What landscapes come to mind when you think of Japan? For me, mountains are the first thing that come to mind, followed by volcanoes and the ocean. And then gleaming megacities, of course. But caves? I know there are a few scattered around the islands but one worth visiting is Akiyoshi Cave and its nearby karst plateau.
The Akiyoshi cave and plateau (known in Japanese as akiyoshi-do and akiyoshi-dai, respectively) are located in Yamaguchi Prefecture, a little-visited region of western Japan. There’s not much around them so transportation connections are a bit limited but the city of Yamaguchi is within half an hour’s drive.
The cave itself stretches for nine kilometers under the Earth’s crust, although only a one kilometer section is open to the public. That small span alone holds some impressive features, however. My favorites were:
- Senmachida – A formation of pools carved out of the limestone that look like terraced rice paddies.
- Koganebashira (Golden Pillar) – One of the most visually impressive columns in the cave
Visiting the cave involves a bit of backtracking. Visitors have two options – they can either A) walk the length of the marked section of the cave and then emerge at the opposite end to ride a bus back to the cave’s entrance or B) retrace their steps through the cave. If you retrace your steps, you have the option of taking the “high” road, a short section near the cave’s main entrance where you can quite literally scale the rock (via metal bars and ladders) to view the cave from near its ceiling. There is a small additional fee of ¥300 to do this and I wouldn’t recommend it for those with young children or those who suffer from vertigo.
What I enjoyed even more than the cave was our visit to the neighboring karst plateau. The plateau was actually once a section of coral reef on the seabed. Today, it encompasses quite a bit of land and is a mostly treeless landscape littered with limestone formations. As limestone is a soft rock, easily weathered by rainwater, the boulders can change size or shape over even (relatively) short spans of time.
There is an observatory at the edge of the plateau but I recommend lacing up your shoes and tackling the mostly flat walking trails into the landscape itself. The easiest ramble is a ten minute jaunt out to the sole large tree on the horizon. From here, you can get a good panorama of the park without having to venture to much further.
Should you wish to continue on a bit, make sure you have a map from the welcome guides who are stationed at the observatory. Maps are in Japanese only but they are easy to read, provide accurate estimates on walking times and show the entire system of trails. The trails themselves are well-signed (in Japanese only though) and we had no trouble planning an hour-long route and figuring out where we were. As the plateau is virtually shadeless, however, I advise at least a bottle of water and a hat or sunscreen on sunny days.
Akiyoshi Cave and Plateau are best reached by car, but you can arrive by bus. Buses run from both Yamaguchi and Shin-Yamaguchi stations and take about 45-55 minutes. Expect to pay around ¥1800 one way.