I've always wanted to trace a river to its source. Perhaps I have been inspired by the Burton and Spekes expedition to find the source of the Nile, depicted in the 1990 movie, "Mountains of the Moon," or by Simon Winchester's account of following the Yangtze to its source in his 1996 book, "The River at the Center of the World."
One Tokyo river, the Tachi-ai, can be traced to its source in an easy urban stroll. And, given the Japanese practice of lining rivers with blossoming cherry trees, what better time to walk along a river than cherry blossom season? This walk is about two kilometers and includes an historical temple, shrine and "minka" farmhouse, as well as a pond that is one source of the river.
Start from Nishikoyama Station on the Meguro train line. This is actually about 5.5 kilometers from the mouth of the river; we're only going to explore the river's upper one-third, which is the most scenic and historically interesting. At the end of the article, I'll include details for exploring from the river's mouth, for die hard enthusiasts and bicyclists.
As you emerge from Nishikoyama Station, the first thing you'll notice is that there is no sign of a river anywhere. Turn left out of the station and in 20-30 meters you'll come to a two-lane street called Tachiai-doro. Believe it or not, this is the river. That is, the river runs beneath this road, having been covered over in 1965 when this area had become a predominately residential Tokyo suburb. By that time, the river, which was never really more than a creek or stream in any event, was no longer needed as an agricultural water source and had become a rather dirty drainage ditch.
It may seem a particular challenge to follow an underground river to its source, but thanks to the cherry trees, it won't be too difficult at all. Turn left to head upriver. In about 200 meters, you'll find a cherry tree-lined raised parkway running up the middle of the road. The large, mature trees create a beautiful pink tunnel in the cherry blossom season.
After another 100 meters the raised parkway continues on a road to the left. Keep following the parkway for about 600 meters. This is a pretty ordinary residential neighborhood, except for this river-course cum walkway. About every hundred meters or so the raised parkway descends to a cross road, where you'll need to keep an eye out for traffic.
It is interesting to note that at each of these cross roads there is a stone marker bearing the name of the bridge that once crossed the river at this point, although now the river course, à la the raised parkway, sits higher than the cross road that was once a bridge over the river. You may marvel that the river ran so straight, but there's no mystery to that. In the days when this area was rice paddies, locals would have manipulated the river into a straighter course to make it easier to use it as an irrigation water source.
Many of the cherry trees have fully matured and are beginning to die. Some have been replaced in recent years, and it seems many were cut down quite recently; by next year expect young trees to have replaced them. But as you will see, there are still plenty of blossoms to enjoy.
After about 600 meters, look to the right at the cross road. You should see a wooden temple gate about 50 meters up the road.
This is Enyu-ji, a Buddhist temple with more than 1,160 years of history. Believed to have been founded in 853 as a Tendai-shu sect temple, in 1283 St Nichiren converted it to a Lotus sect temple. Around 1698, under pressure from the Tokugawa shogunate, it reverted to its Tendai-shu roots.
The wooden statues of Nio (deva kings) behind glass in the Nio-mon gate date back to the 16th century, and the temple bell to the right of the Nio-mon was cast in 1643. The Shaka-do worship hall is believed to have been built sometime in the Muromachi period (1392-1753), making it the oldest wooden building in Tokyo's 23 wards.
As you leave Enyu-ji's front gate, notice the street heading off to the right. This street is the course of the Tachi-ai River and you are about 1 kilometer from its source. But we're going to deviate slightly to check out a couple of other historical sites before continuing to the river's source, so for now, return to the parkway and continue.
You'll soon reach a traffic light and a large stone torii, the first gate to Himonya Hachimangu. Founded around the 12th century, this shrine is the original guardian shrine of the farming village of Himonya, which has become this Tokyo suburb in modern times.
The shrine office (and presumably residence of the chief priest) sits behind new, but traditional-looking, walls on the right as you enter the shrine ground. The shrine itself, a rather small, unadorned Meiji-period structure, sits up a slight incline above the shrine office, surrounded by nearly two wooded acres of land.
Just to the right of the main shrine building sits the Himon Stone, a stone slab inscribed with three sacred words. "Himon" means "inscription" and it is said the village derived its name from being in possession of this slab.
Leave the shrine grounds to the left (with your back to the shrine) past the shrine's "kagura-den" (hall of music). Turn left at the street and across the street on your right at the next corner you'll see the entrance to Suzume-no-oyado (Sparrow's Rest) Green Space. On entering the park, follow the pathway to the right, through a lovely stand of bamboo, to reach the Ko-minka, a 400-year-old traditional farmhouse. (Open 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday; admission free.)
Originally built near Midorigaoka, the house was moved to this site after being donated to the city in 1979. Its original thatched roof has been covered with copper plating to reduce fire risk, but most of the rest of the building is lovingly preserved in its near original state, the dark wood of the interior a result of smoke from the kitchen fire, which is kept constantly burning to discourage insects from settling into the thatch.
Visitors are allowed to enter the "do-ma" (earthen floor) section of the house and volunteer docents are happy to talk to you about the house and its history. They even have an informative English language brochure.
Leave the park from the exit above the Ko-minka, turn left at the main street and take the first right. Continue on this street, which has plenty of cherry trees along it for your continued blossom enjoyment. After about 600 meters you'll reach Meguro-dori. Cross it and continue for about 400 meters, to where the Toyoko train line passes high above the road. Just beyond this is the entrance to Himonya Park.
The pond of Himonya Park is fed by a spring that was the principal source of the Tachi-ai River; the park entrance where you are standing is the approximate outflow spot where the river began. Rather than trekking through mountains like Burton and Spekes, or even Winchester, your exploration has been an urban one. But you've done it. You've traced a river to its source. And enjoyed cherry blossoms into the bargain.
It is said that the villagers took their responsibilities as the guardians of the river's source quite seriously, and historically did all they could to keep the water clean and flowing. These days, this is very much a neighborhood park, with a children's playground and a small petting zoo. The locals obviously enjoy their park, and you can too.
Take a turn around the pond. Rent a boat and go for a little paddle. Cross the red bridge to visit the Benten shrine on the little island in the pond. Feed the turtles and the ducks. Apparently this was a popular duck hunting area in the Edo Period.
When you're done exploring and enjoying the park, Gakugeidaigaku station on the Toyoko Line is just 400 meters to the left as you leave the park.
To ascend the entire 7.5 kilometers of the river from its mouth, start from Tachiaigawa Station on the Keihin Kyuko line. The river flows above ground at this point and its mouth, where it flows into a canal, is about 250 meters from the station. The last bridge to cross the river is on the Kyu-Tokaido. Although the river disappears underground less than a kilometer from its mouth, its course is relatively easy to follow as it passes under Oimachi station, continues west-southwest, first as a parkway and then as a tree-lined street to Nishi-Oi station, and then up to Highway 1/Daini Keihin. West of Highway 1 the river's course is again a green strip passing under Ebaramachi station to near Hatanodai station, where it briefly disappears. Pick it up again at Showa University Hospital, just north of Highway 2. From here, it is again a cherry tree-lined street, the Tachiai-doro that goes past Nishikoyama station and picks up the above walk.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about traveling in Japan. Find her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today