Off the Beaten Path: Sawai to Mitake

Tokyo is more than a city; it is one of Japan’s 47 prefectures, consisting not only of a densely populated urban area clustered around Tokyo Bay in the east, but also of a mountainous, heavily forested and sparsely populated area to the west.  Anyone residing in the eastern part, as I do, and feeling the lack of fresh air and greenery can easily replenish their supply by boarding a train on the JR Chuo Line and heading west.

The other day a friend introduced me to a walking route along the Tama River.  The weather was fine but hot, as the long record-breaking heat of the summer still lingered on.  We caught a train bound for Ome at Kokubunji Station, and at Ome transferred to the Ome Line, a four-car train where you had to push a button to open the door if you wanted to get on or off.  Although it was Tuesday, the day after Respect for the Aged Day, there were plenty of fellow travellers heading in the same direction, including many recently-respected-aged folks, and at one end of our car a group of noisy college-age kids, who looked like they were skipping classes for a barbecue on the riverbank.

After fifteen minutes of passing through sleepy little stations where no one got on or off, we came to Sawai, our stop.  We were the only ones to get off.  At the back of the platform rose a steep, thickly wooded hill.  The sun-heated air smelt faintly of what turned out to be sake.  We crossed the tracks, exited the station, and kept going down the hill, following a steep winding slope past a sake brewery. We had come to a main drag of sorts, and a traffic light whose main purpose seemed to be to give us a chance to cross the street without being run over by passing vehicles.

A few yards to the left we came to a short flight of stairs that took us down toward the river, past the garden terrace of a restaurant closed on Tuesdays.  We could see people sitting at tables on the terrace anyway, so we walked in among the trees and found a table next to the river where we could eat our sandwiches before starting on our walk up the river to the next station, Mitake, from which we planned to catch a train back to town.  My companion, who had been there before, explained that when the restaurant was open, you could sign up inside for a tour of the sake brewery, reached through a tunnel under the road, followed by a sake-tasting opportunity back here in the garden terrace.  I was okay with skipping the sake tour, though, because the sun was still quite high over the yardarm, and we had an hour or so of hiking yet ahead of us.

The terrace was a delightful place.  The restrooms were open, and the vending machines well-stocked with water and soft drinks for the road.  No doubt because it was a weekday and the restaurant was closed, it was not at all crowded, and in our spot by the river and under the trees, the air turned cool and refreshing.  A cloud of dragonflies flitted above the swirling jade-green water of the river, their wings reflecting the sunlight.

Between the edge of the terrace and the river bed below it, we found two footpaths, each running in opposite directions.  The one to the left, according to a sign, followed the river bed back to Ikusabata, the station before Sawai, while the one to the right led to Mitake Station by a route somewhat above and overlooking the river.  We kept to our original plan and took the path to the right.

The path was paved in a haphazard kind of way; you had to keep your eye out for potholes and spots where the asphalt buckled up, as well as for the occasional footbridge over rivulets trickling down the hillside into the water below.  Not to mention wildlife:  At one point a small black snake slithered across our path, on its way down to the river for a swim perhaps.  On the left was always the river, which changed as we walked, sometimes flowing freely, sometimes forming rapids among large boulders in the river bed.  On its opposite bank rose the hillsides densely packed with cedar trees.

Although neither the path nor the river was crowded that day, we were not alone, and here and there as we walked along we caught sight of people fishing, kayaking or sitting among the rocks at the river’s edge chatting over tea.  When we passed an area of white water, a raft of helmeted young women came downstream in our direction, waved at us, and then made it through the rapids without capsizing.

Between the river and the edge of the paved path grasses, trees and flowers grew abundantly, drooping a little as if worn out from the effort of going to seed.  Large green banana plants loomed over the path, while the more lowly but more vivid higan-bana (literally “equinox flower” but called “cluster amaryllis” in English according to our translation staff) bloomed amid the overgrown grass.

Going around a bend in the river we came upon a rustic tea hut, a perfect setting as my companion pointed out for writing a Tree article while looking out over the river and enjoying the autumn foliage.

Perhaps I'll come back in a month or two when it is cooler and those maple leaves have turned red.

There was an odd sensation here of being in two places at once.  On the left was wilderness, the river and the grasses going to seed.  On the right side of the path, however, were the back yards of homes that lined the road running parallel to the river above us.  These homes were built on the sides of the hill and could be reached by long steep pathways or stone stairways.  As we passed by these narrow passageways, we could look up and catch a glimpse of the road above.

The view on the right side of the path was quite different from the view on the left.  Here were the back yards of the homes, overflowing with flowers and bushes and assorted garden decor and gardening tools.  At another bend in the path, about halfway between Sawai and Mitake, we came upon a conveniently located public restroom.

I bought some myoga (Japanese ginger) and dokudami tea leaves here at this wayside vegetable stand.  The leaves of the dokudami (translated in our office dictionary as “a foul-smelling perennial plant of the family Saururaceae”) make a mild-tasting herbal tea with detox properties.  Also on offer was some plum vinegar, but I passed on that.

A bit further on we found signs advertising a restaurant and a coffee shop.  We followed the signs up a steep stone staircase toward the street in search of coffee.  We passed through a patio-like area set out with chairs strung in brightly colored strings, as if a large spider had attempted to spin her web here.

This turned out to be part of the "Ome Art Jam."

Moving onward and upward, we came to a hut with its doors wide-open to the public.  A helpful young woman at the entrance explained that the restaurant at the top of the stairs served traditional Japanese fare, probably not coffee, so we abandoned our climb, and instead accepted her invitation to view the art on exhibit inside.  We removed our shoes at the entrance, ascended onto the tatami floor, and in our sock feet walked around admiring the several paintings in the room.  These too were part of “Ome Art Jam,” an exhibition sponsored by the Ome Art Museum at various locations in the Ome and Mitake area, featuring the work of local artists, and promoting the idea that the area with its abundant water and greenery is especially conducive to the production of art works.  [This exhibit lasts until October 11.  For more information, visit (only in Japanese).]

We descended again to the footpath where immediately next door we found Twinkle Refreshment Parlor.  In front of an old gate signs advertised everything from beer and soba to coffee and shaved ice.  We passed through the navy blue noren and entered a compound of elderly buildings of faded beauty set in a garden full of artefacts:  large blue and white porcelain hibachi, gaudy guardian lion-dogs, statuary both European and Buddhist.  All the buildings appeared to be open for inspection, but we chose the pavilion just past the gate with its open windows overlooking the river, and ordered our coffee.

another type of hibachi

[Twinkle is open from March through November, 11 AM to 4 PM; closed on Wednesdays and in inclement weather.]

Continuing our walk, we eventually came to another public restroom, near a bridge spanning the river. The wide stone staircase beside it led back up to the road.  When we reached the top, huffing and puffing, we walked down the road to the left and found Mitake Station on our right.

Mitake Station ticket gates

For anyone looking for something more ambitious than this riverside stroll, you can take a bus from the station part-way up Mt. Mitake and hike up to the summit.  But for those who prefer a more leisurely route offering both the wonders of nature and cultural amenities like art exhibits, coffee houses and restrooms, the walk from Sawai to Mitake is highly recommended.


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