Standing at the northern-most edge of Tokyo’s massive urban sprawl, you could be forgiven for not realizing Kumagaya’s rich pedigree. Birthplace of the celebrated warrior turned monk, Kumagae Naozone, whose equestrian statue graces Kumagaya station, the city was once a trading post on the famous Nakasendo Highway as well as a well-to-do centre for the silk industry.
A Hub Reborn
Destroyed during the closing stages of World War II, Kumagaya rebuilt itself to become a regional hub for central and northern Saitama. Serviced by the Joetsu and Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train lines as well as the JR Takasaki Line and the private Chichibu Main Line, Kumagaya is an easy jumping off point from which visitors can head off to a multitude of places, including the nearby town of Nagatoro for a river cruise down the Arakawa River or some hiking in the ever-popular Chichibu mountains.
A Monster Festival
Kumagaya itself hosts Saitama’s largest annual festival, the Uchiwa Matsuri. Anyone getting off at Kumagaya Station between July 20–22 is going to be diving into an ocean of people — 750,000 of them to be exact. For a city of 200,000 those are some serious tourist numbers. The festival dates back to 1750 but its name stems from an early 20th century marketing gimmick that saw vendors handing out free uchiwa hand-held fans to attract customers during the intense summer heat. Coinciding with a silk industry boom, the festival developed extra levels of energy with merchants using parade floats and music to vie with each other in showing off their wealth.
Some of the amazing floats of the Uchiwa Matsuri. Photo on Wikimedia Commons.
Saitama’s National Treasure
A more sedate but no less impressive experience is the expansive grounds of the Menuma Shodenzan Kangiin Temple. A relaxing 25-minute bus ride from Kumagaya Station, the temple was established in the 12th century and is Saitama’s first National Treasure. With its stunning detail and craftsmanship, the heritage-listed main hall easily rivals that of any other temple or shrine in Japan, even Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. So incredible is the workmanship that the temple is often known as the Nikko of Saitama.
TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋) on Flickr
The Two Rivers
Kumagaya is bordered by the Tone River in the north and the Arakawa River in the south. The Tone is one of Japan’s top three rivers and the Arakawa, once a wild, flood prone waterway, is now one of Japan’s top 100 cherry blossom viewing spots. Its Sakura Tsutsumi stretches out for over 2km with some 500 trees so it’s not hard to see why. Natural beauty aside, the Arakawa also puts up a serious candidate in the city's festival culture. Every second Saturday during August, almost half a million people gather to witness the spectacular Kumagaya Fireworks Festival. With over 10,000 fireworks blasting into the sky, the people of Kumagaya like to let you know they are having fun.
The Sakura Tsutsumi draws thousands to its incredible scenery along the Arakawa. Photo by Nori Norisa on Flickr.
In contrast to this festive extravagance, Kumagaya is known for its simple and rustic food. Udon noodles, made from Kumagaya-grown wheat, are highly prized while a most humble offering is the signature dish of the Menuma Shodenzan Temple, inari sushi. Made from vinegared rice and pickled vegetables wrapped in deep-fried tofu, inari sushi keeps to the non-meat ethos of Buddhism. In the opposite direction is tripe, the internal organs of pork and beef. Grilled and served with a strong sauce transforms tripe into a popular street stall evening snack. On the confectionary side, gokabo is the sweet of Kumagaya, made using techniques carried over from the Edo period. Made from soybean powder and rice, the cylindrical rolls are a nostalgic delight.
Gokabo is pure rustic delight. Photo by Ebiebi2 on Wikimedia Commons.
Kumagaya may have a history of warrior-monks, Buddhist temples, cherry blossoms and humble fare but it also comes exuberantly alive with its massive crowd-drawing festivals. A gateway into the region it may be but Kumagaya tops the lot with its showcase festivals and fun.
The Uchiwa Matsuri is a free event held around Kumagaya Station from 1–9pm. To get there, take the JR Takasaki Line to Kumagaya station. Menuma Shodenzan Temple is a 25-minute bus ride from Kumagaya Station. The fare is 460 yen. The main hall is open from 10–4:30pm and while the grounds are free, the main hall costs 700 yen.
The Kumagaya Fireworks Festival is a 5-minute walk from the South Gate of the Chichibu Kumagaya Station.