From the mountains around the ancient capital, through thick forest, traversing rapids and down into the calm waters of Kyoto, the Hozugawa Riverboat cruise is a unique way to experience Japan.
by Matthew Hernon
With cultural gems around every corner, Kyoto is one of the places to visit in Japan, yet at the same time that can make for quite a tiring experience. It is tempting to spend your whole stay rushing around trying to see as much as possible, but your trip doesn’t have to be like that.
There are other sides to local culture that mean your visit will involve more than the often exhausting process of ticking temples off from your ‘must-see’ lists. Climb aboard for a scenic boat trip down the Hozugawa, and you’ll be about to go on a unique journey.
The cruise, a two-hour, 16km journey, goes through a mountain gorge, starting at Tamba-Kameoka, before eventually reaching Arashiyama, where you’ll disembark to find wandering geisha-types along the banks of the river.
The river has been home to a thriving water-transport culture for a thousand years and when floating down this section, we felt the history of the area come alive. The rafts of wood that hundreds of years ago drifted downstream to build Kyoto and even the towns that predate it have now gone, but we are following in their wake.
Three skilled crew effortlessly steer our boat, prodding at rocks and the riverbed with long sticks they twist and turn into place to take us on a safe passage, all the while taking it in turns to provide a lively running commentary, letting everyone know when there is something worth looking for.
One tells us it is possible, on occasion, to spot monkeys, deer and wild boar on the riverbanks and with flora and fauna changing with the seasons it would, we thought, be worth coming back later in the year.
From cherry blossoms in spring to the flourishing azaleas in summer to the multi-coloured foliage in autumn and the snow covered trees in winter, the changing surroundings can be enjoyed all year-round – the experienced guys at the helm look weathered but only too happy to be part of a tradition they keep alive throughout the year.
As well as the stunning views of the valley along the way, looking closer to the boat we learn that this is also an area known for its unique rock formations; our guide points out along the way geological frogs, lions and other creatures, as well as a famed ‘mirror rock’ – some we don’t doubt, some you’ll have to make your own mind up on… Real wildlife is abundant, too, with forest birds and even ducks and turtles sharing the water.
The tour is only usually cancelled in extreme weather conditions or if the water level is too high. There is a heater on board in winter, while if it rains (or snows!) a plastic sheet is used as a roof. This cover may not stop you from getting wet though… be prepared!
The boat ride, whilst relatively calm and gentle for the most part, does go through some pretty exciting rapids. Our experienced guides make it look easy as they channel us through the shallow, rocky rapids with ease. They are quite mild so you won’t get drenched, but the experience does add to thrill of the journey and really helps with the sense that we are travelling through the wild.
Towards the end of the cruise the boat hooks on to a motorized ‘floating convenience store’ selling drinks, rice balls, bento boxes, snacks and fried octopus. Our guides allowed some passengers to attempt their job – we sure found out that it wasn’t as easy as they had made it look.
All in all, enjoying a drink and a laugh with the other passengers as we floated towards the end was a lovely way to round off the tour before getting off and taking a stroll through the streets of Arashiyama.
Landing at Arashiyama is an atmospheric way to arrive in Kyoto city. This is the Kyoto many westerners imagine before arriving; there’s no Shinkansen station here and definitely no high-rise buildings and we actually see fewer tourists that we’d expect.
It is a tranquil area full of small shops and feels like a place where time has stood still for centuries – definitely worth a visit.
For more information about Hozugawa Yusen Sightseeing Boat Association
Open Hours: 9:00-5:00 (Everyday)
Website: www.hozugawakudari.jp/en (English)
The departure point for cruises is a short bus ride (160 yen) or ten minute walk from JR Kameoka Station (20-30 minutes, 400 yen from Kyoto Station).