Here's something for you to try next time you find yourself in conversation with a Japanese person: ask them what they think of Saitama. Not the One-Punch Man character, mind: the landlocked Prefecture just north of Tokyo. Look out for the knowing smirk, the uttering of ‘Dasai’ (uncool) and for good measure a mention of how there's nothing in Saitama (despite being the 5th most populated prefecture in Japan).
What's going on? Well, Saitama has the dubious distinction of being the butt of many jokes in Japan, in a similar way to how British people laugh about Norfolk or Americans laugh about Miami (even though those places are quite nice in reality!). It all started when famed talent and now-retired show host Tamori made a quip back in the 80's (a decade famous for being an achingly trendy time, as we know) about the Prefecture being ‘Dasaitama’, a pun-tastic wordplay on the word for uncool (Dasai) and Saitama. The name has stuck, along with the reputation.
And yet, as I write this on the train home to Saitama City, I can see rivers, bullet trains, Round 1 sports centers, at least three AEON malls, restaurants, Tsutayas, a whole building full of ramen eateries...all stretching as far as the mountains on the horizon, overseen by a stunning view of Mount Fuji. A place of nothing it certainly ain't! I have lived in Saitama Prefecture since 2010, travelled all over the country and I could not be happier to call Saitama home.
There are many great things about Saitama, too many to do justice to in this article. So here’s a whistle-stop tour of the absolute greatest Saitama has to offer:
This city, just 30 minutes north of Ikebukuro on the Tobu-Tojo line, may look like any other Japanese city when you get off the train, but dig deeper: head up the long street of shops known as Crea Mall and you arrive in Nakacho, a district that has retained most of its old Edo buildings and charm. The famous Kawagoe Bell tower has history dating back to the 1600s. Look up: this preserved area is rare in Japan because the view above your head isn't choked with telephone wires. Don't forget to stop by the candy alley to pick up a tasty souvenir!
From urban to rural, Saitama has it all. If Kawagoe is a prime example of a Japanese city, then Nagatoro is Japanese nature at its best. Tucked in the Chichibu mountains to the west, the wild end of the Arakawa River runs through it, making this town a prime spot for boating down the rapids through the gorge. For the less adventurous, the sprawling rock floor of the Iwadatami runs for 600 meters next to the gorge, making it a prime spot for nature viewing or a picnic. Nagatoro is also the birthplace of Kakigori, the much-loved Japanese summer snack of shaved ice drenched in a flavored syrup.
3. The best of both worlds
Quick! Think of any other area of Japan off the top of your head! Now, chances are you're thinking of somewhere very urban (Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama etc.) or very rural (mountains, an onsen, a shrine hidden in a forest etc). All great places, but they're all very much one way or the other. Either a sprawling megapolis or secluded retreat. Not much in between.
Saitama is rare because it is a prefecture with balance. Sandwiched between Tokyo in the south and the mountains of Gunma in the north, it's easy to escape from one jungle to another. Saitama’s charms are more compact. Saitama City, the capital, has all the amenities and bright lights of Tokyo but in a tighter space that can be easily navigated on foot. Shinrin Koen park is a delightful 300-acre park with a fun biking course, but when you're done you can be back on a train returning to civilization in 10 minutes.
Is Saitama ever going to square up to Shibuya or Shinjuku? Of course not. Nowhere in Japan is. But Saitama suffers because of how close it is to Tokyo, making it pale in comparison. But if you were to carve Saitama out of the land and place it in any other place in Japan, I have no doubt it would be a hotspot for the trendseekers. But in a way I'm glad that Saitama has the reputation it has: it keeps the mocking crowds away. More Saitama for me!