Ryugado is one of the three most extensive limestone cave complexes in Japan. It’s thought to have been formed around 150,000,000 years ago. After driving through valleys of rice fields and bamboo groves, you come to the foot of a small mountain. There’s a bus stop, a visitors’ centre, a street of souvenir shops, and an escalator beside a pretty stream flowing down the steep hillside. The entrance to the cave is under an overhanging cliff with a small Shinto shrine.
Inside, the temperature is a comfortable fourteen degrees year round. You walk on rock paths and steel platforms through narrow tunnels which open out into chambers, some of them vast from floor to ceiling. Streams of clear water flow through the entire complex, with impressive waterfalls. Everywhere there are spectacular stalactite formations in a wide variety of evocative shapes. The path moves upward, sometimes at a very steep angle, passing through some extremely narrow and low gaps. Stooping at uncomfortable angles is required in several places, and it can be a little claustrophobic.
Occasionally bats flit around above your head. The cave is home to five species of bat. The chambers that they favour are marked on the ceiling by traces of their feet, and on the floor by mounds of excrement. There are around one hundred species of animal living in the caves, including shrimp and crabs.
The caves were first discovered in 1931, and the first modern visitors were greeted by the remains of almost-intact earthenware vessels, dishes and hearths full of charcoal and animal bones. These were found near what’s now the exit. These artifacts date back to the prehistoric Yayoi Period between 300 B.C. and 300 A.D. In the cave you can still see an earthenware vessel encased in stalactite. It has been given the name “God’s pot”. Further along the path is a pot placed there in 1937 as an experiment, to observe how objects become coated in stalactite.
The Regular Course takes about an hour. Explorers wanting more can book in advance for a one and a half hour Adventure Course, crawling through narrow passageways and climbing wooden ladders, deep in the recesses of the cave. On the Total Darkness Experience Tour, you go through the first 400 metres with just a paper lantern to light your way.
After you leave the caves, you can visit the Ryugado Museum which explains the history and formation of the caves with charmingly dated exhibits. There’s also the eminiently missable Ryugado Rare Bird Centre with its exotic, long-tailed chickens. Otherwise, the Ryugado Caves are one of the great natural wonders of Shikoku, and are not to be missed.
Name in Japanese: 龍河洞
Address: 1424 Tosayamadacho Sakakawa, Kami-shi, Kochi Prefecture 782-0005