February 2024

Down By The River

Mark DrewMark DrewMark DrewMark DrewMark DrewMark DrewMark DrewMark DrewMark DrewMark DrewMark DrewMark DrewMark DrewMark DrewMark DrewText & Images: Mark Drew

Rivers in Japan are very social spots. Wide-open spaces here are a rarity, so mass BBQ gatherings, sports days, kite-flying etc are all daily operations. They are also full of Hobo villages, which for some reason interest me. So last summer, when Cameron mentioned he wanted to discover the source of the Tamagawa, one of the bigger local rivers, I immediately volunteered my services – both as a way of slowing down the pace of Tokyo, and finding some room to breathe.
We made a plan to meet by the Tokyo bay coastline, and head back in west, following the river, for two to three days. To set the scene, this was the regions hottest weekend on record, and we later learned that over 120 people had died of heatstroke – most of them elderly – but still. 120 people! A massacre of sorts.  Perfect weather for two unprepared out-of-towners to take a 40km stroll, in the constant and very direct sun.

By 9am the humidity was almost unbearable. Within moments along the river, we had heat-induced madness. Shirts soaked through with sweat, eyes darting all about, laughing at nothing, babbling on… I made several references to the modern classic “Stand By Me”, before we realised Cam hadn’t heard of it, and for some reason he had thought my jokes were about “The Bodyguard”. It was clear that we weren’t in tune – but that’s how it is along the river. You travel in packs, but in reality it’s every man for himself.

From time to time we would leave the river for a convenience store trip, stocking up on water, snacks and maybe a few too many sports drinks. We were in a constant Pocari Sweat.  In the wild, this made no difference, there were plenty of weirdos doing their thing, but stepping into town was a little different. Not only were we foreigners, well out of standard tourist territory, but we were carrying large packs and a pro reggae towel, drenched in sweat, and sunburned several different shades. At one point, my cotton y-fronts had soaked through my shorts, looking amazingly like I had pee’d myself. This was first noticed on one of our town trips, at a busy pedestrian crossing.

Returning to the river, time was dedicated to thinking of good hobo names we could use for the remainder of the trip. Mine were all top notch, like Grifty Mack, Dirty Chambers and Banana Jones, whilst Cameron’s were terrible, and more like clown names: Sandy Bottoms, Percy Swinky and things of that nature. Enraged by my mocking laughter, he came up with the most hectic name I have ever heard: RAPEY STEVENS. We were silent for some time, after that.

We encountered many hobo villages along the way, and from time to time would engage the residents. All of their directional advice was taken with a grain of salt, as like Rapey Stevens had warned: The amateur hikers greatest threat is hobo disinformation.

As night fell, we relaxed along the concrete siding, eating noodles cooked off a kerosene hobo stove and tin can set-up (dubbed the ‘tower of power’). Fireworks were launched, and I tried to reanimate some long lost chocolate bars by building a crude refrigerator out of a plastic bag, and a piece of string, submerging the whole thing in the now cool river. It didn’t work at all, but I am convinced it was a great idea.

We both had different ideas for sleeping arrangements. Cameron had planned to build a retractable shack out of tarpaulins, and I wanted to sleep in a box, that I would acquire from the universe at the exact moment I needed it. Cameron turned up with a vintage two-man tent, so that’s what we went with. It was really heavy to carry (I found out at the end).

I had been hyping up a talent show, that we would hold by the camp after dinner, while Cameron was promoting it as an open mic. Thankfully, neither happened.

At 5am, there was a growling outside the tent. I had forgotten that this time of day, in any country, belongs to the elderly. What we had thought was a pretty out of the way spot was already filled with curious dog walkers and unfriendly groundskeepers. We hastily packed up, and returned to the walk.

The second day is kind of a blur. For the entire first day, the cement of Tokyo travelled with us, as the river was fortified alongside each bank. But by day two, that had petered out, and we found ourselves in jungle-like territory, going hundreds of metres without seeing a single vending machine, pressing on through the overgrowth. After bearing witness to a snake, the remainder of our time was spent in the river itself. We had blissfully forgotten that such creatures were almost certainly better in the water than on land.

By mid-afternoon, whilst spirits and sunburn were high, motivation for another night was low. We had travelled 40 km’s, but hadn’t found the source. Still, it felt like we had accomplished something. Consensus to abandon the river was reached so we climbed out, dried off, and returned to civilisation.

Mark Drew

Images titles:

1. It begins
2. River sax
3. Down by the river
4. Satellite dish
5. Home
6. White ninja’s take a load off
7. Is that flava flav’s house?
8. Our mascot for the trip
9. Catching some rays
10. Rest stop
11. The tower of power
12. The refrigerator
13. Shady doings
14. Hobo turf wars
15. How deep does it get?

Next story: Box Bound – Seamus Heidenreich