Where does an expatriate living in Okinawa go for a two-week summer holiday? Why, to Tokyo, of course — if it’s a working holiday — as there’s no better place in Japan to make good money than the Big Mikan.
So, for the past couple of years since moving to Naha following the March 2011 disasters, I’ve spent two weeks of my two-month summer vacation from my university job in Naha teaching an intensive English-learning course at a university in Tokyo.
“Intensive” is the operative word here — three 90-minute classes per day, five days a week — actually the equivalent of an academic year’s work for a once-a-week class — in just 10 days, with a weekend in the middle.
So when that weekend rolls around, especially if it’s in the midst of a late-summer heatwave, the priority becomes finding a place to hang out that’s cool, relaxing and doesn’t require hours of travel to reach. Which, in this writer’s brain, computes to be Todoroki Valley Bird Sanctuary in the city’s Setagaya Ward, a mere three stops west of Jiyugaoka on the Tokyu Oimachi Line.
In Naha I live by a green space bordering the Makabi River Flood-Control Reservoir. There’s a 500-meter pathway around the reservoir, from which a wide variety of birds can often be watched — including the flightless Okinawan rail (yambaru kuina), Blue rock thrushes (isohiyodori), Mourning doves (nagekibato), Cattle egrets (kosagi), Great white egrets (daisagi), Grey herons (aosagi), two varieties of Night herons (goisagi and sasagoi) and perky Japanese white-eyes (mejiro). I’m also just a 15-minute walk from Sueyoshi Forest Park, the only surviving natural forest in Naha.
In Tokyo, meanwhile, Todoroki Bird Sanctuary is also a natural forest — as well as being the only natural valley remaining in the city.
The 10 meter deep valley runs for about 1 km along both sides of the Yazawa River, a tributary stream of the Tamagawa River that separates Tokyo from the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Kawasaki. And, as in Sueyoshi, which contains the ancient tomb of a Ryukyuan prince named Ginowan Udun, a tomb dating back 1,300 years can be found in the Todoroki Valley.
But while Sueyoshi might be classified as a subtropical jungle, Todoroki is more a temperate rain forest, characterized by its tall broadleaf trees along with bamboo, palmetto and ferns. Indeed, it is the proliferation of dark-green summer foliage that provides the shade and the atmosphere to keep the valley cool and relaxing in the middle of the sweltering, fast-paced and frequently frantic metropolis.
I was introduced to the Todoroki Valley about 10 years ago when I was living in Kawasaki by one of my English students, a reporter for the now-defunct Asahi/International Herald Tribune newspaper who lived in Den-en-Chofu, which is near the valley.
After my first visit, I was so impressed that I returned fairly regularly over several years. So perhaps as a remedy against the culture shock of returning to Tokyo from Okinawa, one of the first things I did on my weekend off, both last year and this, was to make my way to Todoroki Valley, which is just a few minutes’ walk from Todoroki Station.
This being Japan, “dangerous and dirty” Nature is somewhat tamed in the valley by cement and stone pathways and retaining walls in place of true river banks. In spite of this nanny-state domestication, though, wild Nature still easily prevailed down there.
More than a dozen species of birds are either residents or regular visitors to Todoroki Valley Bird Sanctuary. These include the Azure-winged magpie (onaga), Japanese great tit (shiji-kara), Japanese black-faced bunting (aoji), Oriental turtle dove (kijibato) and — if you’re lucky — a Dusky thrush (tsugumi) or three.
In addition, Japanese woodpeckers (kogera) can sometimes be heard, or even seen, in among the regular avian crew of Japanese white-eyes, Tree sparrows (suzume), Japanese bush warblers (uguisu) and Brown-eared bulbuls (hiyodori) — a featherered profusion sometimes supplemented by Grey wagtails (kisekirei) and White-cheeked starlings (mukudori). Oh, and last but certainly not least, those damned Jungle crows (karasu) predictably hang out here just as they do everywhere else in the nation’s towns and cities.
On my last visit to Todoroki, I wasn’t able to photograph any flying wildlife other than a black-winged butterfly, but I did hear the birds. In fact the assertive and intelligent caws of the Jungle crows were actually a pleasing counterpoint to the rhythm of the rushing river and the melodic chirps and whistles of the Bush warblers — a sound that countless writings and poems attest to having been loved by Japanese people for millennia.
Although there is an ancient temple in the valley — the Todoroki Fudo Temple of the Shugendo sect of Buddhism — I was in the mood to avoid man-made artifacts and immerse myself in as much wilderness as possible, at least for a few hours.
Consequently, I walked the length of the river paths, taking every spur and cutoff I could find, and occasionally stopping to rest on a bench beside the river.
I can’t resist commenting on the common but mentally-deranged Japanese practice of creating cement benches, tables, fences and other outdoors architecture made to look like wood. All that in a country that’s 67-percent covered in forest, much of it in huge sterile and allergy-inducing plantations of conifers, primarily Cryptomeria, a cypress that’s often misleadingly termed Japanese cedar (sugi).
My own philosophy is to call a spade a spade, so I’d rather see either real wood or cement painted, but not disguised. In fact, in Sueyoshi Forest, I’ve memorized the location of the very few real wooden benches among the many concrete fakes. Although I, of course, understand that cement is easier to maintain against the elements than wood, I find sitting on a wooden bench to be a pleasure, while sitting on a cement one is a pain.
What is unequivocally good about Todoroki Valley is, however, that it’s never crowded. While many Japanese forest trails, especially on weekends or holidays, are so thick with hikers you’d think you were in a queue, I’ve never found Todoroki to be congested. In fact, on weekday visits in the past, I was often the only person there.
And, in spite of sunny skies and high temperatures and humidity, during my weekend visits both last year and this, I only met a few people on the pathways. In fact the greatest concentration of humanity I witnessed this year was a group of senior citizens engaged in landscape painting under one of the red-painted iron bridges across the river/stream.
Once I’d fulfilled my contractual duties regarding the intensive English-learning course, I made my way back to Okinawa — my day spent among the butterflies, the birds and the trees down by the river a standout in my memory.
I’ve already signed up to teach the same course again next year, and if all goes well I’ll look forward to another day in Nature, in the heart of the world’s biggest city.