A confluence: where two rivers meet and join into one.
In Kamogawa’s case, the Kamo river and the Takano river, meeting each other in a slow and peaceful way and continuing southwards.
There is something about rivers in Kyoto, and maybe in many other places in Japan generally. They are wide, clear and shallow, with the tranquil surface not only reflecting the sky, but revealing the patterns on the riverbed.
The small dams that break them into different levels also create cute little artificial waterfalls. The sound and the movement form a charming juxtaposition to the stillness of the rest of the water.
Maybe I happened to visit before the rainy season began.
Where the two rivers meet is the Kamogawa “delta”, a triangular shaped strip of land formed gradually by deposition of sand carried by the rivers. The delta’s southernmost tip is a park, but I’d prefer calling it a public space, because the area looked too laidback, with too few daintily-shaped trees and too much rough surfaces.
Some people just sat at the riverbanks doing nothing. Some sat under the bridges having a picnic and thus avoiding the ferocious eagles, nosy pigeons and black, ominous looking crows with massive wings. Some were strolling or running along the rivers, or jumping across a set of big and small stones laid over the water — several in the shape of a turtle — that connect the banks.
A handsome grey heron, or a heron-like water bird, was focusing on something in the water, maybe an invisible prey, raising one of its long legs forward ever so slowly and stealthily putting the claws back down into the water. The bird’s patience eventually outran mine, with me turning my attention elsewhere before it engaged in any action.
Unpretentious, which is also the place’s defining beauty.
A few minutes’ walk northward from the delightful riverside took me to the entrance of Tadasu-no-Mori, a 124,000-square-metre (about the size of 295 basketball courts) primeval forest with 13 per cent of the trees aged between 200 to 600 years. It is said that the forest originally expanded across around 5 million square metres of land, but wars during the age of warriors (1185 – 1573) and a land forfeit writs during the Meiji time (1868 – 1912) had reduced the woodland to its current size.
The sacred grove, whose name literally means the forest that rectifies the false, is a national historical site of Japan.
At the southern end of the oblong forest stands Kawai Shrine, which serves “Japan’s number one beauty deity” Tamayori-hime, daughter of the sea dragon god Watatsumi and mother of Japan’s first emporor Jimmu (660 BCE – 585 BCE; mythic) in Japanese mythology.
I know what you are thinking. Kawai, one of the most well-known Japanese terms, which means cute: what an apt name for a temple of the beauty goddess.
But what’s more apt, considering the shrine’s location, is the two kanji characters that compose the name literally means the closing of rivers. The name is also a common Japanese family name.
Right outside the shrine’s main temple are shelves packed with small wooden plaques (ema) in the shape of a hand-held mirror. These emas were placed there by mainly female worshipers, who also drew their faces on the plaques to wish for greater beauty.
At a corner of the shrine sits a cannon shell in commemoration of Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War (February 1904 – September 1905). Surrounding the shell is a circle of small red flags that read “pray for a sure win” with the emblem of a three-legged crow (Yatagarasu), which in Japanese mythology helped Jimmu established his empire.
Why such a shell would turn up in the middle of a shrine for beauty is a curious question. My theory is that to compete for worshipers against Japan’s countless other shrines, you not only need the blessing of an attractive goddess, but need to cover other groups of people such as students as well.
A souvenir shop in the shrine sells all sorts of offerings and lucky charms, as well as glasses of “beauty water”, which is actually juice of karin, or Chinese quince, a type of pear-like fruit. Each glass costs ¥350 ($3.3). Ka-ching ka-ching!
A long, wide and straight corridor of luxuriant trees connects Kawai to Shimogamo Shrine at the northern end, constituting a relaxing and cool early summer walk. Clear streams slowly flow past, with big fishes leisurely swimming in and banks coated with fallen leaves. Another elegant heron half-heartedly prowled in the water.
Art students sat along the path, or by the streams, busily sketching, while light and shadow played tricks around them. A middle-aged forest keeper came along with a loud leaf blower to clean the yellow, dead foliage away from the main path. It looked a bit too fussy to me and I couldn’t help frowning upon the noise for breaking the wonderful peacefulness.
Shimogamo Shrine is bigger and more grandiose than Kawai, but to me it lacks characteristics (meaning less weird).
More people visited there, although not overwhelmingly. In fact, a busload of elderly descended at the shrine around the same time of my arrival. The whole shrine was filled with echoing sound of people’s footsteps because the court is surfaced with gravel.
Strange music that sounded like someone was blowing a wind instrument very badly arose from a side garden in the shrine. There is a nice old house in the garden with glass doors all closed, surrounded by delicate trees with their slender branches and fresh green leaves. But from the half-drawn curtains I could see people all dressed up sitting quietly in the hall. When the music stopped, they applauded politely.
Could it be a wedding? Or a funeral? All I knew was I should not disturb the occasion any further.
The northeastern exit of the forest leads to a pleasant and quiet residential neighbourhood. I kept walking to the northeast direction, crossing the scenic Takano river and wandering towards Ichijoji station, which is on the electric railway line to the famous Mount Hiei, which I left out in this trip.
(Map: yellow – Shimogamo Shrine; red – Ichijoji station)
The area around the station is largely residential, but there is a hip atmosphere to it, with fashionable cafes, quaint restaurants and a trendy bookstore, called Keibun-sha, which sells many photo-heavy design and lifestyle books alongside expensive arty-crafty trinkets. There is also a secondhand section with a curiously lot of titles teaching people how to run coffee shops, as well as some German-language books.
It is an area worth further exploration.