October 25, 2019

Backyard Tourism Vol. 3

Found just to the north of Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture, Omiya’s Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine is an often overlooked hidden gem.

The JR train station in Saitama Prefecture's capital of Omiya

Welcome back to yet another installment of Backyard Tourism. Much like the other articles in this ongoing series, I’m going to try to prove that good storytelling can make anywhere in Japan alluring to overseas travelers. While I have fallen in love with the idea of putting forgotten areas on the digital map, I had not planned to draft another episode of Backyard Tourism so soon. After all, Vol. 2 was just a few columns ago. Truth be told, this week’s article was supposed to be about the Yamabushi of Yamagata Prefecture. Alas, Mother Nature is known to be rather whimsical and thus Typhoon Hagibis completely ruined my travel plans. Luckily though, last Monday was a National Holiday so I was able to squeeze in a quick day trip.

On that note, today we will be taking a look at Omiya which is located in the capital city of Saitama Prefecture. Situated about an hour north of Tokyo, this region of the Kanto plain is often considered to be little more than a bedroom community for Central Tokyo. Because of this, Omiya (and indeed all of Saitama in general) has developed the unsavory nickname of “Daisaitama.” A portmanteau of the Japanese word for lame and the name of the prefecture itself, this moniker clearly shows what Tokyoites think of their northern neighbors. Nevertheless, those in the know are likely aware that Saitama is a treasure trove of hidden gems so it really grinds my gears when I hear people debasing the prefecture.

So, what’s Omiya got to offer? A fair bit it turns out. For starters, the city’s title is literally comprised of the characters for “large” and “shrine” which alone should be a bit of a hint. This moniker is in reference to the expansive Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine. Allegedly, the title took hold after Emperor Meiji elevated this shrine above all others within the Kanto region. Prior to this, the complex stood as the head shrine of former Musashi Province but the story doesn’t stop there. If what the officials purport is true, Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine has roots dating back over 2,400 years. For some context, know that the century when this shrine was allegedly first erected also marked the height of Classical Greek civilization. Now that’s old!

In addition to the must see Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine, Omiya is also home to an amazing bonsai village. This collective lays claim to a variety of trees that are over a thousand years old. You’ll find many of these antediluvian seedlings on exhibit at the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum. Seeing as it is only a few minutes away on foot from the Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine complex, this spot is also one that you cannot afford to miss. En route, there are several additional sites and activities to consider so be sure to read all the way through to the “Other Attractions” section at the end of this article.

Getting to Omiya

The main approach to Omiya’s Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine in Saitama

Given so many residents commute from Omiya to Tokyo everyday, it should come as no surprise that the city is easy to access. In fact, compared to some of the other off the beaten path destinations that I cover on this site, reaching Omiya is mere child’s play. All you need to do is take any of the many trains that service the JR Omiya Station from Tokyo. Which of these is the most convenient will depend on where you’re coming from so just refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the train routes. The entire journey should only take approximately an hour or so.

Once you arrive in Omiya, you’ll need to walk for about five to ten minutes until you reach the main approach of the Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine (here’s a Google Map). This long pathway is lined with countless cherry trees and is especially enchanting during the spring when they are in full bloom. During my graduate school years, I held a part-time job around here and would always take my lunch breaks under the blossoming trees in spring. Further adding to this boulevard’s beauty are a series of three massive torii gates. The second of these used to belong to the eminently important Meiji Jingu in the center of Tokyo so be sure to keep your eyes out for it.

Assuming that you can navigate your way to the main approach, finding the Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine complex is easy. All you need to do is follow the lane north for about ten minutes. The avenue is quite long so if you fear that you’re following the wrong path just keep your eyes out for signs like the one pictured above to reassure yourself that you’re actually heading in the right direction.

Omiya & the Big Shrine

The main hall of Omiya’s Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine in Saitama

Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine is set amidst grounds of lush greenery. The vast premises feature many auxiliary sanatoriums which add to the grandeur of the setting. When visiting, I suggest that you skip these for the time being and continue to head north from the end of the main approach. Soon thereafter, you’ll encounter an exquisite stone bridge transporting you across a small body of water. Immediately after crossing the bridge, you’ll be met by Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine’s two-storied Romon gate. Here, you’ll also encounter the water ablution pavilion used to purify yourself before entering the shrine’s inner areas. Once you’ve done so, you’ll be free to pass under the gate and check out the Haiden (prayer hall) and Honden (main hall).

In case you’re wondering, the fearsome god Susanoo-no-Mikoto (a name which is often truncated to just Susanoo ) is enshrined within Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine. This powerful deity is the brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami and is said to govern storms and seas. While it was entirely coincidental, I am amused that I paid my respects to Susanoo here at Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine just after what may be one of the worst typhoons on record to hit Japan. Note that there are over fifty Hikawa branch shrines in central Tokyo, so even if you never make it up to Omiya, you too can pray for Susanoo’s protection.

By the way, be sure not to miss out on the small Inari shrine. You’ll find this by the onsite pond. While this shrine can’t hold a candle to the thousands of gates standing at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, you can still experience the thrill of walking through multiple torii arches.

Omiya’s Bonsai Village

Omiya’s Bonsai Village in Saitama

Those who read this lengthy travel log about my adventures in Greater Tokyo likely remember that Omiya is home to an amazing collection of Bonsai masters. This host of nurseries was originally located in Central Tokyo however the gardeners decided to find an alternative location following the carnage wrought by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. After surveying a variety of options, the bonsai masters ultimately settled on relocating to Omiya due to its clean water, available land, and favorable soil. Since then, this cluster of families have been producing living works of art. While you can indeed purchase a Bonsai tree here, know that most countries do not allow you to bring in foreign soil. Unless you want to risk causing a scene at customs, you’ll just need to settle on looking.

While there are many places to pop in, the main attraction here is the impressive Omiya Bonsai Art Museum which opened in 2010. This facility is home to some truly ancient trees. In fact, when I visited, some of the trees on display were over 1,000 years old. Here, it’s easy to miss the significance so let me explain that number another way. Simply put, there has been an unbroken chain of caretakers looking after these tiny trees since the first battalions of the crusades left Europe to take back the Holy Land. The more you think about all the effort required to keep these minuscule specimen kicking for a millenia, the more mind boggling it becomes.

The Omiya Bonsai Village is located here on the north side of Omiya Park. It can be reached on foot in ten to fifteen minutes from Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine.

Attractions Near Omiya

The Saitama Prefectural Museum of History & Folklore in Omiya

As hinted at before, in addition to the Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine and the Omiya Bonsai Village, there are a number of other attractions nearby. In the interest of brevity, I’ll opt to list these below with a brief description noting why you should consider a visit. As always, I’ll include links to Google Maps so that you can find your way…

  • Saitama Prefectural Museum of History & Folklore
    Located at the northern tip of Omiya Park, this amazing museum chronicles the entire history of Saitama. Inside, you’ll find exhibits ranging from the Jomon period (14,000–300 BCE) all the way up to the modern era. While not every exhibit is presented in English, there’s enough localized for non-Japanese readers to be able to follow along.
  • Omiya Park Zoo
    While not exactly something that would justify a trip in and of itself, this compact collection of exotic birds, mammals, and reptiles is entirely free to explore. You’ll find the zoo located smack-dab in the middle of Omiya Park’s grounds.
  • JR East’s Railway Museum
    If you’re a train enthusiast, this is the attraction for you. You’ll find it located next to the JR Omiya Station so this might be one to hit up on the way back from Omiya’s main attractions. Entry will run you 1,300 yen.

Until next time fellow travelers…