With summer’s heat punching in early this year, I’m already angling for riverside relief. I trundle down to Ota Ward’s Rokugodote, the southernmost train station in Tokyo’s 23 wards, and a stone’s throw from the Tamagawa (Tama River). The 138-km-long Tamagawa, which in this location divides Tokyo from Kawasaki, is bound to have some chill spots, I think.

Leaving the station and turning southward, I find and scale a high levee, to survey not the river but a floodplain full of baseball fields. Nineteen, in fact. The Tamagawa Yakyujyo, I learn from a passerby, costs ¥3,000 to reserve a field for two hours of play on weekends, but only half that on weekdays. Despite the low fees, the fields are empty and eerily quiet midweek. Perhaps the noontime sun is simply too hot, or — here’s a notion — everyone’s busy working?

A ginger cat saunters up and brushes my leg, yowling conversationally. Offered a morsel of food, he licks it politely but has no appetite. As he stalks off through the grass and wildflowers, turning to call to me every few paces like a character from a Hayao Miyazaki film, I head off in the opposite direction, toward the river.

As I cross the playing fields, the quiet is broken only by birdsong, passing trains and the punctuation of an occasional crow caw. It’s surprisingly peaceful, and as I get closer to the fringe of greenery along the Tamagawa’s banks, the temperature drops several degrees.

I had hoped to walk along the river’s edge, but, as is fairly common in Tokyo, the banks are inhabited here and there by “the homeless.” “Homeless,” however, seems a misnomer, given that most inhabitants of this community have constructed rather ingenious abodes. Utilizing Tamagawa flotsam combined with natural materials, they have created what looks like an eco-village.

One settler has incorporated cast-off baby crib walls for a front door complete with doorbell, another has piled up discarded electronics for an imposing entrance path, and yet another has fashioned an estate of wood fragments and patio umbrellas. I’m not fooled that these structures would be ideal in extreme weather or river floods, but this spring, compared with the monotonous apartment complexes beyond the levee, they are the more charming domiciles. With unobstructed views of the wide, glossy Tamagawa, tucked in among daikon flowers and wild grasses, where gentle breezes ruffle their hanging laundry and bees and birds flit about, the homes of the homeless evoke some vanished era when symbiosis with nature was the norm.

I am just musing on this when I pass by a freshly dug mound, sequestered in dense underbrush, about 1.5 meters wide and 2.5 meters long, with a hand-woven bamboo decoration marking off the spot. It is just about casket dimensions, I note, observing two beer bottles thrust into the ground about where the head would lay. Nah, I think. Around the next bend, I meet two gentlemen enjoying lunch en plein-air, and ask them about the mound. “It could be a burial plot,” one says, to my surprise. “We have them here and there along the river,” the other chimes in. Now with grave concerns, I continue on, watching my step.

Heading vaguely northwest, I stop to sneak a bucolic photo of a man sleeping on a bench beside his bicycle. As I zoom the lens in, I’m astounded to discover that the man has nothing on below his shirt; his pants, airing out perhaps, are draped over the bike’s handlebars. Thankful to be on the derriere side of this unclad tableau, I continue on.

After burials and bare bums, I not sure it’s wise to observe a gentleman busily mucking around in the loamy riverbank. When he heaves out a big lump of something about the size of a human torso, and wraps it in a plastic bag, curiosity bests me. His bike, parked nearby, has several similar bags dangling. I’m relieved to learn that Akisui Kobayashi, 70, is an avid driftwood collector. “I take these home,” he tells me. “I clean them and maybe oil them up a bit — nothing more — because you can’t improve much on nature’s style,” he says, kindly unwrapping one of his found treasures for me to admire. Peering at the swirls and grain patterns in the gnarled wood, I have to agree with him, and admire his hobby.

Next, I encounter a playground, empty but for a trio of gateball aficionados. The sport, loosely based on croquet, was invented in Japan in 1947 by Eiji Suzuki to provide post-World War II poor with an inexpensive athletic pursuit. Because it’s not too strenuous, it’s a favorite pastime of seniors. Seventy-two-year-old Tokiko Ishii, in a flowered bonnet and sporting a special scorekeeper’s computer on her wrist, tells me that she practices here nearly every day and often competes in gateball tournaments. “It’s good for the body,” she chirps,” and I’m pretty skillful at it, too.” With a laugh, she resumes whacking balls clean though a wire wicket.

As I wander further upriver, I find a quartet of men in workplace uniforms, assembling tiny fishing rods and unraveling spools of monofilament. I learn that they work for nearby heavy industrial equipment placement and construction company Construction Technical Support. “We’re playing hooky,” one in glasses says, laughing. To do what? “We’re going to catch shrimp,” another chimes in. Catch them one by one? They nod, and pose like super heroes. “We’ll get enough for dinner,” the one with glasses says, setting a line. I find it hard to imagine that, but wish them well.

My walk so far has taken me about 7 km up the Tamagawa, and the further I go, the more fishermen I see. Some sleep topless (beats bottomless) by their fancy rods, others plant chairs on the shallow shoals on the Kawasaki banks. The odd couple or two finds romance in the river flow, and a man practicing the French horn, a cigarette wedged between the valves, adds music to the late afternoon air.

Finally parched and hungry, I take the next levee exit available, near the Tokyu Toyoko Line’s Tamagawa Station. I head to the only restaurant I can find facing the river, a casual place with a few outdoor tables and an interior decor that fans of street artist Frank Shepard Fairey will admire. Here, though I am forbidden to name or photograph the place, I demolish what might be the most delicious BBQ rib in all of Tokyo.

Sated, I set off again, inland. Seated at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs, I find a man furiously pumping up his racing bike’s tires. Shigeo Nojima proudly announces that he bikes about 600 km a month. “I’m 89,” he says, “and I’ve ridden through the Alps five times, and have been riding for 49 years.” I’m impressed, and say so. “I might die tomorrow, but biking has brought me this far,” he reflects, then suggests that I head up the stairs to see the Tamagawa Sengen Shrine.

Reputed to be over 800 years old, and built on what locals consider a “power spot,” the shrine is sacred to the female deity Konohanasakuyahimenomikoto, the guardian of easy childbirth, family happiness, fishing, farming, weaving and conceivably extra-long names. Said to be as beautiful as a cherry blossom, the deity’s crest features that flower, and can be seen on the shrine’s curtains.

From the shrine’s lookout platform, I enjoy sweeping views of the Tamagawa. Noting an oasis of greenery to the north, I use up the last of the afternoon light locating it. Tamagawa-dai Park, I learn from a signboard, is renown for its 3,500 hydrangea bushes, just on the verge of blooming. It also happens to be the site of eight ancient tumuli, dating from the early sixth through the mid-seventh century. I think back on the humble mound I saw earlier in the day, and feel an age-old wind pass through the trees overhead. I plan to explore Tamagawa-dai more carefully another day, but for now the sun and my energy have faded, so I leave the tombs to the descending darkness.

The Keikyu Line runs through Ota Ward down to Rokugodote, the southernmost train station in Tokyo’s 23 wards. The Tamagawa Sengen Matsuri will be held on June 6 and 7 this year.

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