A cooling swim good enough to (almost) die for

by Thomasina Larkin

It’s hot. Sweltering hot. And humid. And it’s not going to cool down any time soon.

So with weeks of sweating buckets looming ahead, I set out on a mission to find cool and refreshing places to swim around Tokyo that don’t include sitting on piping hot, ray-blasted beaches. I’m on a hunt for the city’s cleanest rivers.

First stop: Mitake (take the Chuo Line from Shinjuku to Ome and then get on the Ome Line to Mitake — ¥890 and about 90 minutes). Just outside the station is a tourist booth with information (in Japanese) on the area’s hiking trails (two of which extend from the concrete paths along the river bank), bus routes and a cable car that takes you part way to a couple of waterfalls.

Since I’m just there for a dip, I head across the road and to the left of the bridge to a tiny opening onto stairs that lead down to the river, where a couple of kayakers are practicing on a ferocious white-water course. As it is the end of rainy season, the water level is much higher than usual and the current strong.

Down the path to the left, families are catching small fish and wading up to their knees in a few shallow pool areas along the raging river’s edge. Past the wooden footbridge, the rapids seem to mellow out a bit, and on the other side of the river, about 10 meters away, awaits an enticing aquamarine-color lagoon.

I dip my toe in to test the water and only one word can describe it: frigid. No, two words: freaking frigid. It must be about 7 C. But it’s hot outside, I’m sweaty and I want to go swimming.

Slowly, I ease myself into the icy waters, trying to convince myself that it is really refreshing and . . . nice, yes, nice.

Since “gently does it” isn’t doing it for me, I decide to take the plunge and get it over with. But the current is a lot stronger than it had looked and it pulls and yanks me downstream. I frantically do the front crawl with all my might, but I’m moving backward in super-slow motion, farther and farther away from my backpack resting on the shore.

Suddenly, I notice the rocks. Oh crap! Lots of rocks! I’m heading straight toward a bed of big, sharp-looking ones, where the river becomes a rush of white caps. My body is going to be raked over the rocks and I’m going to smash my head open, die and become fish food. I grab onto a lone boulder sticking up out of the water just a couple of meters away from the death trap, and hang on for life, my fingernails tearing as I use every ounce of strength to keep a grip.

I want desperately to be safe on dry land with my belongings, but there is no way I can make it back the way I came.

Hikers, campers and barbecuers flock around the bank and on the footbridge above to watch the foreigner flailing about in the freezing rapids, and I wonder, “Will this be the end of me?”

After a few deep breaths to calm myself and regain some energy, I realize the water is only about waist deep from there to the lagoon. So clutching the river floor with my curled toes and swinging my arms in a kind of windmill action, I Paul Bunyan myself to the little heavenly pool of cyan. And it is nice; my own little oasis. The onlookers disperse and I soon after decide to clamber barefoot (ouch!) up a rocky cliff so I can cross the bridge to pick up my stuff and continue the adventure.

During my ascent, a warning sign says that when an alarm sounds the dam upstream is opened and swimmers should get out of the water before a mad gush might put their life at risk.

At the cliff top sits Imotoya restaurant, with its huge glass walls facing onto the river, offering various lunch sets from ¥1,200 between 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. On the station side, Charaku, with a deck overlooking the river, has a menu comprised of soba and tempura sets from ¥1,200 to ¥1,600. The main road along the station is also sprinkled with diner-type eateries serving ramen or fish dishes, and homely wood inns with gorgeous views.

A wander upstream brings me to plenty of calmer wading enclaves. Amid the essence-of-summer sounds of rushing rapids and cicadas buzzing, a couple of families have set up peaceful camping spots next to water that is perfect for swimming.

Stops between Mitake and Okutama boast numerous hiking trails, camping areas and satisfactory swimming spots, so anyone would be well-advised to take their gear and spend a few days exploring that stretch of the Tamagawa River.

From Okutama Station (¥170 and 17 minutes from Mitake), head left (grabbing some barbecue-friendly food from a market en route), walk past the Eneos gas station and then down the small road turning left just after the bridge where there’s a full-service camping area. Tents, cabins, barbecue houses, showers and cooking ware can all be rented and firewood bought (plates, cups and cutlery are not available; see [in Japanese only] for more information).

The vibe at the campground couldn’t be more different from that at Mitake. Log cabins atop the hill house outdoorsy-type families with members of all ages and rambunctious kids on summer-camp programs. Below, along the river, is a row of tents occupied by twenty- and thirtysomethings who are stoking cooking fires, drinking beers all day and night and throwing each other into the river — which is as cold as at Mitake, although the current isn’t as fast. Some have brought inner tubes and rubber dinghies for a barrel downstream, but most seem to be content to be spending time hanging out and socializing. My immediate impression is that this is the type of convivial place to go camping in hopes of finding summer romance, in addition to a night under the stars filled with good ole-fashioned outdoor fun.

The next day, still thirsty for that perfect river to host a summer day’s swim, I take the Itsukaichi Line to Musashi Itsukaichi (¥780 and 90 minutes from Shinjuku. Take the Chuo Line to Tachikawa, then the Ome Line to Haijima, then the Itsukaichi Line to the terminus). After leaving the station, I cross the road and turn right at the first traffic lights and then head down the stairs on the far side of the bridge.

To the right, hordes of people of all ages entertain themselves in Akigawa River’s shin-deep water with every type of water toy imaginable, from fishing nets to goggles to beach balls.

This is river life like I have never witnessed before. It has a total beach atmosphere: Parents chase squealing, laughing kids with water guns, babes in bikinis work on their tans and tattooed guys hunch over mouth-watering feasts being barbecued as they bop their heads to beats pounding out of their boomboxes.

The bank is a city of tents. Nearby shops sell anything required to help better enjoy the shallow water. Sandals to wear while wading are a definite must-have because the rocks on the riverbed are small, of various shapes and very, very hard (as rocks can be). In the opposite direction, to the left of the bridge, a fairly swank river-view restaurant called Kan-kura offers a pasta (¥1,300) or pizza lunch set (¥1,200) and a “pichi” dinner course comprised of several small dishes (¥3,200). Down from Kan-kura, the current gets a bit stronger and the water deeper, and a few daredevilish guys are cannonballing off big rocks.

I briefly consider joining them, but then abruptly abort that notion as memories of the previous day’s battle with nature flash through my mind. Today I am happy with a shallow wade. And even happier with the knowledge that within the huge metropolis of Tokyo there flow at least a few pristine and shaded rivers with various depths and atmospheres to choose from.

Kansai area: Omimakaiko is a clean and recommended beach on the largest lake in Japan, Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture (just east of Osaka and Kyoto). From Osaka take the JR Special Rapid Service for about an hour and 15 minutes (¥1,450) to Omimaiko Station. From Kyoto take JR Kosei line (¥650, 42 minutes) to Omimaiko. North of Osaka, Mino boasts waterfalls, hiking trails, and swimming (at your own risk). From Umeda Station, take the Hankyu Takarazuka Line to Ishibashi Station, then change trains and take the Hankyu Mino Line to the last stop, Mino Station (trip costs about ¥300 and takes about 30 minutes). Hiroshima area: North of Hiroshima is Minochigawa River. Take a bus from Itsukaishi JR Station for 1 hour and 10 minutes (¥970) to the Yuki hot spring.