Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

July 4, 2014

The Kamo River, the heart of Kyoto

The Kamo River (Kamogawa) is the beating heart of Kyoto. Modern Japanese cities often turn their back on the rivers flowing through them, but not so Kyoto. With is wide green banks the river forms an integral part of the city. There are pleasant pathways on the riverbanks, restaurants are open towards the water and near Shijo Bridge is a stone embankment where couples sit at evenly spaced distances. 

The Kamo River originates in the mountains northwest of Kyoto. It then passes through rural and secluded Kumogahata, entering the city proper at Kamigamo. Near the Shimogamo Shrine it is joined by the Takano River. After flowing in a straight line through the center of Kyoto, it turns west to combine with the Katsura River near Fushimi, after which both rivers flow out into the Yodo, which in its turn pours its waters into the Bay of Osaka.

Shimogamo New Year 2007
[Confluence of the Kamo and Takano Rovers near the Shimogamo Shrine]

The Kamo River is 23 kilometers long and – as most Japanese rivers – rather shallow. Its average depth is one meter, in winter the river even turns into a collection of patches of brown grasses through which small trickles of water flow. But in spring and early summer, especially in the rainy season, the Kamo River transforms itself into a real river again. When looking at the seething spring waters, it is not difficult to imagine that in the past the Kamo River was feared for its floods. Famous is the dictum of Retired Emperor Shirakawa (11th c.) that only three things refused to obey his will: “The waters of the Kamo River, the fall of the backgammon dice and the priests of Enryakuji Temple.”

The name Kamo goes back to the clan that dominated the area around the river before Kyoto became the capital in the late 8th century. Their name also lives on in the two great Shinto shrines that stand near the river: the Shimogamo Shrine (Lower Kamo) and the Kamigamo Shrine (Upper Kamo), both originally tutelary shrines of the Kamo family. The deities enshrined in Shimogamo are Kamo Taketsunemi and his daughter Princess Tamayori. This princess once was sitting at the boards of the Kamo River (in fact in the past rivers were used as toilets), when a fiery red arrow came drifting towards her on the waves and touched her between the legs. From the resulting pregnancy Kamo Wake-ikazuchi was born, a god who was subsequently enshrined in the Kamigamo Shrine further upstream.

Before being adopted as ancestors by the Kamo clan and “humanised” with stories as the above, these deities clearly were natural forces. The Shimogamo Shrine stands downstream, where the Kamo and Takano rivers flow together, so Kamo Taketsunemi must have been a sort of river god to whom prayers were said to guard against floods. The Kamigamo Shrine stands farther north, at the foot of Koyama Hill, where the deity first descended to an iwakura, a rock formation at the top. As his name reveals, Kamo Wake-ikazuchi was probably a thunder god to whom supplications for rain and abundant harvests were addressed.


Shimogamo New Year 2007
[Mitarashi Ablution Pond in the Shimogamo Shrine]

The Kamo River has clear and pure waters and was frequently used for Shinto ablution ceremonies (misogi). Sacred bathing was a summer custom at both Kamo Shrines and is still ritually enacted at the Shimogamo Shrine in the form of the Mitarashi Festival in summer. The Shimogamo Shrine and its Tadasu Forest stand on the wedge where the Kamo and Takano rivers flow together and the river is at its most beautiful here, providing open vistas towards the north. In spring, the Kamo River is shaded by pink cherry blossoms, in summer it is alive with sweetfish. In this season, wagtails and herons also make their appearance.

Already in the Edo period the Tadasu forest was a favorite spot for taking in some cool air on summer evenings. Today you see children playing with fireworks in the Kamogawa Park. In late autumn and winter, blackheaded gulls from Siberia fly in via Lake Biwa - sometimes dancing around in large groups as if it were snowing gulls. The Kamo River also used to be famous for its plovers - they form the symbol of the Pontocho geisha quarters.

Geisha lantern
[Plover lantern in the Pontocho geisha district]

The sub-shrine Kawai Jinja, standing at the tip of the wedge, is associated with the medieval writer Kamo no Chomei. In the Hojoki, one of the most famous pieces of Japanese classical literature, he writes about the flow of the river that never stops and the waters that never are the same. “The foam that floats in its pools, now vanishing, now re-forming, never lasts long: so it is with human beings and their dwelling places here on earth.” Standing at the Kamo River it is clear where Chomei’s inspiration came from!

The clearness of the Kamo River is most evident at its upper reaches, in Kumogahata. Here in unspoiled nature stands Shimyoin Temple, an ancient cult site of ascetic mountain Buddhism. The temple is dedicated to the esoteric deity Fudo and probably already goes back to the 10th century, but repeated fires have left no interesting historical buildings. Nature itself is the temple here: quaint rocks and huge boulders stand under a dense canopy of trees; flat stones invite to the practice of zazen; and you can easily imagine priests standing under the many waterfalls or meditating in dark grottoes. This is sacred ground and not surprisingly the temple maintains strict rules for visitors.

Yuka on the Kamo riverbank
[Noryo-toko built over the Takase Canal, next to the Kamo River]

Less sacred were other uses of the river in downtown Kyoto. When in the late 16th c. Kyoto was rebuilt by Hideyoshi, Teramachi became the eastern perimeter of the new capital. Next to that lay the broad area given to the Kamo River and its wide banks. Here on the dry riverbed, the “kawara” - a name you find back in Kawaramachi (the town built on the "kawara" in later times) – entertainers, prostitutes and outcasts lived and plied their various trades. The river banks were a kind of no man's land where the authorities turned a blind eye to goings-on. Here Kabuki was born from the theatricals of the dancer Okuni; here, also, many tea houses were set up, initially on boats, where men could be entertained by geisha, a true “water trade.”

Not surprisingly, with the exception of Kamishichiken near the Kitano Shrine, all “flower towns” of Kyoto originate in the Kamo River: both Gion towns started on the east embankment, where people thronged to what is now the Yasaka Shrine, while Pontocho grew on a narrow dyke on the east bank. Miyagawacho was again set up on the west bank just north of the Gojo Bridge, where countless pilgrims passed on their way to the Kiyomizu temple.

The Gojo Bridge is also the place where according to legend the superhumanly strong warrior monk Benkei posted himself to divest passersby of their swords. He had already collected 999 swords, but number 1,000 became his undoing – he lost the fencing match with the young hero Yoshitsune. In the style of the fat little boys popular in Kyoto’s Palace Dolls (Gosho Ningyo), their statues stand on Gojo Bridge, fencing above the waters of the Kamo.

Other bridges also have their statues: Shijo Bridge is adorned with an effigy of Okuni, the charming kabuki dancer, and near Sanjo Bridge, the end of the Tokaido highway, you will find Yaji and Kita, the heroes from a hilarious 19th c. novel about two good-for-nothings who traveled from Edo to Kyoto while only interested in food, sake and women.

Bridge over the Kamo River
[Giboshi on Sanjo Bridge]

With its metal giboshi (the onion-shaped flares on its handrails) the Sanjo Bridge is the most beautiful of the 48 bridges spanning the Kamo River. It was probably first built by Hideyoshi around 1590, although the present version dates from the mid 20th century. On a more somber note, the riverbank was also the place where public executions were held and the cut-off heads of criminals were exhibited to edify the public. One of the most famous executions was that of Japan's 16th century Robin Hood, Ishikawa Goemon, who according to a not wholly reliable tradition was boiled alive in an iron cauldron on the riverbank at Sanjo. Since then, iron bath tubs have been cynically called “Goemon tubs.”

Near Sanjo you can also see what solution was found for the fact that the Kamo River could not be navigated by boats. In the early 17th c. Suminokura Ryoi, one of Japan’s earliest entrepreneurs, had a canal dug that ran parallel to the Kamo River. Called the Takase River and extending for 10 kilometers from the Uji River to Nijo, this small canal was plied by flat-bottomed boats, hauling up firewood, coal and lumber. The lumber went to the timber merchants in Kiyamachi, a street running parallel with the canal, which between Shijodori and Sanjodori now has magically transformed itself into a pleasure town with countless hostess bars.

Nakaragi no Michi, Kyoto
[Nakaragi no Michi along the Kamo River bank]

Several parts of the Kamo embankment have been planted with cherry trees but the best cherry-blossom viewing spot is the path that runs along the Kyoto Botanical Gardens, between Kitayama-dori and Kitaoji-dori. Called Nakaragi no Michi, the sakura turn this path into a veritable blossom tunnel. Don’t forget to check out the blossoms inside the botanical gardens as well - the forest in the northern part still retains the impression of the woods that stood in the past along the Kamo River.

One of the most beautiful events held at the river is the Yuzen Nagashi, when bolts of colorful, dyed cloth are washed in the Kamo River between the Sanjo and Shijo Bridges. Until about 1965 this was regularly done to remove the paste resist mask of the cloth, as part of the normal industrial process. But as it is also very polluting, it is not allowed anymore and only revived as a florid spectacle during the first weekend of August.

This is also the time the restaurants along the river already have put up their Noryo-toko, platforms high above the river embankment where customers can sit outside and enjoy the cool breeze. There is no better way to spend an early summer evening in Kyoto than here, at the banks of the Kamo River!

Shimogamo Shrine (075-781-0010): 6:30-17:00. 10 min on foot from Demachi-Yanagi Station on the Keihan line; or bus 4 or 205 from Kyoto Station to Shimogamo Jinja-mae. Grounds free. The Mitarashi festival is held each year on a different date in July or August (Doyo no Ushi). The greatest festival, held together with the Kamigamo Shrine, is the courtly procession of the Aoi Matsuri on May 15. http://www.shimogamo-jinja.or.jp/ 
Kamigamo Shrine (075-781-0011): Grounds free. Bus 37 from Kitaoji bus station to Kamigamo Misonobashi bus stop. http://www.kamigamojinja.jp/ 
Shimyoin (075-406-2061): 7:00-16:30, 300 yen. Kumogahata "Mokumoku" Bus from Kitaoji St. Only two buses every day. See the (Japanese) schedule at http://kumogahata.net/mokumoku.pdf 
The Noryo-toko can be enjoyed from May 1 to September 30.