Geibikei Gorge (or Geibikei, Geibi Gorge, 猊鼻渓) is a 2km gorge formed by running waters of the Satetsu River in southern Iwate Prefecture. The gorge is lined with majestic stone cliffs which reach heights of up to 50 metres at some points. A relaxing boat cruise down stream (and back again) is easily one of the most scenic and therapeutic natural experiences that you can find in northern Japan.
The scenery you will be treated to throughout the 90 minute journey you will likely never see again, as the surroundings change dramatically depending on what time of year you choose to visit. Our recent trip was in mid-summer (early September) and we were treated to views of lush greenery as we glided along the shady edges of the river (natural air-conditioning, according to our boatman)!
Whilst spring is also fantastic (particularly in early May when the brilliant purple wisteria are in bloom), the stunning multi-coloured foliage of Autumn and frozen narnia-like snowy landscape of winter are highly recommended. During the winter, the usually open-aired boats are fixed with roofing and long Kotatsu tables (tables with built-in heater) on which you can enjoy a hot-pot lunch!
This is what Geibikei will look like in just a couple of weeks (peak colour is usually mid-October):
And a completely different view in snowy winter (this was taken in February last year) – almost like a scene from Narnia:
With these amazing views to look forward to, let me first take you through our experience of Geibikei in summer!
Access & Tickets
Getting to Geibikei is super easy, just a short bus or local train (Ofunato Line) ride from Ichinoseki Station, which is serviced by the Tohoku Shinkansen. Once you arrive at Geibikei Station, it is just a 5 minute walk to the boat pier where you can purchase a ticket and jump on board the next departing boat. Boats depart roughly once an hour, but will sometimes accommodate to group arrivals. (Further access details & links below)
A 90 minute river cruise (return trip) will cost you 1600 yen for adults, 860 yen for primary school age children and 200 yen for infants. Please note that the additional kotatsu-boat and nabe (hot-pot) lunch services in winter will set you back a little extra and require reservation in advance (see contact details below)
Once you have arrived and bought your ticket, it is on to the boat to meet your charismatic boatman! The tradtional boats sit up to about 20 people and are propelled using only some serious man-power punting.
The river boats of Geibikei are driven by a team of 17 amazing professionals with immense physical power. They push the boats along the shallow waters, all the while entertaining passengers with humorous stories, information about the unique rock formations along the way, and singing some hauntingly beautiful folk songs which echo throughout the gorge. Our hilariously entertaining boatman was this wonderful chap, Mr. Sugawara:
The first half of the journey was spent gazing at the different rock formations, waterfalls and limestone caves along the way. Here are some of the highlights:
This last shot is of two famous rock formations; the cliff-face on the left is said to resemble the face of a woman whilst the straight cliff-face on the right is said to resemble the strong, masculine back of her ‘husband’. As the boat winds between the two, looking back, the face draws closer and closer to the other side, almost as if the two are kissing.
We visited after a typhoon had hit the area, meaning that the water was not as clear as it usually appears. However, there were plenty of wildlife which could still be seen and we had a lot of fun playing with the ducks and river carp which would follow our boat, hopeful for some of the treats which you can buy on board for 50 yen.
A little way into the journey, we also came across a small shrine built into a limestone cave. The shrine was to the god Bishamon. If you managed to throw a coin into the offering alter, you were greeted with a pleasant ‘ping’ as it hit one of the bells hidden inside.
Soon we came to the end of the gorge, and the half-way point of our journey. The large rock at the end of the gorge is called ‘Geibi’ which means ‘lion’s nose’ and is the namesake of the gorge itself.
Whilst the boatmen took a well-deserved rest, we were given the chance to stretch our legs and take a walk to the final river bend.
Here we discovered another unique feature of the gorge!
On the far side of the river a rather large hole could seen gaping in the cliff-face.
Behind us, a small stand was selling small, round stones called ‘undama’ or ‘fortune stone’. Each stone was carved with a Japanese Kanji Character holding different meanings such as love, health, wealth, bonds, knowledge etc.
For 200 yen, you could choose five of your favourite ‘undama’ and proceed back to the hole in the cliff-face. The challenge is to throw the stones, one-by-one, across the river toward the hole. If you manage to aim correctly and it enters the hole, you will be granted the fortune attributed to the lucky stone (it is not as easy as you think)! I think only three of our party of 17 managed to succeed, but it was a lot of fun watching everyone else fail, too! haha.
After about 20 minutes of exploring, it was back to our boat and captain to take us back downstream. Whilst we had spent the first half of the journey chatting and joking around with Sugawara-san, the return journey was different altogether. We were treated to two incredibly beautiful folk-songs traditionally sung by the Geibikei boatmen. As the boat quietly drifted back downstream and with the afternoon sun on our faces, Sugawara-san’s haunting voice reverberated off the cliff-faces and down the gorge. It was a captivating, almost meditative moment and incredibly relaxing.
A visit to Geibikei Gorge is a must on your Tohoku itinerary! It is incredibly easy to access and the perfect addition to a stay in nearby World Heritage Hiraizumi and a visit to the equally GORGEous (haha) Genbikei Gorge.
Geibikei is accessible by bus or train from Ichinoseki station or Hiraizumi. Be careful not to get confused between Genbikei and Geibikei (though you’ll have a nice time at either).
Take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Ichinoseki Station (a little over 2 hours from Tokyo, and a quick 30 mins from Sendai).
From Ichinoseki Station:
Jump on the JR Ofunato line and get off at ‘Geibikei’. It will take around 30 minutes.
Take the local bus headed for ‘Geibikei’. It will take around 35 minutes. You can also opt to bus from Hiraizumi Station which will also take about 35 minutes.
Bus timetables and details for Ichinoseki/Hiraizumi/Geibikei/Genbikei area (Japanese): https://www.geibikei.com/html/kakusesu/kakusesu.html
Once you arrive at Geibikei Station, it is a quick 5 minute walk to the boat-pier:
Google Maps (to the boat-pier):
Geibikei Gorge Homepage (Japanese): http://www.geibikei.co.jp/funakudari/