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Monday April,10

A thick overcast had settled in during the night and, as we left our hotel in the morning, a weak drizzle was beginning to fall and raindrops had speckled our window. As we were heading down for breakfast, I was beginning to realize that a vision problem I was being treated for just before we left had started to worsen somewhat. It was quite hard for me to focus and that was quite disconcerting, to say the least.

A local passenger train crosses over one of the quieter sections of the Hozukawa River.

Before we left, my wife had told me about her plans for this day, taking a tourist boat along the Hozukawa River. For some reason, I had pictured one of these glass-walled tour boats that you would see motoring along the Themes or Seine. After all, she did describe the river as cutting through Kyoto. However, we were soon a train modeled after an antiquated, narrow-gauge railroad called the Toroko Train, hugging a near-vertical slope as it wound through the most rustic and rural section of Kyoto prefecture. We stopped briefly at a station in a touristy-looking town where, my wife said, we would be returning to by boat. Shortly after the stop, as we were following a narrow, rapidly moving river far below, she pointed out the window, telling me that's the type of craft we were taking. I didn't quite see what she was pointing at and frankly, thought I may have been looking at the wrong river. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, we arrived at Kameoka City.

For most of the eighth century, Kameoka hailed as a provincial capitol, but spend most of the next millennium as a quiet farming community. Now it has become a center for the manufacture of textiles and precision instruments. We boarded a bus that would take us to the boat. The sky had taken on a more serious and sincere overcast and, with increasing frequency, the drizzle would find the motivation to become a real rain shower.

A Quiet River Cruise - sort of...

When we arrived at the dock and bought the tickets for the boat, I finally began to understand the realities of the situation. The boats, about five feet wide and twenty feet long with a rubberized cloth awning as a roof, were not quite what I imagined.
...we scraped along a rather jagged rock and somehow managed not to be torn asunder and sunk. I also made note of the fact that Japanese boats were not required to carry life preservers for their passengers.

They were manned by a crew of four: a helmsman, and three oarsman (one who also manned a long pole). Our group was called and we got on board along with about fifteen middle-aged women who were all simultaneously maintaining a thoroughly animated conversation with each other. We cast off and slowing headed down stream to the sound of the steady creak and splash of the oars, still somewhat audible under the din of the women's voices. They were rowing directly into the wind and our progress was slow for the first half mile. Kameoka City was falling away behind us and the tall, green hills were drawing closer and closer to the river's edge.

We rounded a bend and slipped into a current that started pulling us along at a much faster clip. One of the oars was exchanged for a pole and the rowing became more necessary for directional control than forward motion. As we slipped into the rapids, the "need for directional control" became a requirement for collision-avoidance as we quickly threaded our way between boulders and shallows. The boat, which I first thought to be wooden because of its traditional-looking shape and configuration, turned out to be made out of a fiberglass-like material with a wood frame. This, I observed, as we scraped along a rather jagged rock and somehow managed not to be torn asunder and sunk. I also made note of the fact that Japanese boats were not required to carry life preservers for their passengers. The women's noisy chatter would sometimes turn to laughs and screams as we splashed through some of the more intense passages. The only momentary lull came after we scraped the rock.

Our guide keeps us off the rocks while offering a running commentary on the river

As we reached the halfway point and were in a region where the water was particularly still, the oarsman and helmsman changed places, tiptoeing along the gunwales of the boat. Each had been serving as guide and narrator for the passengers in their proximity. I realized that they must have one of the most exhausting and demanding jobs in the country's tourist industry--even more so than the flag-toting tour guides. Still, I envied a career that would allow them to live and work in such a beautiful environment. As hard as it was, they visibly enjoyed their work.

Still Waters Running Deep

The river alternated between calm pools and rushing narrows. The gorge plunged a thousand feet in places and blossoming cherry trees dotted the bright green hillsides. There were areas, we were told, that the narrow river was a hundred feet deep.

The boat (or perhaps the women's voices), occasionally startled a large crane into flight while unusual and particularly melodic bird songs followed us along the river. At one point, we passed a family of monkeys staring blankly at us from the bank. Near the end of our trip, a boat similar to ours but bearing hot food (cooked on board), coffee, pastries, soft drinks and souvenirs pulled up along side. I bought a can of coffee and my wife had rice cakes with soy syrup. Our trip ended after the next bend in the town of Arshiama, site of a beautifully picturesque and ancient causeway-like bridge crossing the wide span of the river. Historically, the town a favorite summer escape of the Kyoto nobility. Now, it is subject to a biannual deluge of tourists, flooding in during the cherry blossom and autumn foliage seasons.

Running parallel to the river was a long, narrow shopping street selling food and gifts to the tourists. In spite of the rain and the fact that it was a weekday, the small shops and restaurants were doing a brisk business. After lunch, we took a train back to city, relaxed briefly at our hotel and then headed out again across town to visit one of my wife's best friends who lived in the Nishikyoku (west) ward. It took a couple of different trains to get there, but Mami owned a car and was able to come and pick us up at the station. The rain, by this time, had made a serious commitment and was coming down steadily and rather hard. At the station, we stood amid long lines of uniformed schoolchildren and shopping-bag laden housewives waiting for busses.

Next: Living in Kyoto City




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