Smiling girl jumping into river

Cool Off in Nagatoro, with Asami Reizo Kakigori and Big Smile Rafting

If the record-breaking heat in Tokyo is getting to you, take this one-day trip to the mountains for river rafting and some famous kakigori.

Nagatoro in the North-West area of Saitama is a tiny, riverside town nestled in the green mountains of Chichibu. It’s popular with Japanese tourists, but virtually unknown to foreigners. There is so much to do in Nagatoro, but the purpose of this one-day itinerary is to beat the heat.

Here we go!

Get An Early Morning Train

From Ikebukuro Station:

Take the Seibu Chichibu Line to Chichibu, walk to Ohanabatake Station (5 mins), take the Chichibu Railway toward Hanyu or Kumagaya, and hop off at Nagatoro Station.

From Ueno Station:

Take the Takasaki Line to Kumagaya, change to the Chichibu Railway toward Mitsumineguchi, and hop off at Nagatoro Station.

It’s a two-hour trip either way, and the scenery from Kumagaya to Nagatoro is beautiful. You will feel more and more refreshed the deeper you travel into the cool mountains.

When you get off the train the first thing you will notice is the historic wooden train station, built in 1911. If it’s a weekend or holiday you might see the Paleo Express, an old steam locomotive that runs from Kumagaya to Mitsumineguchi and stops in Nagatoro. The whole town of Nagatoro is a designated prefectural nature park and preserve.

If you arrive early enough in the morning you can stroll down Iwadatami Dori, a small street lined with shops and restaurants that winds its way from the train tracks to the river. You can also return for lunch after rafting.

If you are running short on time, head right to an Asami Reizo. It should already be hot by the time you arrive, and people eat kakigori early in Nagatoro.

Trays of kakigori shaved ice

The famous kakigori shop has three locations: Their flagship store (established in 1890) is just a block from the station on the right, then there’s Asami Reizo-Hodosan, a little further up the road, across route 140, through the giant torii gate on the right, and lastly, my favorite location, Asami Reizo-Minano down route 140 in Minano.

The Minano location is too far to walk, but you can get a taxi just outside of the train station. If a taxi is in your budget, and you have the time, Asami Reizo-Minano has a really unique and memorable atmosphere.

Group of smiling friends sitting in front of Japanese-style shop

Set back from the road in an old, antique filled house, it also has an outdoor garden seating area tastefully decorated with modern sculpture, noren, fountains and ikebana. Just say “Azami Reizo Minano onegai shimasu” to any taxi driver.

During high season be prepared for a long line and for them to be sold out by early afternoon.

If you don’t have the time or the budget for the Minano location, you can still enjoy the same famous kakigori at one of the other two locations, both within easy walking distance from the station.

Mountain of kakigori shaved ice

Asami Reizo’s cool towers of shaved ice are made with natural spring water from nearby Mt. Hodo, and the flavorings are all natural. Matcha (green tea), sweet azuki bean, condensed milk, black sugar, kinako, and seasonal fruit syrups; grape, peach, and strawberry. There is a reason this place has been in business continually for over a hundred years. At 1,300 yen they aren’t cheap, but... Insider tip: You can order extra ice for 500 yen, which means that you can pay 1,800 yen for two if you don’t mind sharing the syrup with your companion, or you can have a second helping for 500 yen if you have syrup left over, which almost everyone does.

After Asami Reizo, head down to Big Smile rafting. If you are in Minano you will need to take a taxi back, otherwise it’s just a five-minute walk from the station. They have a comprehensive English website so I won’t bore you with all of the details. I will just say “You need to make a reservation in advance, they have Nepali guides that speak English, and wear the wetsuit!” You can find out everything else you need to know and make your reservation from their website.

After an exciting half-day rafting trip through mild rapids and a dip in the Arakawa river you will actually be cold. My son’s lips were blue, and both the sumo and the pro-wrestler in our party that chose not to wear wet suits were shivering.

When you get back to the Big Smile base they will show you photos that your guide snapped along the way. They are pretty bad, and a CD of them costs 2,000 yen. Get it anyway. It’s worth it for the fun you will have laughing at yourself and your friends. We watched ours while eating dinner our sumo friend prepared. I laughed so hard I almost choked on my chankonabe. Big Smile will not prohibit you from taking a phone or camera, but they strongly recommend not doing it, and accept no responsibility for lost or damaged items, so these photos are even more precious.

You can catch a late train back to Tokyo refreshed, relaxed and eager to return to your newly discovered summer paradise.

Look out for more articles about this charming hidden treasure of a town less than two hours from Tokyo coming soon!

See Big Smile Rafting for information and reservations.

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