Todoroki Valley is only a 20-minute train journey from central Tokyo, but is a world away from the city streets. With bamboo trees, secret shrines and the sounds of the river to wash away your worries, there’s no better escape in town.
Unlike the highly manicured parks and artfully designed Zen gardens, this gorge is wild and untamed, with a jungle-like canopy reaching over, home to birds, rustling creatures and providing a truly natural bubble in Tokyo. Forged by the Yazawa River as it heads for the larger Tama River, it is the only valley in Tokyo and stretches along a 1.2-km course. You can walk the entire route thanks to a towpath and see waterfalls and shrines, pop up to a temple and relax in gardens—all in an afternoon.
When you arrive at the small local station of Todoroki, take the south exit (turn left at the ticket gates basically) and aim for the pink logo of the Seijo Ishii supermarket which you will see down the street ahead of you. This is a great place to pick up some picnic fodder if you want to have lunch on your walk, as they have lots of cheeses and meats as well as foreign snacks and bread (if you prefer sushi, there are also bento places by the station). Just go past the supermarket and you’ll see the red Golf Bridge with a small path down to the right. If you’re lucky you’ll come across old ladies feeding cats, but that might have been a one-off.
As you descend, you’ll notice the sound of the river taking over and feel the temperature dip a little as you reach the canopy-covered towpath and can enjoy the view. The path is used by local students and workers, as well as joggers and pensioner walking groups, but early on a midweek afternoon was still peaceful. You can stroll along the jungle-like path at your own speed, getting a change to relax properly and take a breather from stresses of life, be they work, travel or otherwise.
As you follow the winding path, you will find your self crossing river, with benches making perfect reading spots, and a small lowered seating spot by the edge.
Temples, shrines and gardens
Eventually, you will stumble across the sights that make Todoroki Valley such a great place for exploring. The valley is definitely beautiful, but there’s more to it than that. To the right of the river you can find the natural water spring and rinse your hands in the refreshingly cold water and see the statue partially hidden in the trees.
Across the picturesque bridge you will see the Chigo Daishi Mieido a small shrine that features a statue of Kobo Daishi. A priest believed to have invented the kana, he had a vision instructing him to explore the valley and subsequently discovered the water springs. Fudo Waterfall is right beside the small shrine; apparently once used for ascetic training, the name of the valley stems from this waterfall and refers to the ‘sound of roaring water’. Although it isn’t as strong as it once was, the water cascades readily from the mouths of two ornate dragons.
There is a small tearoom nearby called Setsugetsuka, which serves green tea and the local specialty sweet: kuzumochi cake (a jelly-like sweet) as well as occasional traditional meals which are hard to find. With seats both inside and out, you can enjoy lovely views either way. You can follow the steps between the castle and tearoom for the next part of your exploration. As the steps climb steadily, be sure to look around for smaller shrines with an abandoned feel.
You’ll soon see a huge wooden structure which is a cherry blossom viewing area, as in spring, this area of the river is filled with pink blossoms and a brilliant sight. Just behind this structure, and the dragon-purified water, however, is a full-on temple: the Todoroki Fudosan. I had failed to read any maps, and was completely taken aback by this bright and smart looking temple.
Although I’m sure it is usually quiet and peaceful, I managed to take one photo before a hoard of about 50 pensioners with hiking armbands appeared, so much chit-chat and small talk ensued. There is a small cafe with ice cream here too, and toilets. Thought to bring luck with transport and study, the temple is also popular with devoted ascetics who often visit (judging by the ice cream queue, I don’t think my pensioners were among the devotees however).
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Check out the mini map creation in a box at the top of the steps for a hint on a small shrine to explore, before heading back down to the waterfall bridge.
If you continue past the bridge, you will eventually see an unassuming gate, which you should definitely enter. With a small garden under construction, you can follow the bamboo lined paths which snake between plants and small ponds to a small house.
With an open room featuring photographs, leaflets and a stamp, it is so small you don’t even need to go in, as they can be seen from the doorway.
This is the Todoroki Ravine Park, a small family park with lush green grass you can sit on (weirdly rare in Tokyo) and a great picnic spot, especially if the river air is too chilly.
There’s nothing left to do but wander back through the valley, spotting any more paths you would like to explore, until you see the red arches of the Golf Bridge appear in the distance (apparently named for a nearby golf course). If you catch it at the right time, the water is a glassy blue, and looks even more magical, so fingers crossed for your visit.