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The Nogawa Redemption:
Brian R Wood in Tokyo
This is the Nogawa. One of those hidden treasures you do not find until
you really look for it

A living Geography of the Nogawa I have been walking quit a bit these past few weeks enjoying the warm and comfortable days of Tokyo in May before the heavy humidity of summer settles in for a long repressive stay. I have been also walking to shed some poundage gained here on a carbohydrate laced vegetarian diet in a very vegetarian unfriendly country.

While starting my weekend walking excursions (I also walk to a from my work during the weekdays but not nearly as telling), I discovered a wonderful walking route along a relatively unknown creek near my place called the Nogawa ("no" means field and "gawa" means river). I am ashamed at this for the reason that I have lived near it for almost two years and just this month have really started to enjoy its uniqueness: less than two months before I leave!

The first thing I noticed while approaching the Nogawa was its walking/biking path all along both sides. I was astonished to see this in car centred Tokyo. I could not believe I could walk and hear water flowing and birds chatting and not annoying motor scooters and out of place SUV’s. The only traffic to deal with is when crossing the many small bridges criss-crossing the creek. The path is nicely paved and there are sections where houses with beautiful flowers make colourful walls on one side and down the grassy, steep banks, the Nogawa itself. There is a nice mix of sunny and shaded areas. The shaded areas are not of overpasses, but of actual trees – another rarity in this city where trees are treated like pesky weeds.

The Nogawa is not really a river at all, but a small stream that has occasional pockets deep enough for fish to live and socialize. Most of the Nogawa is very shallow, only enough water for crayfish and the kids hunting them. Most of the Nogawa runs through the inner Tokyo suburb of Chofu just west of central city. It finishes its journey at the much bigger Tamagawa, which then empties out into the sea via Tokyo Bay.
On Saturdays I walk an hour south toward its mouth and on Sundays walk an hour north toward its origin. My turnaround points are, yes, overpasses; sorry cannot get totally away from them. There are two major expressways that cross the diminutive waterway – the Tomei Expressway to the south and the Chuo expressway to the North both about an hours walk from where I start my river jaunt. Between the two mega-bridges, the Nogawa is very peaceful and full of wonderful sites and sounds.

I have walked the Nogawa enough that I have given names to certain areas of the river. For example, there is Crow Bath. This is in Seijo, a wealthy section of Central Tokyo not far from where I live in Chofu. I call it by a rather Gothic name, Crow Bath because at certain times during the afternoon the area’s crows come and take refreshing baths. It is rather raucous but interesting to see crows taking after their Japanese human counterparts’ love of communal bathing – or is it vice versa? After their baths the crows dry off in the trees that overhang the path, thus baptising walkers with the water of the vital Nogawa.

Another landmark is Turtle Island further south of Crow Bath. As the name suggests Turtle Island is usually covered by sunbathing turtles taking a break from busily hanging suspended in the water. I can usually see a couple of them stretching their heads out to listen to the others gossiping about the days events. The rock is not big at all and only fits about five turtles, and that is overcrowded.

The creek is mostly over-grown with lovely long grass, hence the name Field River maybe. Along with the forests of grass come many other animals to the Nogawa. Thankfully, a common sight is the chalk white egrets and herons. These birds show a great contrast with the green grass and muddy coloured bottom of the creek. They are very easily spotted hunting whatever they find delicious: maybe the unsuspecting and unprotected crayfish. Because of these white, feathered statues, there is a plethora of avid birdwatchers ever patient with their high tech cameras waiting for the perfect pose from these great birds.

The stars of the Nogawa are the koi, or carp. There are many pockets of deeper water to house extended families of koi throughout the length of the creek. They are mostly of the dull brown variety, but there are times when I spot a glimmer of bright orange and white among the browns. The koi are always on the prowl for food either on the creek bottom or from the surface, particularly under breadcrumb dropping bridges. On my long walks I imagine these deep, water pockets forming little isolated koi cities having their own way of swimming and feeding. But on rainy days, these cities become bigger and merge with other koi cities making many a fish megalopolis helping to create the life sustaining diversity. Rainy days are moving days on the Nogawa and I can usually notice more spirit in their swimming after a good rain.

Back on land and on my walk I am never really alone. White butterflies flying in front of and around me like dolphins in the air keep me company. I often see them in the distance and think there was a pillow fight earlier in the day and the butterflies are the last remaining feathers fluttering toward the long grass. It reminded me of my time in Central Africa and walking in the rainforest. There, fluffs (my own word denoting a large bunch of these flying feathers) of multi-hued butterflies would be quietly carrying-on around me. Here, there are not nearly as many as on those rainforest walks, but quietly satisfying just the same.

It is not just the wild animals that I encounter on my journeys, but also the domestic variety. There is a certain point along my southerly route I named Calico Street where a chatty Calico cat holds court. She always has company by luring walkers to pet her and well, worship her. She works her magic at a lamppost, rubbing against it meowing until someone takes notice. I have not yet had the honour of talking to her because she is always busy with someone else. She is not a lonely cat by any means. Calico Street is her territory and she knows how to work it!

Humans are also interesting along this microcosm of the world. One day I was taking my northerly constitution when I heard an operatic voice coming from the grass on the opposite bank. At first I thought I was passing some studio, but upon closer inspection the voice was really coming from the grass under an overhanging tree. It was a woman sitting under the tree almost hidden by the tall grass singing in operatic Japanese. It sounded like opera anyways, but had no idea what opera it was. She sang beautifully and her free performance matched the sereneness of the scene on a sunny Sunday afternoon. She was dressed in a T-shirt, bright orange/red cap, and sunglasses practicing her music by listening to her walk-man which made the experience even more interesting, but I think her singing in full regalia would also be just as interesting if not more.

Butterfly nets are still the rage among toddlers here in Japan. Being from the US, I have always thought butterfly nets were the thing of the past or part of the required props of a movie set at a mental institution. Here, the nets are still an integral part of Sunday afternoon outings with the kids. Along the Nogawa I frequently see little boys, with butterfly nets bigger than they are, futilely hunting those white air dolphins I mentioned earlier. Those determined boys have no chance of catching those flying feathers with those oversized nets. But it is cute to watch.
This is the Nogawa. One of those hidden treasures you do not find until you really look for it, or don’t know you are really looking for it. These hidden places are the saving grace of Tokyo. I am very glad Tokyo gave me a chance to find the Nogawa so I will have added fond memories of a city that is losing these treasures to short sighted planning and apathy towards the importance of balancing quietness and solitude with hustle and bustle. I only hope that those white butterflies find the governor and flutter around him for a while. He may realize that his city will die a dull, grey death unless places like the Nogawa are valued and resurrected.

© Brian Wood
Tokyo, Japan
30 May 2002

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