also a managing director at Ryugado Cave operator Ryugado Mirai. As he reminded me to take care, I made tentative steps into the dark in front of me.
What surprised me first was the amount of water, which poured down the rockfaces on either side of me. I'd imagined it would be no more than a steady drip from above, but the water came running down with great force. There were even points when the water came up past my knees. According to my guide, on rainy days it gets even higher, so it seems visitors would be better off to bring spare underwear.
Partway through, the path forked. A sign read "West Main Cave Course" and "central cave course." These are the names given to the paths by locals. While the whole of the new course has been named the "West Main Cave Course," visitors can enjoy both routes. The former apparently has a stronger flow of water, while the latter gives a better sense of the variations in the shape of the cave itself.
I did my best to follow my guide as he zipped ahead. But there were many spots where space was so narrow only one person could get through at a time. At some points, I twisted round, bent down and scrambled over rocks. It wasn't just that there were severe ups and downs, but everywhere the rushing water stymied my progress. It was several times harder than I had expected. Although my legs were submerged and cool in the water below, I could gradually feel sweat emerge.
Initially all I could do was keep moving forward, buffeted by the water flow, but gradually I found time to gaze at the scenes around me. When I looked closely, I noticed the rocks' shape and material was different depending on the location; some had many small grains with sharp edges I imagined would be painful to touch without gloves, while others had completely smooth surfaces.
I learned, too, that in places where water collected there were numerous holes. My guide told me that they are called potholes, which are apparently made by small stones and other objects as the water drags them along the rocks.
It's generally known that solutional or karst caves are created by erosion from rain and underground water on limestone, but by being so close to the surging water while passing through, I got a real sense of the way that natural formations are produced over a long period.
Finally, we saw light at the end of the tunnel, and left the darkness. My adventure, which felt like it had gone on for ages, had lasted just 30 minutes. Apparently bats and Japanese freshwater crabs live in the cave, but unfortunately, I didn't see any when I was there. If you get the timing right, perhaps you'll be able to meet them.
"I'd like people to enjoy a slightly different flavor of Ryugado Cave," my guide told me. The new course goes beyond the style of a field-trip or passive-viewing experience, and can be enjoyed with the excitement of a real adventure. For children brimming with curiosity and adults who want to get a taste of the extraordinary, it would no doubt be an enjoyable experience.
A guided tour costs 2,400 yen (about $22) for adults. Water boots and helmets are provided free of charge, but you'll need to bring a change of clothes and a towel. Changing rooms and foot baths are free to use. Generally, the course takes half an hour, and single groups are limited to five people. Reservations must be made at least a day in advance.
(Japanese original by Shiori Kitamura, Kochi Bureau)