Gokanosho, A Hidden Samurai Village in Southern Japan
When I hear the term “hidden gem” I typically assume that a place is less-visited, but typically not “hidden.” However, when we visited Gokanosho (五木五家荘県立自然公園), hidden gem had a whole new meaning.
Gokanosho is a set of five tiny villages that are located in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan. I say tiny because you’ll be hard-pressed to find a delineation from one village to the next and not to mention, there are only around 300 people currently living in these mountainous villages.
But how did Gokanosho come to be? Legend says Japan’s first Samurai clan, the Heike clan, were defeated by their rival Samurai clan the Genji in the late 12th century. When defeated, some of the survivors of the Heike clan fled to the mountains in Gokanosho and resided there.
Now, when visiting Gokanosho you can find out more about the rich history of the area and its ties to the Heike clan – including a former residence of a member and experience suspension bridges, scenic hiking, powerful waterfalls, and the hospitality of a local minshuku (Japanese inn).
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Where is Gokanosho?
Gokanosho refers to a set of five villages that are in the Yatsushiro City area in the Kyushu Region of Japan. This area of Japan is nestled deep in the mountains making it difficult to get to, but absolutely worth the effort if you enjoy remote destinations.
How to Get to Gokanosho
We pulled over on this one-way road to take a photo of the fog on this road in the mountains in Gokanosho. It was a little eerie, but beautiful as well.
Gokanosho can be hard to get to and offers no public transportation. Thus the only way to get to Gokanosho is by rental car or tour. From Kumamoto City, we took route 445 until getting to prefectural road 159. From there we took 159 to Gokanosho. The roads here were somewhat alarming – they are incredibly narrow, steep, and curvy mountainous backroads. Because of the elevation change, it was also foggy at times so visibility was limited.
We utilized Google Maps and our car’s GPS service to keep track of where we were at times but still got turned around in a few spots. If using your car GPS punch in a map code instead of an address. We used the map code for our minshuku (bed and breakfast) in order to get a point of reference for Gokanosho.
However, we definitely recommend utilizing both methods of GPS if you decide to visit Gokanosho because Google Maps can be a great resource for searching for places to visit. When we first went to Gokanosho, we had just seen a few pictures scattered around the internet, and only a rough idea of where these places may be.
In our Gokanosho guide, we will share Google map waypoints for each attraction and our accommodation. Google itself wasn’t always correct, so we saved pins of our location at every place we visited to allow others an easier time exploring this beautiful region.
We recommend you download an offline Google map of the area as your phone signal may be sparse during your visit. You might be wondering how on earth we had service way up in the mountains. Well, surprisingly our WiFi device had a low, but useable signal hence why we were able to still use our phones! Shout-out to Japan Wireless, please sponsor us?
If you aren’t comfortable driving in Japan or doing your own tour of Gokanosho, we did find a guided tour after our visit that offers a two-day trip to Gokanosho and other areas of the Kyushu Region. The guide is a Gokanosho local and has excellent reviews!
READ MORE: Things To Know About Driving in Japan
When To Visit Gokanosho
The most popular time to visit Gokanosho is during the autumn months because the fall foliage is absolutely beautiful. Visitors from Kumamoto and Fukuoka are more frequent during this time. Apparently, there are even some tour buses that bring groups to Gokanosho for day trips which cause these narrow roads to become more congested.
However, since there is only a small number of inns available in the area, traffic in the early mornings, late afternoon, and evenings isn’t too busy. We just recommend booking a place to stay in advance because there are only around 8 small inns in the area.
We decided to visit during the summer which wasn’t busy at all. In fact, we only saw one other visitor the entire time we were in Gokanosho. So while it isn’t as pretty as visiting in the fall, the lush greenery is still a sight to see as you cross the suspension bridges or drive on the winding roads. Plus the mountains are a place to escape the summer heat and crowds. 😉
We don’t recommend visiting Gokanosho during the winter because it is only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles during this time. The roads are notorious for becoming icy or piled with snow. Weather elements mixed with the narrow, steep roads can make for a disaster so it’s best to not attempt it.
Where to Stay in Gokanosho
Ryokan Sakurasou (佐倉荘)
Ryokan Sakurasou (佐倉荘) is not only the perfect place to stay in Gokanosho but could also be considered an experience. When we visited this small, intimate minshuku (Japanese bed and breakfast) during the summer we were the only guests. But we can imagine that during the autumn months this small inn reaches capacity quickly because the fall foliage is a more popular time to visit this area.
When we first arrived at Ryokan Sakurasou we took our shoes off at the door (common for most ryokan/inns in Japan) and were shown to our room by the owner of the inn.
We meet a lot of people traveling but she will forever be in my heart. She was the sweetest woman, constantly making sure we had everything we needed and more.
Our room was small, but still spacious by most room standards in Japan and had two twin size beds. From the room, we also had a beautiful view of the owner’s personal garden which we later enjoyed seeing as it started to rain.
Shared shower space and vanity at Ryokan Sakurasou
Although Ryokan Sakurasou has shared bathrooms, there are only five rooms so your stay still feels incredibly intimate. Even if the inn had been full there wouldn’t be a battle for the bathroom areas because the toilet area, shower area, and sinks are all separated.
One of our favorite amenities at Ryokan Sakurasou was the hot spring bath. There are two separate sento baths, one for men and one for women, but since we were the only guests the owner told us we could enjoy one as a private onsen.
READ MORE: A Quick Guide to Japanese Onsen
Since Gokanosho is set hours away from the nearest grocery store or convenience store, you might realize it’s difficult to find a restaurant to dine at in Gokanosho. Restaurants that are in the area have limited hours or are open seasonally. However, when you stay at Ryokan Sakurasou breakfast and dinner are included in your stay.
Whatever you do, DO NOT MISS OUT ON THESE MEALS HERE. All of the food is prepared by the owner with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. One local hunter provides her with deer meat and she even told us that her husband goes to the nearby rivers to fish for yamame (mountain trout).
The meals we had at Ryokan Sakurasou were honestly some of the best we had while in Japan (and that’s saying a lot because we stayed three months this trip!).
After dinner, the owner poured us each a glass of Kuma shochu a locally made alcohol of rice and water from the Kuma River. This kind of shochu is crafted the same way for over 500 years. It was a special treat to us to be able to try something so special to this area.
The last thing I want to mention regarding our stay at Ryokan Sakurasou is the community areas. We loved relaxing in the indoor living spaces or on the outdoor patio area listening to the rainfall in the evening. Of all the places we stayed at in Japan, our stay at Ryokan Sakurasou was one of the most memorable experiences.
Address: Japan, 〒869-4511 Kumamoto, Yatsushiro, Izumimachihagi, ６// MAP
Things To Do in Gokanosho
You’re probably going to think I repeat myself a lot, but it’s because I love this place so much. The main reason to visit Gokanosho is to escape to a smaller, less-visited area of Japan.
There are no convenience stores, traffic lights, or any other large signs of civilization… except for the one vending machine we found close by Ryokan Sakurasou. 😉
The fall foliage in Gokanosho has an unbelievable beauty to it with the levels of the mountains showing the vibrant colors but the summers can be beautiful too! If you want to visit a secluded area of Japan and are willing to make the trek to get here, you won’t be disappointed. Now, let’s move on to the good stuff!
Waterfalls in Gokanosho
Because Gokanosho is a mountainous area there are a number of waterfalls to view. We visited two different waterfalls during our time in Gokanosho. We found both of these waterfalls easily accessible and only required a short hike.
Sendon Todoro (栴壇轟の滝)
At 230 feet (70 meters) tall, Sendon Todoro Waterfall is the largest waterfall in the Gokanosho area. The light hike to Sendon Todoro Falls is roughly 0.5 miles one-way. We tried to track it but could be a touch off!
We first parked near this location and walked behind what appeared to be an abandoned market/restaurant. Though it looks vacant, there is a path here and maps showing the trail so you don’t have to fear trespassing.
We then walked through a wooded area to some stairs and a path lined with trees. As we walked on the path we heard the waterfall roaring as we get closer. I don’t have the words to explain either of these waterfalls, but it’s truly magnificent to see as the stream of water that flows from the top of this cliff.
We followed the water stream for a little while which leads to the Kuma River but didn’t find much else on the path, I believe the waterfall is the main attraction here (and a good one at that!).
If you can’t make the hike down to Sendon Todoro Falls there is also an observation platform that you can see the waterfall from above. It’s at a distance but still visible.
Umenoki Todoro (梅の木轟の滝)
Umenoki Todoro is another major waterfall in the Gokanosho area that cascades at 124 ft (38 meters) tall. It is apparently known as the Phantom Waterfall by locals due to its once remote location. Though once harder to access, the path to Umenoki Todoro Falls now has a staircase close to the nearby suspension bridge.
Once on the staircase, you’ll notice the waterfall right next to you! But don’t get too distracted by its beauty! Though the short walk down the stairs makes it easier to get to the bottom, they can be muddy and slick. Be sure to watch your step and use the handrail if necessary!
Once you reach the bottom you can easily see the magnitude of this spring-fed waterfall that weaves in and out of a number of moss-covered boulders and rocks.
Address // MAP
Suspension Bridges in Gokanosho
There are a number of thrilling, beautiful suspension bridges in Gokanosho, but they aren’t just for looks. These bridges act as a passageway from one side of the river, to the other. Though they were mostly used before roads came to Gokanosho in the late 1950s, they still are important to the local residents today.
Sendan Todoro Bridge (せんだん轟吊橋)
The Sendan Todoro Bridge is located near the Sendon Todoro Waterfall we mentioned above. It is a curved bridge made from precast concrete and steel that acts as a passageway over the Nishinoiwa River.
At first, we had a difficult time finding the access point to this bridge, and it started raining heavily by the time we did find it so we didn’t spend a lot of time here. But it was still a unique bridge to see and we were close by when we visited Sendan Todoro Waterfall.
Address // MAP
Momigi Suspension Bridges (樅木吊橋)
The Momigi Suspension Bridges are a set of two bridges that are made of locally sourced cedar and chestnut trees. Ayatori-bashi (Cat’s Cradle Bridge) is the longer of the two and is located 35 meters above the Momigi river and 72 meters in length.
The second, shorter bridge is Shakunage-bashi (Alpine Rose Bridge) which is parallel to Ayatori-bashi at 17 meters above the river and 59 meters in length.
These bridges were originally built for residents and children heading to school as a way to cross the river with ease before roads were built in Gokanosho. However, they still serve as an important role for locals to safely cross the river.
These bridges were the most picturesque of the suspension bridges we visited here. The blue waters rushing below along with the greenery in the background almost felt poetic.
Address // MAP
Umenoki Todoro Suspension Bridge (梅の木轟公園吊橋)
Umenoki Todoro is an extremely long suspension bridge made up of precast concrete. The bridge measures over 380 ft (116 m) in length and is enforced with layers of concrete slabs measuring 8 in (20 cm) thick.
When it was constructed in 1989 it was considered to be the longest precast concrete bridge in Japan. But that title has since been replaced by a number of other pedestrian and vehicle bridges.
Umenoki Todoro was the easiest bridge to find in Gokanosho and is located right next to a cafe and souvenir shop that you can park at. When we walked towards the bridge the first thing we noticed was how long it was and it kind of made my stomach lurch!
I guess you could say that I’m afraid of heights. I have no problems with roller coasters or other amusement park rides that involve heights. But place me on a concrete suspension bridge that feels like it might crumble as you walk on it… I kind of struggled. The other bridges made me feel a little uneasy too but this one… whew! Before you come at me with “but no one MADE you do this.” You’re right, I know… it’s called overcoming fears. 😉
Address // MAP
Heike no Sato Village & Museum (五家荘平家の里)
For a cultural experience in Gokanosho, I recommend visiting the Heiko no Sato Village & Museum. Heiko no Sato has two parts – the village area and the museum area.
In the museum, you can learn more about the history of the Heike clan and how they came to reside in the mountains in Gokanosho. There is even a little video about it and a number of events replicated with figurines.
Though the information is mostly offered in Japanese, we managed to find a few English translations. I left the rest up to Logan’s Japanese skills and my Google Translate app because, at this time, I wasn’t practicing my written Japanese. 🙂
If visiting during the autumn months, there are a number of events that happen in the village including a sacred Shinto dance and other historical performances brought by locals. This is something that was talked about so frequently while we were in Gokanosho that I want to come back just for the foliage and these events!
Hours: 8am-5:30pm daily, Closed Tuesdays
Address: 160-1 Izumimachimomigi, Yatsushiro, Kumamoto 869-4512, Japan // MAP
Cost: 410 yen/adults, 200 yen/children
Ogatake – Ogata Mansion (緒方家)
I mentioned this great battle of two clans before, but let me give you a little more context. In 1185 there was a sea battle in the Genpei War between the Taira (Heike) clan and the Minamoto (Genji) clan in which the Heike clan was defeated.
One of the important members of the Heike clan, Kiyotsune Taira, was believed to be dead but in reality, survived the attacks and hid in the mountains of Gokanosho. There are rumors that other surviving Heike clan members escaped to this area as well.
In order to keep his true identity hidden, Kiyotsune changed his family name from Taira to Ogata and is believed to have lived here until he passed away. The over 300-year-old Ogata Mansion plays an important role in the history of Gokanosho and you can tour the inside of the house as well as grounds.
Address: 46 Izumimachishiibaru, Yatsushiro, Kumamoto 869-4514, Japan // MAP
Nihonsugi Toge Mountain Pass
The Nihonsugi Toge Mountain Pass is located at the entrance of Gokanosho close to Misato town. The nature views in the area are stunning so I can only imagine how beautiful it must be in the fall.
On a sunny day, you can see a panoramic view of Kumamoto City and Karimatayama Mountain. Sadly we visited when it was REALLY cloudy so we had limited visibility. Regardless it was still really pretty!
Close by the seating and picnic area is a food path that leads you into Karimatayama Mountain which is a light hike and offers more scenic views of the area. Since we were pressed for time we didn’t go on this hike the day we visited, but if you have more time and there is less fog, it would be worth it!
Address // MAP
READ MORE: Two Days in Fukuoka
Gokanosho is definitely one of Japan’s most scenic off-the-beaten-track destinations and a memorable one at that. We hope this has inspired you to go off-grid and experience this hidden treasure in the mountains.