HIDAKAGAWA, Wakayama >> When reaching the summit of a mountain, Japanese people shout “Ya-ho!” to hear their echo. But getting that return call is a task easier said than done.
I’ve heard the best area for hearing your echo is in the mountains of Hidakagawa, Wakayama prefecture. It is said to be Japan’s No. 1 echo spot.
I visited there in early May hoping to get rid of built-up stress, since shouting in public — and possibly spreading respiratory droplets — is frowned upon during the pandemic.
The echo spots, located in Green Park Tsubayama, are called “Ya-ho points.” The park is situated on the shore of Tsubayama Dam Lake, surrounded by the Kii mountain range.
As I crossed a suspension bridge that took me from the parking lot to the park, I heard some people shouting. All three “Ya-ho points” are concentrated around the bridge.
A 42-year-old man from Gobo in Wakayama, who was visiting the park with his family, looked refreshed.
“I don’t remember the last time I could just take off my mask and shout as much as I wanted,” he said.
An 8-year-old boy agreed. “I can’t talk loudly at school, so it was really fun,” he said.
As I heard clear echoes bouncing back from the mountains, I wondered why this spot was considered the best in Japan.
An echo sounds beautiful when you shout for two seconds so that the echo begins just as you stop. The Ya-ho points are nearly 1,000 feet from a facing mountain — an ideal distance.
The spots were discovered in 2006 by Makoto Kise, 63, a flute maker living in Wakayama, who searched about 4,000 areas around the prefecture over the course of 10 years.
The Hidakagawa town government put up a signboard in 2010 to promote the spot, and it became popular, attracting as many as 500 tourists a day.
With the pandemic, there are far fewer tourists from outside the prefecture. But Yusaku Ihara, an official with the town’s tourism association, thinks that’s a plus.
“This spot is far from crowded. You can enjoy the exhilarating feeling (of shouting here),” he said proudly.
Ihara’s tip: A key to a clear echo is a shout that is crisp, not lengthened at the end.
When I shouted, it perfectly echoed back from the mountain. While I was having fun shouting over and over again, a question came to me: Why do the Japanese shout “Ya-ho”?
I asked Hiroshi Hagiwara, editor in chief of Yama-kei, a publishing company dedicated to mountain-related books.
The most probable answer is that the word originated from the German word “Johoo,” which climbers use to call out to one another. When Japanese learned to ski from an Austrian expert during the Taisho era (1912-1926), they adopted the term, gradually turning it into “Ya-ho,” Hagiwara said.
Japan folklore tied echoes to an iconic mythical creature.
“In the past, people probably were scared when they heard voices coming from the mountains that were supposed to be uninhabited, so they attributed the voices to yokai monsters,” said Masanobu Kagawa, a curator at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History.
That begs the question: What compelled people to shout at the mountains? When asked, Hagiwara laughed.
“Because the mountains are there, I presume.”