The Mystery of Kyoto’s River

To the people of Kyoto, the Kamo Gawa (Duck River) is many things, least of all, it provides escapism.

Kyoto, Japan, needs no introduction as a city of historical World Heritage treasures; however almost as important to Kyoto-ites as Kinkaku-ji, the famous golden temple, but commonly overlooked by tourists, is the Kamo Gawa (ダック川); literally ‘Duck River‘.

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The river runs roughly due south from the mountains north of Kyoto, hugging the downtown area, before joining the Katsura river and continuing on to Osaka.

Map of Kyoto showing the Sanjo/Shijo section of the river. Image courtesy of Apple Maps.

In a country where wide open space is a luxury, small areas of greenery found along the Kamo Gawa are crucial to the sanctity and well-being of locals.

Though the ducks are few, take a stroll, or hire a bicycle and ride along the river on any particular day and you will encounter a plethora of locals escaping everyday life.

For some, the riverside brings solace and harmony, a place to
meditate. Whilst only minutes away from two of Kyoto’s busiest
streets; visitors to the river often feel as though they’ve escaped into a distant tranquil fantasy land. The bustle of work, forgotten as they become hypnotised by the constant splashing water.

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For budding musicians, dreaming of superstardom, the Kamo Gawa offers a place to practise without disturbing the neighbours.

Then as evening falls, daytime visitors disperse, revealing what appears as a mass mating ritual; couples flock to the river section between Sanjo and Shijo (streets).

Gazing downstream, the entire riverbank is filled with couples, equally spaced apart. If one couple leaves, another quickly fills their place. It seems the unwritten rule is to leave at least one metre between, with legs dangling over the water.

The distance being them gives enough space that couples feel like they’re alone, unable to hear what is being said by those adjacent, as sweet promises are drowned out by clear water, gushing downstream.

To fully understand why the Kamo Gawa captivates Kyoto-ites, it must be experienced. The river holds different meanings to all who visit her.

Akiko, a student from Kyoto University, loves the ambience surrounding the river. “Even with friends, if we stop talking there is no uncomfortable silence. To watch the people go by is like watching a soap drama. I often fantasise about what problems they might have and why they are down
by the river.”

For Saeko, an office worker, the river has traditionally
been, “Somewhere to escape the summer heat, and the sound of the
gushing water, is most comforting.”

Matsumoto, a university student, only ever sits by the river with his
girlfriend, “although there are many couples we still feel we are alone, we talk about daily life and we can stay as long as we like without having
to pay any money”.

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When asked what the river means to Chiwa, an office worker she
replied “The river is the only place I can escape and become lost in
my thoughts, and also feel close to nature.”

However it is not just Japanese people to be found here either. Foreign workers, many English Teachers find themselves down by the river after work.

For Lydia, an English teacher from Canada, “the river is the only
place I can get away from all the concrete, and it is also a cheap
night out, great for Sayonara parties as there is lots of space.
It’s still a novelty to be able to drink in public and set off
fireworks (separately of course) as back home they are both

The draw of the Kamo Gawa is a universal attraction to residents of Kyoto. To the outsider, it offers a rare glimpse of Japanese people relaxed and enjoying themselves.

The atmosphere of the river varies, depending upon the geography.
The northern end tends to be greener and attracts an
older crowd. This presents a quieter river which suits readers and writers. You may be inspired to write your own haiku to capture your experience of the Kamo Gawa.

The fork at Demachiyanagi, where it joins the Takano River, is
popular with large groups enjoying a picnic or barbeque and on a Sunday, is crowded with families; giving the area a more vibrant (i.e noisy) atmosphere.

Between Demachiyanagi and Sanjo, the river becomes an impromptu jazz concert, with musicians of all skill levels honing their craft to become the next Seichii Nakamura.

The section between Sanjo and Shijo drips with romance. Terraced restaurants and bars shadow the river. The restaurant lights providing mood lighting for the onslaught of couples who arrive at dusk. Man-made rapids seemingly hasten the flow of the water, helping to drown out the chatting of other couples nearby.

Though curiously, beneath each and every bridge, homeless people had built almost architecturally designed houses, complete with windows, doors, and hanger’s for shirts. On the streets they are shunned, yet by the river, all differences are forgotten.

Beyond Shijo, the river continues, however the riverbank disappears, thus so do the people.

As the seasons change, the reasons for coming change slightly; from the reds and yellows of autumn, to the fluttering petals of cherry blossoms to the coolness found in Summer. Despite seasonal variances, the one constant is the flow of the river and the people found along it.

The Kamo Gawa will forever hold special memories for me as it was adjacent to my work. Many summer evenings were spent hanging out with friends, chatting by the river. It’s also by the river that I have the only photo of Jen and I, in Kyoto; a particularly memorable evening.

To appreciate why the river remains special, take a wander along it next time you find yourself in Kyoto and you may discover what all the fuss is about.

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Recommended reading:
Lonely Planet Guidebook: Japan

Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

The quintessential guide to making your own way around, immersing yourself in Japanese culture and finding the greatest foodie experiences.

Tod Heers, Erika Hoburg: Making Out in Japanese

Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

Buy this if you want to learn how to speak ‘real Japanese’ which includes useful pick-up and dating conversation. I bought this, lent it to my friend Michael, he’s now married to a Japanese girl. What can I say? It works.

Arthur Golden: Memoirs of a Geisha

Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

The original and fascinating story of a young girl, brought up in a Geisha house. A cultural tradition that few westerners knew about, until this book was released. Provides fascinating insights into Japanese culture and tradition.

Want more travel reads to transport you? Check out my post about my favourite books set in other places. All books available at a discounted price with free delivery from the Book Depository.

Listen to my podcast episode about Japan.
Travel Japan on a budget and language tips from Professor of Linguistics, Nathaniel Rudolph.

  1. Great post 🙂


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