Changing Planet

What the River Knows: Kamo River, Japan

In this series, “What the River Knows,” by Basia Irland, the artist and water activist writes from the perspective of each river, using the first person. Installments are published in Water Currents every other week on Mondays. The first post is about the Ping River in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Other posts include the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok; Kamo-gawa River, Kyoto; Siem Reap River, Cambodia; Yaqui River, Mexico, where the eight Yaqui tribal villages do not have water due to agricultural corporations; the superfund site on the Eagle River in Colorado, polluted with heavy metal runoff from a mine; and the Virgin River as it flows through Zion National Park.

Please feel free to add your comments at the end of each post.

Kamo River (鴨川) (Kamo-gawa) 

Kyoto, Japan–I have heard that some communities are not very friendly to their rivers, but many friends everyday walk the paths along my shores, ride bikes, have picnics, push baby strollers, and bask in the colors of the nearby trees with cherry blossoms in spring, and red maple leaves in fall. I flow next to the old geisha district of Gion, with women still wearing traditional kimonos. I am certainly not considered a beautiful free-flowing river, but I function as a respite from the pace of urban life in Kyoto, (although nothing compared to downtown Tokyo).


Enjoying a picnic on the riverbank. (Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland),
Enjoying a picnic on the riverbank. (Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland).


In Japanese I am called Kamo-gawa, (kanji compound 鴨川). 

Translated from the kanji my name means “wild duck,” and “gawa” is river. Not only ducks, but also a large variety of birds wade in my shallow waters in search of their next meal. Herons and egrets wait patiently as they stalk their food.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) with a snack.  (Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland).
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) with a snack. (Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland).
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta). (Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland).
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta). (Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland).


My source is in the mountains of Mount Sajikigatake in the northern ward of Kyoto. With a length of just 19 miles, I flow into the Katsura River south of downtown Kyoto and after joining with other river systems we eventually make our way out into Osaka Bay. My depth is shallow, being only three feet in most places until the rainy season when some pathways are drenched. In the fall, surrounded by the vibrant vermillion of the local trees, a person could walk across my width and only get their ankles wet.

Where the Takano River converges with my flow there is a triangular area of land honoring the river confluence at the Shimogamo Shrine near a forest. Upon making a donation to the shrine, monks give visitors a cloth-wrapped white rock, which is taken to a small stream where it is washed and purified. The stone is rewrapped in the cloth, carried to woven bamboo baskets and placed among other blessed stones that will be used in the reconstruction of ritual sites.


Purifying rock with water at the Shimogamo Shrine. (Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland).
Purifying rock with water at the Shimogamo Shrine. (Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland).


Purification is important to Shinto, so throughout the year there are numerous ceremonies held at this and the many other Shinto Shrines in Kyoto. Also the Buddhist Temples hold annually rotating ceremonies, so there is always activity in Kyoto at the immaculately groomed gardens of the shrines and temples.

Unlike other rivers in Japan, I am not buried under cement, so it is gratifying indeed to be able to see all the locals who enjoy visiting me regularly. And at night I am illuminated and set aglow with lights from bridges, buildings, and stone lanterns. Not to boast, but I am sometimes referred to as one of the treasures of Kyoto, even though I am only fourth in length.

But I do miss natural meanders, since my course is within a channel and my flow is an unnatural straight line. Roughly 30 bridges cross over my southern stretch carrying buses, cars, trains, and pedestrians.

Near the Imadegawa Dori Bridge there are chunkily cast concrete stepping-stones crossing my back (as there are at several other locations). The most prominent shape of the stones here is in the form of turtles. Children wearing school uniforms and backpacks hop fast from stone to stone while elders worry about how to step gingerly from one to another with the water flowing by underneath.

Instead of being on the shore, these stepping stones bring people of all ages right to me so I hear laughter and conversations up close as they zig-zag across me, or sometimes just choose a stone and sit quietly for awhile.


Turtle-shaped stepping stones. (Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland).
Turtle-shaped stepping stones. (Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland).


Basia Irland is a sculptor, poet, and installation artist who has focused her creativity on rivers for 30 years. Her aim is to connect people to their local waters and watersheds in ways that will motivate concern, caring, appreciation, and stewardship. You may read more about her and her work on her website.

Fulbright Scholar, Basia Irland is an author, poet, sculptor, installation artist, and activist who creates global water projects. She is Professor Emerita, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Mexico, where she established the Arts and Ecology Program. Irland works with scholars from diverse disciplines building rainwater harvesting systems; connecting communities and fostering dialogue along the entire length of rivers; filming and producing water documentaries; and creating waterborne disease projects around the world. She lectures and exhibits internationally and is regularly commissioned to do artistic river restoration projects. Check out her work at
  • Rachel Bachmann

    To be a river that is used to bless stones that will reconstruct ritual sites is a powerful testament to the importance of Kamo River to it’s community. Even if a river is not deep and fast flowing does not mean it cannot be powerful and respected within a community. Sometimes, simple natural beauty is all it takes for a river to be a powerful staple in a community.

  • Ellie Schuck

    I love how these articles are written as if the river is speaking! This river may be small and shallow but it is none the less very important. It is utilized and many different ways and truly is a treasure; Each river is so different and unique and tells its own story, very powerful.

  • Nick Racchi

    I really enjoy the fact that these articles are written in the first person. This seems to give the river a personality and it really shows how treasured it is to the community. Also, I find it interesting how important the river is to religious ceremonies; its shows the connection between nature and spirituality.

  • Susan Byrnes

    I remember crossing over this river on foot – not sure which bridge but it was a main one – entering the Gion district, and I also recall how the channel reflected the lights from the businesses at night – it was pretty magical!

  • Lizzie Miller

    “I am certainly not considered a beautiful free-flowing river, but I function as a respite from the pace of urban life in Kyoto”. Even though this river is not mighty in length, it is mighty in its impact for life in Kyoto. It is so interesting how sometimes things that we interact with every day, like the river, are so pivotal in our culture!

  • Helena Flam

    I recall from my visit to Kyoto learning that it was a major engineering feat to regulate and tame Kamo River. It was powerful and unpredictable and, in rainy season, caused tremendous damage to Kyoto and its people.
    Maps and miniature reconstructions in the (unique! fantastic!) Kyoto museum show how Kamo River fed Kyoto bringing produce from near and very far apart. Rivers did then what roads and skies do today. Imagine Kamo River bearing the weight of thousands of small boats every day.

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