Before I’d even set eyes on the river I heard a deep rumble from its bubbling gash of white and cobalt water rending apart the Tama Mountains.
Officially part of Tokyo, Oku-Tama seems at a planetary distance from the metropolis of 35 million people. Descending the slope from Sawai Station on the JR Ome Line, you cross over a road before continuing on down to the vigorously flowing Tama River itself. Earthen paths run along both banks, offering access points for scrambling down to the water. There are no concrete embankments here — a welcome rarity in Japan.
Walking the river paths of Oku-Tama, the visitor is highly attuned to the environs. One of the charms of the area are gardens created on slopes, with locally sourced stones used to make shallow, graduated walls. In season, sunflowers and daffodils mix with marrows, gourd frames and ridges of radish. Occupying the earth spaces between the walls, they make for a well-organized riot of growth and color.
Descending to the river, wild tiger lilies had gained a purchase between the rocks of the stony banks. A copse of basho, a plantain tree whose leaves resemble banana fronds, had somehow taken root above the riverbank, lending a semi-tropical note to the rich flora of the area.
The river’s centrality to any visit is well earned and is attested to by the amount of activity focused on it. That includes several kayaking clubs, and there are also individuals who bring canoes here to test their skills on the white-water sections of the river. Larger dugout-shaped boats carry groups down the river and through the rapids to the sound of perfectly coordinated shrieks. Plenty of people get wet upending their boats here, but I never saw anyone actually swimming in the river, though its safe pools and gentle eddying flows would make it ideal.
Physical activity also takes the form of rock climbing, a number of massive boulders providing ideal challenges for beginners. One group leader I spied was dousing the rock faces with water to make the slippery surfaces more difficult to scale. Fishing, hiking and camping are other pursuits you may come across, but Oku-Tama never feels crowded, even on weekends.
Returning to the starting point of our walk, I noticed that a Japanese restaurant had placed a cluster of tables beneath the trees in a landscaped riverside garden, a pleasant place to have lunch. On my first trip here, we had splurged on a more refined experience, taking lunch at Mameraku, a well-known tofu restaurant that serves a multiple-course set that can be accompanied by a sampling of three local sakes. The light-filled tatami rooms afford perfect views of the river.
This time we opted to eat at Twinkle, a riverside restaurant with a raised open-air terrace offering an intimately close river perspective. The first time I checked out this eatery, a cesium scare had caused locally caught ayu (sweetfish) to be off the menu, but this time the restaurant had been given the all clear. Besides the natural products for sale along the river paths, Oku-Tama offers the experience of nature with harmonious man-made features, ones that are consonant with the environs. The elegant pedestrian suspension and pontoon bridges are examples of this, their graceful forms just right.
Gyokudo Art Museum sits just above the river beneath a forested slope, and though it’s close to one of the bridges it is easily missed. A gifted, highly stylized artist of the sort beloved of the art establishment of the day, it remains for visitors to decide whether Gyokudo was a “great master of the Japanese art world” as the pamphlet claims. The painter lived in the nearby city of Mitake for the last 13 years of his life and was, apparently, much beloved by the local people.
More easily evaluated than the art is the museum’s dry landscape garden, a simple design clearly inspired by ancient stone gardens in Kyoto, particularly Ryoan-ji and some of the sub-temple layouts at Daitoku-ji Temple. The sound of the river from beyond and below the garden’s retaining walls adds an audio effect to the structure’s raked gravel, which acts as a substitute for actual water. The forested slopes visible from the garden, as well as the rumble of the nearby river create a singular atmosphere. The garden, a rather successful blend of tradition and modernity, was designed by the well-known landscape architect Ken Nakajima in 1960. A little south of there, the Hairpin Museum is a good example of Tokyo’s dedication to small, highly specialized collections.
If the area is civilized by art, it is deified by a number of temples and shrines. Atago Shrine, at the top of a long flight of stone stairs, provides a broad view of the area. In early May, its sloping embankments are covered with azalea. Kaizen-ji Temple on the opposite bank is another well-appointed place of worship. The whole area is peppered with small rock, cave and grotto shrines.
An alternative to art and religion is a visit to the Ozawa Sake Brewery, creator of the well-regarded Sawanoi brand. Located on the slope between the station and the river, it’s unlikely you will miss the building, but if so, look out for its sakabayashi, a ball made of pine needles and leaves, hanging from its eaves. The god of sake-making is enshrined in Omiya Shrine in Nara, and those balls have become a symbol of sake-making that you can see hanging outside many liquor stores in Japan, especially when a batch of fresh sake is about to be delivered.
This was my third visit to a brewery that traces its history back to the early Edo Period (1603-1867). The original buildings, resembling large storehouses, are whitewashed and immaculately kept. Their dark, wooden interiors maintain a relatively constant temperature in all seasons, an aid to the fermentation processes taking place within the great vats.
Tours are free, but must be booked in advance. This is a simple procedure, requiring you to simply select a time on the day and write down your name in a ledger at the entrance. I booked the sake tour for the afternoon, following the riverbank walk and lunch.
The tour includes a drink-as-much-as-you-like sampling of sake at the conclusion of the talk. You can practically feel the impatience to get into the tasting, the unconscious way the bodies of the seated tour members begin to lean toward the bottles: the shift in concentration.
Two or three cups down the line, complexions also begin to mutate: Japanese faces to a ruddy, permanganate tone, my own to an intensification of its usual, unsightly Caucasian-pink.
It struck me then, that it might be a good idea, before they start to recognize me as a sake freeloader, to leave a decent interval before my next visit to the brewery.
Getting there: Trains run from JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to Tachikawa on the JR Chuo Line. From there take the JR Ome Line connection to Sawai Station. The journey takes a little under two hours.