Spring Strawberry Picking in Chichibu, Saitama
You may have noticed that fruit is outrageously expensive in Japan. (Nine hundred yen for a mango anyone?) There are some good reasons for this, actually.
Japan has very little good agricultural land and the climate is not conducive for growing most of the fruits that foreigners know and love. That means most fruit is imported from Thailand, Mexico, America, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia.
That also means that eating fruit as part of a daily, balanced diet is not a Japanese custom. What you may have grown up thinking of as an after school snack, in Japan is a delicacy, reserved at first only for the noble class, and later for special ceremonial meals like weddings and funerals.
It is still traditional to present a watermelon to the family when requesting the hand of a daughter for marriage. That's why you see 10,000 yen watermelons at specialty fruit shops and department stores. Strawberries are usually reserved for birthday cakes.
So, fruit is imported, and considered a luxury, not standard fare. Fruit grown in Japan is grown mostly in hothouse conditions, or very carefully tended to orchards, and vineyards. Japanese fruit farmers take painstaking care to produce the very highest quality fruit.
Japan is one of the few places where people actually earn a living wage, so with all of this tending, picking and selecting, by the time it gets to market it is out of reach for most of us.
Here’s the upside! One of the many lovely spring traditions in Japan is “Ichigo gari” or strawberry picking. From January until late May, strawberry farms open up their hothouses to the public. For an entrance fee, you can pick and eat as many strawberries as you can in thirty minutes. You get a little plastic tray and can buy tubes of condensed milk (recommended) then you are shown to a row of hothouses covered in plastic. There are usually several varieties of strawberries, separated by hothouse. A member of the staff will walk you down to the hothouses after you pay and tell you "these are the sweetest", "these are slightly tangy", "These are the biggest, but they have a milder taste". And then you are free for thirty minutes to hunt for the best strawberries and eat as many as you can. Thirty minutes doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but it’s plenty. Last year my son and I had a competition and he ate two-hundred!
The rates change monthly, with the most expensive time being January-February and the cheapest being in April-May. If you time your visit in late March/early April you can enjoy the cherry blossoms at Muse Park while you are in Chichibu. If you come in late April/early May you can see the “Shibazakura” moss phlox hills at Hitsujiyama Park.
There are lots of strawberry farms in Chichibu, but I recommend “Yagi Resort Farm” for visitors because it is the easiest to get to, and is at the bottom of Muse park, so you can take the bus or hike up the mountain and enjoy the park after you gorge on strawberries. It is also walking distance to a couple of ancient Buddhist temples, and they have a goat, some cute rabbits and chickens.
Strawberry picking is a great activity for families with children. It’s also considered a romantic date for young couples.
“Yagi Resort Farm” opens at 10:00 am and closes at 4:00 pm. From January 1st until the end of February the entrance fee is 1,700 yen/ 900 yen for young children (age 2-5). March 1st until April 10th- 1,500 yen/ 800 yen for young children (age 2-5), and the cheapest season (that synchs perfectly with cherry blossoms and phlox hills) is 1,200 yen and 600 yen for young children (age 2-5).
Getting there early is recommended especially during the peak season if you want to get the best berries. You can buy trays of top or medium quality strawberries to take back with you or try fresh “strawberry milk” (500 yen) at the window where you pay. Peek inside and see them sorting the berries like jewelers sorting diamonds with special lamps, and magnifying glasses.
Getting here: Take the Seibu-Chichibu Red Arrow express train from Ikebukuro station in Tokyo. They just added a brand new train called “La View”. These are reserved seat express trains. There is a cheaper slower option, but I like to keep things simple and fast when I travel (especially with kids), so I recommend the express trains.
When you arrive at Chichibu Station
You can get a taxi at the stand just out front. The rates are listed in English. It’s 2,500 yen to the strawberry farm and some taxis hold up to five people. If you take a taxi you might want to arrange in advance for it to come back for you at a set time.
If you want to take the bus, there is a great, new interactive map in English just as you are leaving the station that shows the bus routes, as well as giving you a general overview of the city.
You can pick up free printed pamphlets and maps in English just under this modern technological miracle.
Take the “Muse Park” bus. The stop is to the left of the station entrance as you walk out and clearly marked in English.
If you take the bus. Get off just after crossing “Koenbashi Bridge”.
Backtrack half a block down to the main light and turn left.
The Yagi Resort farm is a pleasant ten-minute walk.
Walk until you see this sign–
––and this building––
On the left hand-side. Walk up to the window and say “Ichigo gari onegaishimasu.”
If you are taking the bus back to the station just retrace your steps and hop on the bus on the other side of the street from where you got off.
There is a lot to do in Chichibu and the weather is great in April and May. You can use the rest of your day to explore the old downtown, visit the 1,900 year-old Chichibu Jinja, see the cherry blossoms at Muse Park, visit Buddhist temples, or check out the enormous moss phlox display at Hitsujiyama park.
You can walk, take taxis, buses, or even rent bikes at the station to get around.
If you fall in love with Chichibu and want an excuse to return, Yagi Resort farm has grape picking from August to October!
There is an onsen in the station if you are game (and don’t have tattoos), and a great little arcade of restaurants and shops. During strawberry season they have lots of strawberry themed “omiyage” (souvenirs).
Seibu Chichibu trains between Chichibu and Ikebukuro run frequently so you can play things by ear, even staying for dinner in Chichibu before heading back to Tokyo.
*During the high seasons and weekends you should probably buy your return ticket ahead of time if you want a guaranteed seat on one of the express trains.