Kyoto is a city with water flowing through its heart. Visitors to the city will be very familiar with the Kamo River, the prominent waterway which runs through the north and eastern wards of Kyoto, with its riverside walkways and cherry blossom-lined banks. Its source can be traced up into the hills of the city’s northern fringes, but it is in the deeply wooded mountains and valleys of Woodland Kyoto where we can fully experience the true essence and vitality of water in the history and culture of the region.
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Into the River: Boat Rides on the Hozu-gawa
We start our explorations not with the Kamo River, however, but with another of the city’s most prominent rivers, the Hozu River, which winds its way down from the mountains and through Kyoto’s famous Arashiyama district in the northwest corner of the city. The river has been an important transportation link for centuries, with the earliest records in 784 showing that rafts were used to transport lumber to build Japan’s new capital at Nagaokakyo. However it was not until 1606, when the river was dredged, that boats could pass safely through. This allowed rice, goods and timber to be ferried from Tamba (present day Kameoka) to Kyoto and beyond.
Navigating the sharp bends, rocks and rapids in the river requires skilled boatmen: usually a man at the bow using a long bamboo pole to push the boat away from obstacles, a rower just behind, and a man at the back of the boat to act as rudder. As time went on, the cargo of these river boats changed from goods to passengers, and this tradition happily continues to this day with Hozu River boat tours.
Passengers board the traditional wooden vessels upstream at Kameoka, and it then takes 90 minutes – 2 hours (depending on river conditions) to float along the beautiful 16 km course to Arashiyama. The knowledgeable and entertaining boatmen expertly navigate the boat down the river, splashing through rapids and skimming past boulders, while pointing out interesting features along the way. While some of the boatmen can speak a bit of English, others will guide guests in Japanese only. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife such as cormorants, herons, fish and turtles, and enjoy the stunning natural scenery at any time of year, with cherry blossoms lining the banks in the spring and the autumnal hue of maple trees hugging the cliffs in the fall.
Open: 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. daily
Price: Adults 00 / Children 00 *Prices as of August, 2023
Access: 8 min walk from Kameoka Station on the JR Sagano Line
Another spot with deep connections to water can be found a little further upstream near the eastern foothills of Kameoka. Izumo-Daijingu is one of the city’s oldest and most important shrines; originally dating back to 709 AD, the current structure is a 14th century reconstruction which is officially designated as an important cultural asset. According to Shinto beliefs, deities (or kami) inhabit all things, including rocks, streams, trees and mountains, and so in this way water itself can be seen as divine.
Izumo Daijingu is most well known as a site for match-making, with visitors coming to pray for long and lasting relationships. But even if you don’t need any luck with your love life, then feel free to sip the waters which gush forth into the shrine’s Manai well from nearby Mt. Mikage – this sacred and pure water is said to grant longevity and help treat any ailment, with some visitors even bottling it up to imbibe some of its powers at their own leisure. Be sure to explore the shrine grounds during your visit too – there are sacred rocks, beautiful waterfalls and mystical torii gates hidden in the woods nearby.
Website: http://izumo-d.org/ (Japanese)
Access: From Kameoka Station’s North Exit take Furusato Bus F11 Line to Izumo-jinja-mae, the shrine is a short walk from the bus stop. There aren’t many buses running, so we recommend looking up the bus times in advance. You can also rent an e-bike from just outside the North Exit.
Fish Out of Water: Fishing For Ayu
Heading further north deep into Woodland Kyoto, we arrive in the rural township of Kyotamba and the Michi-no-eki Nagomi. This roadside station along the Yura River is a great place to stop, recharge and refresh; here you can shop for regional produce, buy local souvenirs and fill yourself up on a marvellous array of desserts and hearty dishes including soba noodles, lightly-battered tempura and parfaits.
The local specialities are black soybeans (kuromame) and horse chestnuts (kuri), and they feature in many of the dishes and products for sale, such as tea and sweets, all of which can be enjoyed from the spacious dining area which looks out over the river and nearby velvety green-clad mountains.
At the adjacent Ayu Garden you can enjoy catching and eating ayu (freshwater smelt), a special summer delicacy. The ayu season runs from the third Sunday in June until the end of September, and both kids and adults alike can take delight in trying to catch the spritely fish as they dart back and forwards in a shallow stream. After splashing around in the cooling water, staff will grill the fish and you can enjoy them salted and skewered while taking in the glorious views at the outdoor riverside seating area.
Website: https://wachi-nagomi.com/ (Japanese)
Access: 6 min from Kyotamba-Wachi IC on Route 27, or 18 min walk from JR Wachi Station on the San-in Main Line.
A Change of View
If you feel like burning off all those calories, then it’s just a short drive across the valley from the rest-stop to a fantastic hidden viewpoint up in the hills – but only if you can find it. The viewpoint itself is halfway up a hillside overlooking the valley, from where you can take in a magnificent vista of the river valley and the terraced rice paddies which make use of the area’s rich water resources, which are vital for farming.
This is a real off-the-beaten-track location however, where few, if any, tourists ever venture, but it is certainly worth a detour for the intrepid traveller. The easiest way to get there is probably first by heading to Touguji Temple; if driving, you can park there or simply follow the narrow lane southwest for a couple of minutes to reach a small and attractive black-and-white temple (so obscure it’s not yet even marked on Google Maps!) – there is also parking here.
Ignore the cemetery next door, and instead look for a small drainage channel running up the hillside behind the building – this, believe it or not, is the path up to the viewpoint. Follow it a short way and then turn left into the forest, before passing through a metal gate.
Ascend for a couple more minutes to arrive at a clearing high up on the hill, where a wooden observation deck offers splendid views of the valley and the distinctive rice terraces – you will likely have this secluded spot all to yourself, so enjoy the hard-earned views!
Access: By car (or bicycle) head first to Touguji Temple and follow the above instructions from there.
For the Sake of Kyoto
The art of sake brewing relies heavily on the purity of its raw materials – namely rice and water – for its distinctive and subtle flavours, and so it is little wonder that in an area of rich natural abundance such as Kyoto, there are breweries which have been making the most of the clean air, fertile soils and pure water for generations. The town of Ayabe lies in the northern part of Woodland Kyoto, and near the banks of the long and winding Yura River is where you will find Wakamiya Sake Brewery. In operation for well over a century, the brewery was established under its current name in 1920, with the particular sake brewed here known as Ayakomachi. The brewery produces a wide number of varieties, some of which are seasonal, but all rely on the exceptionally high-quality of water (sourced from the surrounding mountains), locally-farmed rice and time-honed expertise of the brewers, to produce tipples which have garnered attention far and wide.
The rustic old premises are very much that of a working brewery, although visitors are generally permitted for a look around if the staff are available, but reservations should be made in advance for larger groups. While you’re looking, of course, it’s a great chance to buy a few bottles!
As sake must be made when conditions are cooler, the brewing process only takes place from around late November to March, so that is the best time to come and see the brewers in action.