京都 River Ribbons

Missing Kyoto, I was recently looking through all my photos from Japan (I have tonnes). I particularly miss walking to work down the Kamogawa, the river that flows through the East side of Kyoto. One of the advantages of living near such a beautiful river for a whole year is getting to see it in all seasons and weathers. If you look at the map of Kyoto, it is divided by several ribbons of blue, and each one represents some of the most beautiful scenery in the city. I am therefore writing this post to celebrate and reflect on not only the Kamogawa, but all the rivers in Kyoto. Please note that in this post I am using the suffix ‘gawa’ or ‘kawa’  to mean river, so rather than writing ‘Kamo River’, I am choosing to write Kamogawa, as those are the names I am familiar with. 

All the rivers in Kyoto join the Yodogawa 淀川 to the south of the city, meeting the sea in Osaka Bay. Before they reach this main river and lose their individuality, four main rivers flow through the city, each with a different character. Allow me to introduce them to you.

The giant of this group is the Katsuragawa 桂川. Slow and wide, it flows through Arashiyama in the West of Kyoto, wending it way past mountains and houses, and passing under the famous Togetsukyo Bridge (渡月橋 ‘moon-crossing bridge’) on its way to join the Yodogawa. I saw this river frequently as I took many trips to Arashiyama, a popular tourist spot, with friends. This river is particularly beautiful in twilight, with the shadows of the mountains on one side and the warm lights of Arashiyama on the other.

The Katsuragawa also stars in parts of the epic Tale of Genji, written in the 11th Century by noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji is an extraordinary piece of writing, and though I’ve only read a little, I still recommend it to anyone interested in the ancient Japanese court and its customs, or in Japanese literature and culture as a whole. The most amusing quirk of the book, and something that nicely sums up some of the difficulties of learning Japanese, is that at the time it was written referring to people by name was considered rude, so the author refers to her characters by their station in life for men, or by the colour of their clothing for women, making it a little difficult to follow as the characters often change ‘name’. Though it is no longer rude to refer to people by name, you now can’t really say the word ‘you’ to or about someone without it being rude, so the challenges persist.

Next we have the Shirakawa 白川, literally meaning ‘white river’, named after the abundance of white sand and stones it carries through the city. It is often known as a canal in English, but there has always been a river flowing through the city under this name, it was simply diverted as part of city planning works in the 17th Century. The Shirakawa flows through Gion, one of Kyoto’s geisha districts, before joining with the Kamogawa. This river flows behind tea houses and under tiny bridges, making it very photogenic. As this is the one part of the river I apparently never took pictures of, despite going a few times, here are a couple of pictures from Wikimedia Commons, just so you know what I’m talking about.

Fortunately I do have pictures of the Shirakawa at its most photogenic – along the Philosopher’s Walk in cherry blossom season. This is the iconic cherry blossom spot of Kyoto – tourists and locals drift along the narrow river, staring up at the light pink blossoms. Out of all the days I spent in Kyoto, that day among the blossoms was the most idyllic. I must have counted at least three couples posing for wedding photos, capturing the ultimate romantic moment.

The Takasegawa 高瀬川, meaning ‘shallow river’, is another river I was very familiar with during my time in Kyoto, and one that many Kyoto inhabitants will know well, as it flows right through the city. I personally think this river is underrated – in the Spring it has beautiful cherry blossoms, and the rest of the year it provides some welcome beautification to the streets outside Kyoto’s bars and clubs in Sanjo.

Finally we have the Kamogawa 鴨川 (meaning ‘duck river’), my favourite river in Kyoto, and not just because it was my closest. The Kamogawa has wide banks with paths and parkland running down either side, making it the perfect place for a stroll, some exercise, a bike ride, musical instrument practice, or drinking, depending on who, and when, you are. It also has turtle-shaped stepping stones, which are a fun challenge (and actually quite difficult, I’ve seen a lot of people take a dip!). The Kamogawa is also the best river for bird watching in Kyoto – kites and Crows circle above, while herons, egrets and cormorants wait for fish in the shallows.

In addition, the Kamogawa has the striking split of the Takanogawa and Kamogawa branches, two medium rivers becoming the larger Kamogawa. In the Summer this spot is popular among students to set off small fireworks and have a social drink. Though I saw it almost every day, I always thought it was a really beautiful and unique spot.

Hopefully this is the year I can be reunited with the rivers of Kyoto, but until then at least I have some great pictures and memories of them. My plan is to update this blog as and when new blog posts crop up from old memories, or I go to Japan and make new ones.

猿島 Brick Battleship

So I haven’t written this blog for almost a year. I will keep the grovelling short so as to get to the content, but exams, leaving Japan etc. kinda got in the way. Though I now live back in the UK, I have a huge collection of pictures from Japan as well as several blog posts I didn’t write for whatever reason. The mood has taken me to write, and I was surprised to see this blog still gets around 300 hits a month despite my doing absolutely nothing, so I decided I’d write the rest of the posts when I am able.

Today I’d like to take you back to March of last year, where I took a trip to an island called Monkey Island (猿島 Sarushima), which had no monkeys, but lots of history. Part of the reason I decided to write this post is I have exams coming up and this post required a lot of translation work due to all of the signs being in Japanese. I thought that this would be some good practice. It turns out Monkey island is not only pretty but very historically interesting.

Monkey Island is a small island, about 0.055 km, 1.7km off the coast of Yokosuka, a town in the Tokyo bay area. It is also the only natural island in Tokyo bay (there were artificial islands built during the early 1900s) and has been inhabited since the Jomon period (about 12,000 BC). Its position as the only island in the bay has led to its use as a military outpost through the years, making it great place to visit if you like ruined buildings or military history.

We reached the island by ferry from Yokosuka jetties (next to the battleship Mikasa) which took about 15 minutes. The ferry runs until about 6pm, giving people plenty of time to explore the island or just have a BBQ on the beach. It might even be fun to stay on the beach over night in the summer, though an abandoned military fort at night seems a bit too much like a horror setting.

We took the path up from the beach towards the ruins. All the fortifications were cut into the breakwater, effectively making them invisible from outside the island; what appears a small island with some trees and steep cliffs becomes a moss covered maze of fortifications as you walk further in.

The main ruins of the island date back to the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), the period of ‘opening’ for Japan, after the arrival of the American Black Ships in 1853 caused a revolution that overturned the old Shogunate system. Prior to this, in 1847, the Shogunate built three buildings on the island to prevent foreign ships entering the bay (they were not successful in this endeavour). Commodore Perry, as he passed the island, named it Perry Island, though the name didn’t really stick, and it’s still called Monkey Island by both Japanese and the Americans at the nearby base.

The fortifications from the Meiji period consist of a series of rooms and tunnels in the centre of the island. Facilities included barracks, a medical room, command rooms and a gunpowder magazine. The barracks are the rooms with the small windows, while the gunpowder storage rooms have large well-like holes in the ceiling, presumably for transporting the gunpowder up to the guns, which were mounted on the top of the fortifications. You cannot actually enter the rooms (presumably for safety reasons) but you can peer inside and walk through the main tunnels.

Though the island was bristling with men and weapons and ready to fight throughout the Meiji period, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which devastated most of the Tokyo area, caused the collapse of many of the rooms. This, along with the development of fighter planes and long range guns, meant that the island never saw war.

Monkey Island was also used as a military facility during World War II. Guns and surveillance buildings were placed on the island, but the older red-brick buildings were not used, so they survive in the same state as they were in the Meiji period.

Translating the signs has certainly enriched my knowledge of the site; it turns out the red brick tunnel, which looked very clean and almost new, is actually one of the oldest red brick buildings in Japan. Brick buildings, originating in Nagasaki, were popular from the 1860s onwards, but due to earthquakes and disrepair, only 22 red brick buildings dating back to before 1887 remain in Japan.

The red brick section of the fort, built from bricks originating the Aichi prefecture, is an example of what is know in Japanese as ‘French-style’ brick building. In the Meiji period it was commonly known as ‘English-style’. It is in fact known to the rest of the world as the Flemish Bond, as it is thought to have originated in Flanders, Belgium. There are only 4 examples of this style of brick building in the whole of Japan, making Monkey Island’s tunnel pretty special.

Aside from the stunning ruins, Monkey island is also a prime fishing spot for locals, as well as a popular BBQ location. You can rent BBQ equipment from the main reception building when you get off the ferry.

I highly recommend a trip to Monkey Island if you find yourself in the Yokosuka/ Yokohama area, especially if you love exploring overgrown ruins. The signs are all in Japanese, but this blog is basically an entire translation of them, so consider yourself far more informed than any other non-Japanese speaker visiting the island. And no, I have no idea why it’s called Monkey Island.