Chiba: Where Rural Peace Meets Urban Sophistication
I have been fortunate during the years I have lived in Japan to experience the sights, sounds and sensations of many diverse towns, cities and villages. However, few have enchanted me quite as much as Chiba Prefecture.
It was in 2006, when I first moved to Japan to begin my teaching and writing career that I found myself based in Ichikawa City, on the border of Chiba and Tokyo. Ichikawa itself is a rather unremarkable place. As part of the suburban overspill that flows out of the metropolis that is Tokyo, Ichikawa was characterized by an abundance of train stations, fast food restaurants, convenience stores and apartment buildings. It was not without its charms, but certainly not the kind of place where someone with the curiosity and sense of adventure that I have could seek to immerse himself in Japanese culture and history.
However, there is far more to Chiba prefecture than just suburban housing. As I was soon to discover.
Located approximately in the centre of Japan’s main Honshu Island, Chiba is the gateway by which most newcomers will enter Tokyo for the first time. As well as housing the world famous Narita Airport, Chiba’s position on the Eastern coast, makes it a popular hub for fisherman and a regular stopover point for various pacific cruises. Its close proximity to Tokyo also means that Chiba is never lacking in innovation and economic dynamism.
Chiba is one of Japan’s larger prefectures and as such it has a fascinating blend of urban and rural landscapes. The JR Sobu railway line runs from Chiba City all the way to Nakano on the other side of Tokyo, ensuring that the intersecting cities such as Funabashi, Narashino and Ichikawa have become popular satellite towns for those who work in Tokyo. The housing provided in these cities is but a fraction of the cost of such housing within Tokyo’s 23 wards, and yet one can still comfortably reach central Tokyo in less than an hour. However, the early morning commute into Tokyo on either the Sobu Line or the parallel Tozai Line could be considered something of a cultural experience in itself. Such is the economic draw of working in Tokyo that workers will think nothing of travelling for more than an hour on trains packed to literal bursting point. All those videos you have seen on You Tube of Japan Railway workers frantically pushing as many commuters as they can into these sardine can-like carriages are real. However for many the glamour, prestige and financial rewards of working in what has recently become the world’s most expensive city make it all worthwhile.
But if you’re anything like me, economics and business demographics probably don’t hold much interest for you. You’re probably wondering, as a visitor, what is there to see and do in Chiba.
Quite a lot as it happens.
Of course the most popular attraction Chiba prefecture has to offer is the theme park Tokyo Disney and its neighbouring aquatic themed counterpart Tokyo Disney Sea.
Yes that’s right, Tokyo Disney and Tokyo Disney Sea aren’t actually in Tokyo. The parks can be found in Urayasu City, just over the border into Chiba.
If you’re looking for something a bit more rural and enlightening, then perhaps you may want to consider visiting Nokogiriyama (Mount Nokogiri). Located close to the southern tip of Chiba’s coastline, Nokogiriyama is about as rural as it gets. It’s amazing to believe that somewhere so tranquil could exist in the same region as the likes of Tokyo Disney.
Getting to Nokogiri Yama is a bit of a trek, requiring a train ride of almost two hours further south from Chiba City. However, if you’re the seafaring type, you also have the option of taking a ferry across Tokyo Bay from Yokohama. If you’re a fan of the popular BBC TV show “Top Gear” you may remember that Nokogiriyama was actually the finishing point for their race across Central Japan a few years ago.
For those who like their history and dramatic photo opportunities, Nokogiriyama will not disappoint. The mountain is home to one of Japan’s most revered temples. The temple complex is accessible either by a mechanized ropeway or if you’re feeling energetic and adventurous, by foot. Be warned though, those steps are not for the faint-hearted, or the lazy!
Once you reach the temple itself you will be treated to some stunning photo opportunities. Nokogiriyama houses two massive Daibutsu (Buddha statues) carved out of the very rock face itself. The larger of these two is actually Japan’s largest Daibutsu, measuring an impressive 31 metres tall. The peaceful tranquility of this seated structure belies the huge physical effort that it must have taken to build such a thing in pre-modern times.
If you like to inject just a hint of danger into your travels, then make your way to the apex of the mountain where you can sample the famous “View of Hell”. The “View of Hell” (Jigoku Nozoki) is a very steep cliff edge surround by just a small fence. It is so narrow that only one person at a time may venture to the edge. The panoramic views of the surrounding forests, mountains and coastline are truly stunning, just don’t look down!
If you do go to Nokogiriyama, I strongly recommend taking some time to enjoy lunch or dinner afterwards at one of the many fantastic seafood restaurants dotted around the coastline nearby.
It is that same coastline that also characterizes another of Chiba’s great attributes. Boasting such a long coastline, Chiba has some really nice beaches. Japanese beaches in general aren’t regarded as among the world’s best in terms of sand quality and overall ambience. However the likes of Kujukuri Beach and Onjuku Beach consistently rank among Japan’s best.
For those who want to visit Tokyo, Chiba also offers a cheaper option for hotels and accommodation. Whilst it is almost unheard of to find any kind of room for less than 10,000 yen per night in a Tokyo hotel, in Chiba the likes of Toyoko Inn and various other budget hotel chains offer rooms in the 5-8000 yen per night range. Advance booking is strongly recommended. Thanks to the convenience and speed of the greater Tokyo rail network, you can still get into Tokyo in less than 30 minutes if you base yourself in the likes of Ichikawa, Urayasu or Funabashi City.
For a blend of urban, rural and historical Japanese experiences, there a few places in Japan that can surpass Chiba prefecture. Be sure to add the land of a “thousand leaves” to your next Japan trip itinerary.