Experience Japanese History and Geology Along the Ara River, from Tokyo to Chichibu
You set your empty glass down, having finished drinking its contents of Tokyo tap water, onto the hotel dining table, adjust your backpack and get up and walk through a bustling lobby. With a smile and a nod to the consignor you exit the hotel out into the rapidly ramping up city morning and its deluge of denizens scurrying to and fro on its concrete sidewalks and streets. Ikebukuro, the gateway to Saitama Prefecture, is a shopping and entertainment hub in the northeast corner of Tokyo. Its station is one of the busiest in the world and in addition to servicing five surface and three subway lines operated by four different rail companies it houses a dizzying array of shops and restaurants, and two full sized multi floor department stores to boot. You are on your way to become one of the more than two and a half million commuters who will pass through it today, as happens every day.
With a Green Car ticket bought last night in hand you make your way through both throng and station, following signs for East Japan Railway. Slipping your tickets into a JR East ticket wicket you’re funneled out from the packed station concourse. Upon snatching your ticket at the other end of the wicket you’re in the even more densely packed crush of morning in the JR system, Japan’s most extensive rail network. An overhead digital departure board indicates from which of the eight platforms allocated to the former national railway your express train departs from, you find it and the correct reserved seating Green Car boarding place as your train pulls up.
On board the two-level car you go up a few curving stairs to the top section, find your seat and drop down into it. You put down the armrest, adjust the reclining seat back and the city stress is subdued by the sudden sanctuary of personal space. Your train runs out of Ikebukuro northeast then northwest on the Tohoku Main Line and in about 15 minutes crosses a river at a point that marks part of Tokyo’s northeast city limits.
The river is the historic Ara River, known by its Japanese name, Arakawa, and is the source of the water you drank half an hour ago. It flows north down from the Chichibu mountains, then curves east out onto the Kanto Plain until it bends south at around Kumagaya City. From there it continues in a mostly southerly course, slicing through the heart of the city and emptying into Tokyo Bay via a mouth formed by the reclaimed land of urban man-made islands. The low trestle bridge carrying your tracks over the river and its levee system is located just north of where the Arakawa spawns the Sumida River, one of the city’s most iconic waterways. This river was in fact the old route of the Arakawa which has been, first crudely then carefully and extensively, engineered over centuries in an attempt to keep its disagreeable side in check. These efforts have mostly sufficed since 1910 when it last devastated areas of Tokyo, but ask any cyclist or hiker who has traveled its levees after a storm and they’ll tell you that the river's’ name, Ara, which means wild, is still very apt.
Your train car is filled mostly with sundry sales teams in suits sipping tiny tin cans of coffee, engineers in work uniforms rereading work orders, and a sprinkling of tourists, all heading from Yokohama, Kawasaki or Tokyo to destinations across northern Honshu. Most change to a Shinkansen at Omiya Station, which all JR East bullet trains stop at, but you stay on your express with Saitama’s urban sprawl, then farm fields and bedroom communities rushing past your train window, to Kumagaya City.
Geography and meteorology conspire to make Kumagaya-shi, Bear Valley City, one of the hottest places in Japan in summer. The valley, long bereft of actual bears, is located at the point where a regular warm foehn wind blowing daily down the lee side of Honshu’s interior mountain range and southerly summer monsoon winds carrying Tokyo’s urban heat, converge summer afternoons. It’s still cool though when you arrive to change to the rural Chichibu Railway Line and begin heading west toward the Chichibu Mountains. Later this morning, like every morning, a once-a-day steam locomotive powered train will leave from this station along the same line on a single round trip run. The train named The Paleo Express runs to the line’s terminal, Mitsumineguchi Station, in the mountains near the headwaters of the Arakawa River, and back later to Kumagaya Station.
The electric train carrying you now follows the Arakawa west to Yorii Town, then into the mountains toward the river’s headwaters. The gorge the river runs through and the train line that runs along it follow a button hook course after entering the mountains until they are both in tandem heading south. Seventeen minutes after leaving Yorii Station, and about two hours out of Tokyo, you arrive at Nagatoro Station where you detrain. Hiking, camping, picnicking, swimming, cycling, whitewater rafting, traditional rafting, birding and paragliding are some of the activities the area offers visitors. In addition one can watch local craft masters at work, and try their hand at activities like ceramics and soba noodles making themselves if so inclined.
Nagatoro central, the area around the station, is a quaint tourist destination with the requisite tiny tourist shops selling local wares and food. You walk up the main road running next to the station which is a temple road or sandou. It leads you to the ancient Hodosan Shrine which was built nearly 2000 years ago during the reign of Emperor Keiko, the 12th emperor of Japan. Legend has it that it was built by his son, a Yamato prince warrior he tasked with conquering the indigenous tribes of the eastern provinces. The prince and his soldiers, while conducting military operations on the mountain, became trapped in a forest fire. According to lore they were saved from certain death by local spirits or kami, materializing in this case as man’s best friends, dogs, and after built the shrine to honor them.
Shintoism, the native Japanese worship of local kami, allows for Buddhist deities imported from Korea in 6th Century, to work through these local spirits to help the faithful in times of trouble. In this way the religions were brought into harmony long, long ago during the Heien period. Hodosan Shrine, like most Shinto shrines, is built in the style of Buddhist temples and its complex contains three shrine buildings, a Heiden or hall of offerings, a Haiden or hall of worship, and a Honden or main sanctuary which houses the body of the shrine’s kami. The temple’s impressive Honden is adorned with dragons intricately carved in wood above its main entrance and painstakingly painted in vibrant red, green, blue and gold.
After a stroll around the shady temple grounds you backtrack back past the station, cross the tracks and take the temple road down to the river you've been chasing all morning. You follow it along through the Nagatoro valley which is the origin of modern Japanese geological study and renowned for having a variety of metamorphic rock formations from the Cretaceous period. The main attraction being the renowned examples of schists, like the vertically cut tatami-like “Iwadatami,” and the tiger-like stripe-patterned “Toraiwa”. In addition the area’s copper deposits, first mined in the 8th century, provided the metal for some of Japan’s first coinage, Wadō Kaichin.
Up river at Kami-Nagatoro you get back on the train and continue south entering the Chichibu Valley from the north. At Chichibu Station you again get off the train to explore Chichibu City. In the late 19th century, a time of sweeping changes in Japan, peasants of Chichibu highlands and surrounding areas revolted and declared a socially progressive revolution, complete with a new calendar and a fresh start at Year One of the new era of freedom and self-government. The two week rebellion saw farmers by force take control of property and actually set out to attack the capital, but with this overreach their rebellion was harshly put down by the well armed Tokyo police and the new Japanese army. Past rebellion aside, the people of the area are stoic, kind hearted mountain folk, proud of their town and its many attractions to delight visitors.
Silk, woven into Japan’s and the area’s history, and a main catalyst of the the aforementioned rebellion, tells its story at the Chichibu Meisenkan (Silk Museum). The town boasts two Sake breweries, Sakezukuri no Mori, which produces and sells Chichibu Nishiki sake and has a museum celebrating the area’s 260 years of sake brewing, and Buko Sake Brewery, producing Chichibu’s most famous libation, Buko Masamune. Both offer samplings of their sake and sell local wines and beer as well.
You walk the backstreets and pathways along with tourists and pilgrims clad in white visiting the 34 temples of the easily accessible Chichibu Temple circuit. The earthy aroma of freshly made soba noodles carried upon steam escaping from one of the more than 50 shops serving the area’s speciality entices you in for a satisfying meal. With a bowl of hearty noodles, served cold with salty dipping soup in your belly, you walk south to the Seibu Chichibu Line Station to catch the Red Arrow Express back to Ikebukuro.
The Seibu Railway all reserved seating train runs out the south end of Chichibu Valley and immediately curves east passing Mt. Buko. The iconic mountain has been shorn of its peak, sacrificed to modern life’s demand for concrete, and turned into the Tokyo streets you walked upon this morning. Outside the train’s windows tall cedars growing from the bottom of ravines, with clear, rocky, mountain streams running through them, reach up to iron bridges your train’s running across. Gaps between their boughs offer glimpses of alpine saw mills, A-frame cottages, terraced farms and sun-dappled fruit and mulberry orchards.
At Hanno Station the direction of the train is reversed and now the scenery makes a dramatic change as you leave the mountains’ foothills and travel out onto the alluvial lowland of the Kanto Plain. The train goes through the castle town of Tokorozawa, and the urban sprawl thickens as you progress east. After crossing through Tokyo’s Nerima Ward the train pulls into the line’s terminal at Ikebukuro Station where you flow with fellow passengers out into Tokyo’s neon night.