Sunday, 1 July 2012

A River Oasis in the Hanshin Area

Japan’s stifling summer is around the corner. Would you like a cool breeze, a place to soak your feet in sparkling water, or take a dip in a waterfall? Without leaving the city? Splash this way. The Sumiyoshi River, which divides the Hanshin area with the Osaka dialect traditionally spoken to the east and Kobe dialect to the west, is concreted like most rivers in Japan, but it is an excellent spot in summer to cool down and enjoy nature.

At first glance, it would seem the fast-flowing Sumiyoshi River was once a large, deep river, but at the turn of last century it was much shallower, dotted with over 80 waterwheels and prone to flooding. Major landslides in the area during the Great Hanshin Floods of July 1938 resulted in the death of over 600 people. Depending on your route to the river, you will see numerous stone memorials for flood victims. The largest — a guardian god carved into a boulder near the top waterfall — is also a great spot to enjoy the view. On a fine day, you can see as far as Wakayama and even Shikoku.

The promenades along the river were originally created in the 1960s to transport soil from Mt. Sugimori to be used as landfill for Rokko Island and were nicknamed ‘Dump Truck Road’. After construction was completed, the ‘roads’ were developed into promenades, with stepping stones laid at various points across the river, that are used by the locals for walking, jogging, walking the dog and relaxing. Exercise areas at either end of the east promenade have hanging bars and other exercise equipment.

On weekends and holidays, the northern reach of the river is a popular picnic and barbecue spot. People bring tents, tables and chairs to knock back a few in the cool river breezes. Since it is shallow and accessible here, children especially enjoy playing in the river. Adults, too, cool off in the clean and crystal clear water — some even standing under the waterfalls then sunbathing nearby. During the summer holidays, it is not unusual to see parents helping their children with their summer project — bird watching, bug catching or fishing in the upper reach of the river, which is the home to grey herons, ducks, and various species of fish and insects.

In mid-June, Sumiyoshi River is illuminated at night with the flickering lights of fireflies. Successfully reintroduced in 1996, firefly larvae from Hiroshima prefecture are released into the river in November every year by the river association, which holds clean-up campaigns twice a year in spring and autumn. The best time to view this beautiful natural light show is just after dusk, the day after rain, where the vegetation is thickest. If you do venture behind the guardian monument to view the fireflies, take a torch, but do not carry a plastic supermarket bag or you may become the target of wild boars.

In July 2008, 70 years after the 1938 floods, the water level of Toga River to the west rose 1.3m in ten minutes claiming the lives of five people. Since, Kobe City has installed flood warning lights, which flash when precipitation in the mountains is heavy, along the rivers.

Various riverside attractions offer those needing to escape the sun cool refuge. Kikumasamune Sake Museum, on the west bank south of Hanshin Uozaki, has an excellent display of the traditional sake brewing process, an English video and sake tasting. Built in 1929, Ishoan, on the west bank between the Hanshin and JR lines, was the one-time residence of Junichiro Tanizaki and the setting of his novel, The Makioka Sisters. North of the Hankyu line is the temple-like building housing the Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum (open in spring and autumn) built in the 1920s, and temples and shrines.

Text & Photos: George Bourdaniotis. Originally published in Kansai Scene #121, June 2010.

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