Photo:Mytho88 on Wikimedia Commons

Top 5 Things in Omiya, Saitama

Important it may be as a transportation hub connecting Tokyo to northern Japan, Omiya in Saitama Prefecture is sometimes overlooked for tourist meccas such as Tokyo and Kyoto. But Omiya is more than just a gateway between differing versions of Japan. Omiya is quintessential Japan. With shrines dating back thousands of years to being the centre of bonsai culture, the city is a rich treasure trove of art, culture and history.

Named After the Gods

Omiya’s historical claim to national pride can be found in its name: Omiya is an indigenous Japanese word meaning ‘great shrine’. The inspiration for this name comes from the city’s famous Hikawa Shrine, which, according to tradition, was established in 473 BCE. With such a long pedigree, it is no wonder that Hikawa was designated as the head shrine for the old Musashi Province, covering what is now Tokyo and Saitama.

The shrine compound features the stunningly beautiful Romon Gate as an entry: its bright orange a spiritual ward against evil. As expected of such an important shrine, the grounds are immaculately tended to with numerous smaller shrines, ponds and bridges. Unless you visit during the New Year’s period, expect a tranquil and placative mood here.

Hikawa Shrine is easily accessible with a leisurely 15-minute walk from the East Exit of JR Omiya Station. Otherwise, try a 10-minute walk from either Kita Omiya or Omiya Koen stations on the Tobu Urban Park Line.

Front to Hikawa Shrine. Photo by Ocdp on Wikimedia Commons.

A Museum Going Places

As a post station on the old Edo period Nakasendo highway and its modern role in the Shinkansen bullet train network, Omiya has always been part of the travel infrastructure of Japan. A further expression of the city’s transportation culture is Omiya Railway Museum.

A massive hangar-like two storied structure filled to the brim with real trains, the museum includes original steam locomotives, bullet train and passenger carriages and even a luxurious Imperial carriage used by the Imperial family. The site also features model trains zooming about in room-sized dioramas, model displays of Japanese trains from throughout history and even a massive play centre full of train toys as well as a mock train station cafe complete with rubber lunch boxes that the children can prepare.

The Railway Museum is an easy 3-minute ride to Tetsudo Hakubutsukan Station from Omiya Station on the New Shuttle Line from Omiya Station.

Some of the trains on display at the Omiya Railway Museum. Photo bylienyuan lee on Wikimedia Commons.

A History Supported

While the Saitama Prefectural Museum of History and Folklore deals with Japan as a whole, it obviously focuses on Saitama Prefecture. Often forgotten, even within Japan, Saitama - and Omiya - is fully represented here at the museum. Considering that the region was part of the old Musashi Province, the largest province in the Kanto region which also encompassed Tokyo, there is a lot of history and culture to be had.

The museum is themed on the ideas of history, folklore and fine arts with the permanent collection featuring pieces from Japan’s ancient Jomon Period of 1000 BCE to the more recent Edo Period of the 17th & 18th centuries. Regular workshops are also held allowing visitors the chance to make folk crafts inspired by the exhibits. Opportunities to take in special exhibitions abound as the museum regularly hosts national treasures and important cultural properties.

The Museum is a 5-minute walk from Omiya Koen Station on the Tobu Urban Park Line. Do keep in mind that the Museum is closed on Mondays. 

Entrance to the Prefectural Museum of History and Folklore. Photo by Dddeco on Wikimedia Commons.

A Refuge of Space

Listed as one of Japan’s top 100 places to view the cherry blossoms, Omiya Park’s 67 hectares is the most visited park in Saitama. Besides its 1000 cherry blossom trees, the park is especially famous for its red pine and apricot trees. Connected with Omiya’s Hikawa Shrine and the Prefectural Museum, the park features a small zoo, playgrounds for the children as well as several quite large ponds, sporting stadiums and that great Japanese commodity, space.

That space is actually three parks combined. The first park was established in 1885 while the second and third parks were opened up in 1980 and 2001, respectively. The second park features about 650 apricot trees and is a must-see during the annual Japanese Apricot Festival in February-March. A pleasant surprise is the illumination until around 9pm during the cherry blossom season. Extending the time you spend here is always a plus.

Omiya Park is a 10-minute walk from either Omiya Koen or Kita Omiya stations on the Tobu Urban Park Line or a 15-20 minute walk from the East Exit of JR Omiya Station.

Cherry blossoms in full bloom at Omiya Park. Photo by 掬茶 on Wikimedia Commons.

Miniature Beauty

Japan delights in the collaboration between citizen and culture. And Omiya’s Bonsai Village is one of the more extraordinary examples of this collaboration. The village is actually a local neighborhood of bonsai nurseries that share their space with the public. Established in 1925 after the Great Kanto Earthquake, the village features over 100,000 examples of the bonsai art, a lush green space offering textbook tranquillity. Each year between 3-5 May, the village hosts the Great Bonsai Festival drawing enthusiasts from pretty much everywhere.

Along with the nurseries, the village also boasts six specialist bonsai gardens which are stunning in their own right as well as the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum. The first ever publicly run bonsai-dedicated gallery, the museum opened in 2010 and features well over 100 bonsai masterpieces and bonsai-related artifacts. Plants on display are seasonal, adding further cultural and artistic depth to the museum.

The Omiya Bonsai Village is a 5-minute walk from the East Exit of Toro Station on the JR Utsunomiya Line or a 10-minute walk from Omiya koen Station on the Tobu Urban Park Line.

Bonsai plants in Omiya. Photo by TypeZero on Wikimedia Commons.

Omiya’s history is a long one and its role as one the nation’s transport hubs is firmly established. But if you are on the way through, do take the time to stop by for a day or two and explore. The cultural depth of its arts and the weight of its culture are well worth the visit.

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