Winter Weekend Getaway to Chichibu and Kawagoe
Tokyo folks and tourists no longer have to squeeze their hectic travel itinerary within the Tokyo metropolis. About 113 km or roughly 1.5 hours by train from the northwest part of the congested capital, Chichibu region in Saitama prefecture is now becoming a sought-after destination for nature wonders, mountain trekking, river cruising, hot springs onsen, historical sights, and gastronomical delights, including saké and liquor breweries.
There are numerous available tours that will surprise you with the sprawling Shibazakura pink moss fields in spring at the Hitsujiyama Park, crimson red poppy fields from May to June at the Chichibu Kogen Bokujo ((Highland Ranch), hydrangea blooms in summer at temples like Josenji and Kanonji, spectacular autumn leaves at Tsukinoishi Momiji Park and practically all over the region, and finally, Misotsuchi Icicles in Otaki (Misotsuchi no Tsurara) and Onouchi Gorge, Ogano during wintertime.
This is why spending a weekend in Chichibu as I did could be a perfect getaway from Tokyo’s bustling sights and smells. Starting off with a cultural touch, Chichibu Shrine, which belongs to the top-ranking shrines to see in Chichibu, together with Hodosan and Mitsumine Shrines, reveals very impressive sculptural art both in the interior and on its exterior façade. The intricate carvings were made by one of Edo period’s most prominent artists, Jingoro Hidari, who was also responsible for the famous “sleeping cat” carvings of the Tosho-gu Shrine in Nikko.
You can find a carving of parenting tigers dedicated to Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, found on the front-left side of the shrine, with an unusual leopard-like mother. On the rear-left side are three amusing monkeys that, unlike the common “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkey images (covered eyes, ears and mouth), such as those found at the Tosho-gu Shrine, are ironically depicted in Chichibu Shrine with visible eyes, ears and mouths to proclaim “see well, listen well, speak well.” Hidari’s interpretation of the watching owl seen on the northern side of the shrine has its body facing south and the head facing north. Further to the right of the shrine’s rear side are intertwining blue and green dragons, which tell a story of one of the restless dragons escaping from the nearby pond, then was caught and therefore, chained to the rest of the dragons. The unique stories behind the carvings and their richly painted colors of red, orange, blue, green, brown, and gold, add luster to the presence of the building.
The tour I joined arranged a special blessing by the Shinto priest so you can experience a moment of deep meditation in front of the ornate altar and later relish a sip of the ceremonial saké. Around the shrine are also gorgeous autumn leaves that show during the fall season. You could feel the splendor of both art and history, as well as the spiritual aura from Mt. Buko surrounding the shrine grounds. Believed to have been established during the reign of Emperor Sujin (97 BC-30 BC), Chichibu Shrine’s remarkable history is linked with the sacred mountain Mt. Buko surrounding Chichibu, which has long attracted many mountain worshippers of the Shugendo tradition (Japanese mountain asceticism). The Chichibu Night Festival usually held on December 2 and 3 at this shrine is dedicated to the worship of Mt. Buko and protection of the Chichibu region, and has been registered as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. Millions of visitors come to the festival to view the huge and amazing floats and light spectacle.
Open all year round
3 minutes on foot from Chichibu Station
During the Edo period, the Chichibu region became a fundamental source of water as the long Arakawa River flows through it. Ieyasu Tokugawa administered the construction of Chichibu Shrine to pray continually for the regular flow of the water throughout the towns. Just within the Chichibu Sakura Lake, you can visit the enormous Urayama Dam completed in 1998, which is said to be the second highest dam in Japan at 156 meters. Chichibu is immensely proud of this dam, which was constructed in large amounts of concrete and acts as a crucial resource of water supply during heavy floods affecting not only Saitama but vicinities of Tokyo as well. The dam facility can be visited with a thorough guided explanation of the dam construction and functions. You can go down the elevator to reach closer to the lake and have a spectral view of the towering dam from below, and the Chichibu mountains and basin from above. There is also a museum explaining the history and work of the dam, and a restaurant in the facility that serves a special “dam curry” menu.
Open 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Around 30 minutes on foot from Chichibu railway Urayama-guchi station or by Chichibu City bus "Nukumori-Go" from Seibu Chichibu station of Seibu railway.
Perhaps, one of the most exciting activities to do in the Chichibu region is the Nagatoro whitewater rafting and boating along the Arakawa River. Despite enduring the 4-degree afternoon temperature, we took the boat ride paddled by a skilled boatman who also explained the natural surroundings flanked by the giant and undulating Iwadatami Rocks, which are eroded crystalline schist, giving them the whitish effect.
You can forget the chill while being mesmerized by the ravishing scenery of trees, rocks and blue-green reflection on the water. The ride can be bumpy at times but makes for a thrilling adventure. There are three courses ranging from 20-40 minutes each, priced from 1800yen-3300yen for adults. After getting off from the boat, you can stroll through the old Nagatoro town where you can spot a few small temples and shrines and rows of shops.
Nagatoro River Rafting
Operation between March through early December
9:00 am to 4:00 pm (20-40 minutes per ride)
Tickets purchased at the Nagatoro White Water Rafting Sales Office, 1 minute walk from Nagatoro Station.
After a full day of culture, history, and nature, you can close the evening with a side visit to the Buko Shuzo saké brewery. The brewery has an impressive history of 190 years, famed for its brewed water from Mt. Buko. A special tour of the facility will take you to the storage brewing rice mill, the store well and the storehouse. With permission, you may enjoy some saké tasting of the brewery’s varied flavors: peach, plum, nigori mild flavor, shibori tate aged flavor, yuzu Japanese lime and others. Buko Shuzo is also designated as National Tangible Cultural Heritage.
Buko Shuzo Saké Brewery
Visiting hours: 8:00 am to 4:30 pm
15 minutes on foot from Chichibu Station
Now it would be time to stop for the night for a long, relaxing hot springs onsen bath and sumptuous kaiseki Japanese dinner cuisine at Ikoi No Mura Heritage Minoyama Hotel. Sitting atop the mountain, it provides a breathtaking view of the mountain ridges that truly completes a full day tour.
Ikoi No Mura Heritage Minoyama Hotel
For a second day tour as you head back to Tokyo, it would be worthwhile to pass through Kawagoe, which can be reached in about 1 hour and 45 minutes from Chichibu on the Seibu Ikebukuro line. Known as the “Little Edo” (Koedo, popularized by the local beer), Kawagoe is an old castle town that housed the Kawagoe Castle during the Edo period, and became the capital of Kawagoe prefecture in 1871 before becoming a part of the present Saitama prefecture.
Kurazukuri Street is the most popular destination of tourists, flocked by traditional warehouse buildings from the 18th to 19th centuries. The main street and side alleys are full of souvenir shops, sweets shops, cafés, restaurants―many promoting satsumaimo sweet potato delights like ice cream, chips, cookies, or bread. Our tour included a lunch at Kawagoe’s most popular unagi eel restaurant, Ichinoya. The historical restaurant dates from 1832, and here, you can savor the traditional unagi taste amidst the solemn garden setting seen through the windows.
10 minutes on foot from Hon-Kawagoe Station
Having pampered ourselves with robust mountain scenes, a riverboat ride, art, culture, meditation, liquor tasting, and a pinch of sweet potato delicacies and delicious eel lunch, we have resigned to return to busy Tokyo life with the pleasant Chichibu experience in mind.