Secrets in Suburban Tokyo: Part 1 – Todoroki Ravine and Ancient Burial Grounds

You get a little slice of everyday suburban Tokyo in Todoroki, in addition to a beautiful forest in a ravine and old burial tombs that date back to the 5th Century AD. Not what you’d expect within suburban Tokyo.

Peaceful pathway in the ravine.

My visit to Todoroki was towards the end of a three-week holiday in Japan in spring 2018. As this was my fourth trip to Tokyo, I was looking for something different to the crowded streets and neon signs. Some hiking and suburban sightseeing were just the right thing to do at the end of a holiday. Todoroki is a locality within the Tokyo Metropolitan area, about ten kilometres south west of Shibuya. As a local suburban area, it’s not on the main tourist circuit for international visitors, but I found that it was still a fascinating, relaxing place to explore.

My main target was Todoroki Ravine Park (等々力渓谷公園 ), which is a remnant slice of wild forest in the urban jungle of Tokyo, along the Yazawa River. In fact, I think it may be the last bit of natural land in the whole of Tokyo, with a towering canopy of oak and zelkoya trees that line the deep ravine for over a kilometre along the river. It’s amazing that this place is within a 20 minute suburban train line and 10 minute walk of downtown Shibuya.

An all stations train stops at Todoroki railway station

Todoroki railway station is where the walk begins, slap bang in the middle of a busy little high street. At the station entrance, it seems that express trains speed through the busy level crossing every two minutes, so it’s important to listen out for the warning bells. It’s amazing no pedestrians or cars get wiped out. There is good signage in Japanese and English to the entrance of the ravine park from the station.

Level crossing at Todoroki Railway Station

Following a ten minute walk through the bustling shopping area, the beginning of the ravine park begins at a steep stairway near the bright red Golf Hashi Bridge. It’s named after a golf course that used to be in the area. As you descend into the gorge, the noise of Tokyo streets quickly gives way to sound of the bubbling water in this quaint riverside park.

The sound of water flowing down the narrow ravine.

Along the river’s edge, the pathway is quite level. The small steep ravine and lush forest feel quite wild. Local businessmen, families and school children use the path, dressed quite incongruously to the untamed forest surroundings. If you were dropped here, blindfolded from a helicopter, their clothing would be the only clue that you are in the middle of suburban Tokyo. The main pathway hugs the length of the river in a southerly direction – its a peaceful interesting walk that is best done slow. At the southern end of the park is a small shrine built amongst the deep rocky walls of the ravine – spring water gushes out of the hillside, making it very atmospheric. Todoroki Fudoson temple is nearby – founded in the early 1100s by Kogyo-Daishi, who was a major influential figure on Shingon Buddhism in Japan.

Religious statues and Japanese lanterns along one stretch of the ravine walkway.

In addition to shrines along the ravine pathway, there are old burial tombs of unknown influential people who lived in the area prior to the introduction of Buddhism and Chinese writing in Japan. These date back to the 7th or 8th century AD, and are just tucked into the hillside without any major fanfare. You’d almost miss them if it wasn’t for the informative signs along the footpath. It seems that little is known about life back in this period in Japan, but it is clear that there were plenty of people living here, and some of them had enough time and money to arrange elaborate burials.

On the way back to Todoroki Station, I diverted to a more astonishing recreation of a burial site (or “kofun”) that is located in a local neighbourhood park, only moments from Todoroki Ravine. A steep staircase climb, followed by a short walk through the quiet suburban street finally gets you to the Noge Otsuka Kofun – a rather grand re-build of a burial ground that just looks like a hill in a suburban park. Upon closer inspection of this “hill”, you soon see that it is something more grand and mysterious. The site is in the shape of a circle intersected by a triangle, meaning that it looks like a scallop shape from the air. The length is 107 metres and it’s 11 metres in height. It’s thought that the original site dated back to the years 300-548 AD. The site was re-built following the full excavation of the burial ground. The local council has also built a children’s playground and tennis court right next to it. Such is life in the big city where land values are high.

Ancient burial grounds are located throughout Japan, including the suburbs of Tokyo.

Kofun tombs can be found in up to 20,000 other sites in Japan. Some of the larger ones are out of bounds, as the Japanese prefer to leave them untouched. Kofun have been listed as World Heritage assets in 2019. This particular kofun in the Todoroki area was excavated and found to have iron armor, copper mirrors, stone tools and jewellery made out of beads. It obviously honoured someone important but the ravages of time have led us to forgetting who it was all about, despite the grand scale. Seeing this place in suburban Tokyo really gave me an insight into size and scale of largely forgotten ancient Japan. And it’s sitting right in the middle of the city. On a quiet cool afternoon in early spring, it seemed quite surreal to see local toddlers running all over this recreated tomb as their mother caught them at the bottom of the slope.

Useful website resources for Todoroki

Detailed guide to Todoroki Ravine Park and the old burial sites.

An interesting BBC documentary on kofun tombs in Japan.

Getting there and away:

Although this area is not on a subway or metro line, the valley is just a few minutes walk from Todoroki station, which is on the Tokyu-Oimachi railway line. To get there from Shibuya station, take the Tokyu-Toyoko line to Jiyugaoka and change. It about 20 minutes’ journey time as they trains run very often.

Mid afternoon commuters from work and school in the suburbs of Tokyo.

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