Todoroki Gorge: Tokyo’s deep, green respite

In these days of working from home and social distancing, when everyone is being discouraged from visiting crowded, poorly ventilated venues, it seems Tokyo’s parks are getting even more of a work-out than usual. That’s saying a lot, given the overall popularity of parks in Tokyo.  Personally, I think a lot about where I can go for a bit of an outing without even getting on a train.  The other day, I decided to try riding my bicycle to Todoroki Gorge in Setagaya-ku, some 12+ kilometers from my house.

Todoroki Gorge (alternatively termed Todoroki Valley or Todoroki Ravine) is a short stretch where the Yazawa River has eroded a course through layers of geologic strata as it wends its way westward to join the Tama River.  The deepest section, a distance of about a kilometer, was designated city parkland nearly 90 years ago.

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The most popular spot to enter the gorge is via stairs at the Golf Bridge, just a few minutes’ walk from Todoroki Station on the Tokyu Oimachi train line.  From here visitors follow the river’s gentle descent.IMG_4230

The signboard at the top even has a temperature indicator, noting how much cooler it is at the bottom of the gorge than at street level.

Signs are posted at every possible entrance to the gorge noting that the river is prone to flash flooding in case of heavy rain. Once you’re inside the gorge and see the narrow walkways alongside the watercourse, it’s easy to understand the warnings.

On a bright sunny day, of course, it is pleasant to just walk along the valley floor enjoying a symphony of sight and sound: bubbling water, lush green, layers of erosion. The “channeling” of the river’s course interferes a little (only a little) with the sense of being immersed in nature. One must forgive this practice in densely-populated, flood-prone Japan. There is, apparently, only one river in the entire country that is completely free flowing.

 

Here and there are small bridges across the river as it meanders deep below the city above. Occasionally, large bridges carry vehicular traffic over the gorge.  Most people above are probably not even aware of the gorge below them.

Benches and explanatory signs allow visitors to fully enjoy the green space. In this time of social distancing, there were even a few picnickers, keeping their distance from others.

 

The signs point out where to look at the gorge’s flanks to spot geologic strata and where to see natural springs where water emerges from the soil.

 

Also watch for signs on the right bank about halfway down to leave the gorge briefly to visit Noge Otsuka Kofun, the early 5th century burial mound of a local chieftain.

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Kofun burial mounds were common across Japan in the 2nd to 7th centuries.  The larger the mound, the more important the person it contained. Needless to say, larger kofun also contained substantial possessions of the departed as well, often trappings of the person’s power or wealth. The Noge Otsuka Kofun is known as a scallop-shaped mound–a large circular mound (this one with two levels), and a small square mound attached to it which, viewed from above, looks like the hinge on a scallop shell.

 

The mound is located in a playground/park just off the Kanpachi ring road, a couple hundred meters from Todoroki Gorge. It’s well maintained with a modern staircase carved in to allow visitors to reach the top. Embedded in the modern surface at the top are tiles indicating what lies beneath:  armor, swords, sickles, arrowheads, and knives in one area, large stones forming a sarcophagus around a wooden coffin in another.

 

It’s a fine example of a kofun which, in spite of obvious regular access by visitors, seems in surprisingly good condition.

Retracing my steps back into the gorge, I crossed the river at the bridge and found signs for another ancient burial site, a so-called Tunnel Tomb that had been burrowed into the side of the gorge. This is a slightly less ancient site, said to have been constructed in the 7th or 8th century as the final resting place of three people. Jewelry and pottery were also excavated from the tomb, the inside of which is said to be shaped like a cross section of a ceramic sake bottle laid on its side.

 

Continuing a little further downstream, I reach Fudo-no-Taki falls. I was expecting a small waterfall, but the water has been channeled to emerge from the mouths of two stone dragons. This is so that devotees undergoing ascetic training can stand under them and chant as part of their training. A bronze statue of Fudo-myoo, the immovable god of wisdom who is said to convert anger into compassion and teaches self-control to overcome negative feelings and inner demons. Apparently, standing under the waterfall helps with that, too.

 

On the hillside above the falls stands Todoroki Fudoson Temple, dedicated to Fudo-myoo.

 

Just across Meguro-dori from the front entrance to Todoroki Fudoson temple stands another kofun, the Mitakesan Kofun. Constructed at least 50 years after the Noge Otsuka Kofun, this one is considered the northernmost of a long string of around 50 kofun running along the Tama River for a couple of kilometers, ending with a cluster of kofun in what is now Tamagawadai Park. Alas, it is only open to visitors one day of the year: May 28. When I visited, there was no indication that the festival at Todoroki Fudoson temple accompanying this opening would be cancelled this year, but if you’re planning a visit to coincide with that opening of access to the kofun, you may want to contact the temple to confirm.

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As I retraced my steps back into the gorge, I stopped to check out the spacious wooden deck adjoining the temple grounds, which provided a view over the gorge’s canopy, not a common site in Tokyo! Back under the canopy, I could continue to enjoy structures associated with the temple as well as a small tea house (closed for the duration) with its little carp pond.

 

Crossing the river again, I made my way to the “Japanese Garden” climbing the hill on the other side.  This space provided its own kind of respite.

 

Having enjoyed the lush greenery of the gorge, as well as its historical and religious sites, I felt quite refreshed and recharged as I retraced my steps back up the gorge.  Definitely a wonderful spot to grab a bit of nature in the heart of the metropolis.

 

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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