Spelunking in Fukushima’s Irimizu Cave

Sometimes I forget I have phobias. When I’m at the top of a roller coaster, I remember that I hate heights. When I am rummaging around in my pitch black garage, I suddenly recall the fact that I’m terrified of the dark, and I sprint back into the house with my heart pounding.

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A picture I pulled from this website. It is hard to tell if this man is posing or is stuck…

Now here I am wedged between two rocks, far below the ground when I remember how much I hate enclosed spaces. My ribcage scrapes across the rock until I can’t go any further, another outcropping rock pinched against my shoulder blade. And the crevice only gets narrower.

The guide peers back at me. “Go back and try again. Lead with your head and follow with your body,” He advises me in Japanese. Potentially getting my head stuck between two rocks with my arms pinned down at my sides did not sound appealing. I pondered whether to turn back, but my path of escape was blocked by my two friends. Instead, I suppressed the urge to panic and did as the guide instructed. I managed to slither through the rocks and tried not to think about how I would get back through the crevice.

This wasn’t what I expected when I went to Irimizu Cave at the recommendation of my friends. My experience with caves has been limited to metal walkways, high ceilings and clearly lit caverns. I suppose the required guide and flashlight should have been a hint.

You may have heard of Abakuma Cave near Nihonmatsu. My friends and I passed up those tourist friendly caves for the lesser known Irimizu Cave located a few kilometers away.

I took the day off of work and my friends and I arrived around 9am for our tour. I had booked a tour guide for a flat rate of 4,500 yen (which included entrance into the caves). The Irimizu Cave are split into three sections. The first section, A-course, is the beginner level. If you continue onto the B-course, it becomes more difficult. A and B-course do not require a guide and together take about an hour to make your way through the caves. C-course is an extra thirty minutes further into the cave, behind a locked gate. You need to hire a guide if you want to try the C-course, which is what we did.

When we arrived at the caves, there was no one around except for a man planting flowers who apparently was in charge of the caves. The registration building was a small wooden building staffed by part-time high school students. The building had changing rooms, bathrooms and lockers for 100 yen to keep your valuables.

You will have to bring a flashlight with you; they aren’t provided. I had a head lamp and my two friends picked up flashlights from Daiso. Although the Daiso flashlights worked well, my friends spent half the time with their flashlights clenched between their teeth as they sloshed on hands and knees through water, so I would recommend a headlamp if you have the option.

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The descent into the center of the earth (almost).

The guide led us to a very plain looking set of metal stairs that led into the black mouth of the cave. A-course was easy, but still required ducking under rocks and sidling through narrow crevices. We mostly avoided the water that rushed through the center of cavern. The caves were dimly lit with a rope of lights on either side of the cave, but it was nothing fancy. If I had known I would be crawling through water later on, I wouldn’t have tried so hard to avoid getting my feet wet.

After about 15 minutes or so we came to the B-course. Let me tell you a little about myself first – I am a relatively little person at 158 centimeters tall (5’2”). I am a bit overweight, but nothing that would hinder any kind of movement. I go to the gym a few times a week and enjoy hiking. With that in mind – there were a few times I thought I was going to be pinned between two rocks for the rest of my life or slip onto sharp rocks as I shimmied across rocks with my feet and back pressed against either wall. One of my friends was about 182 centimeters (6’) tall, skinny and lean. My other friend was about 177 cm (5’10”) and of average weight. We all struggled, although they spent more time than I did hunched over. While I was able to waddle under low hanging rocks in a crouch, they were forced onto their hands and knees. There was more than one incident of banging heads against the ceiling.

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Aren’t you glad the water is so cold you can’t feel tiny rocks jutting into your hands and knees?

Most of the B-course was spent sloshing through freezing cold water. By the end of the tour I couldn’t feel my toes and my fingers were starting to go numb. Our guide wore flip flops, but I highly recommend tennis shoes for safety and grip as you scale rocks like an underground mountain goat. We climbed over rocks, twisted our way around, under and through crevices. We hauled ourselves over phallic objects as we giggled like children. The caverns varied from wading through water on hands and knees under rocks for a few meters, to soaring ceilings but narrow walking space. Navigating the caves was so interesting and fun that I could almost forget my phobia. That isn’t to say that there weren’t a few parts that one of us would struggle nearly to the point of giving up. If you are particularly tall, carrying extra weight or don’t like enclosed spaces, keep in mind that Irimizu Cave might prove a challenge or you may have to turn back at some point.

C-course was sectioned off by a locked gate. Our guide unlocked the gate and led us into the pitch black tunnel as we left behind the dimly lit caverns. To be honest, the C-course was not much different from the B-course, except that there was no light to guide you.

When we reached the end of the C-course, we turned around and headed back the way we came. Once we exited the C-course and our guide locked the door behind us, he announced the end of the guided part of the course. He told us to take our time coming back and he disappeared into the caves, knees high and flip flops slapping against his feet as he splashed through the water at a run. I am not sure why, but it was an incredibly amusing sight to watch as our guide unexpectedly abandoned us.

irimizuWe took our time as we wandered back, enjoying the varied shape and design of the cave. As we neared the stairs that would lead me back into sunlight, we ran into a few people. Our guide had said that they are busier during the summer (we went on July 22nd), but I don’t understand how people can pass each other in the caves, since most of the cave is no wider than shoulder-width. I had to flatten myself against a rock and a kid had to duck under me like a game of limbo.

The entire tour took us about an hour and twenty minutes. Upon completion, we received a coupon to get into Abakuma Cave for free at any time, which was an unexpected surprise. We didn’t have time, but I definitely plan on going back to Abakuma Cave sometime in the future.

At the caves, they also had showers available for 200 yen, but we opted to go back to the car and change into dry clothes and go home for a late lunch.

As for transportation to Irimizu Cave, I am not sure if they have a bus. We rented a kei car (yellow license plate, not as strong of an engine) for 24 hours for 7,020 yen which included minimum insurance.  I think the best way to get into the caves is by car, but there may be other methods of transportation.

I thoroughly enjoyed Irimizu Cave, and I highly recommend it if you don’t have a crippling fear of enclosed spaces or wiggling through crevices head first. It was well worth the drive and the cost. If you are looking for a safe, fun, realistic cave experience, Irimizu Cave is a great place to visit in Fukushima!

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