April 24, 2018

Escape the City, Visit Chichibu

This primer will tell you all you need to know about Saitama Prefecture’s rural Chichibu. The area makes for a great day trip from Tokyo.

A participant of the Chichibu Night Festival stands next to one of the floats

Are you sick and tired of Tokyo’s neon-lit concrete jungle? Well, I’ve got just the day-long excursion for you! Known as Chichibu, this idyllic destination is located to the northwest of the capital up in Saitama prefecture. Though often looked down upon by Tokyoites for being “lame,” Saitama actually is home to many wonderful hidden gems, including my beloved Kawagoe. That said, today we will be venturing even deeper into the prefecture to the valley of Chichibu, a place that I have been meaning to feature for some time now. Rich in both history and nature, this charming, rustic spot is the perfect day trip for those looking to escape the lights of Japan’s capital.

Despite its many allures, Chichibu only rarely welcomes foreign visitors. In addition to its lack of any brand awareness overseas, Chichibu’s geographical location is also partially to blame here. Though technically still part of Saitama, Chichibu sits in the prefecture’s far western extreme. The area nestles up against an impressive mountain range that serves as the borderline for the Kanto plane. Comprising much of the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, these towering cliffs extend all the way down past the likes of Tokyo’s Mt. Mitake and beyond.

Historically speaking, Chichibu first appeared on the map in the 8th century when large deposits of copper were discovered within its hills and mountains. From these hidden resources, Japan’s first coins known as “Wado Kaichin” (lit. Japanese copper) were minted in the year 708. Up until this point, coins had been the norm in Japan yet they were imported from China or Korea. Thereafter, Chichibu evolved into being a center for mountain asceticism thanks in no small part to its large selection of imposing peaks. Indeed, even today, many important centers for the practice continue to exist near the summits of Chichibu’s mountains.

Its impressive pedigree aside, even domestically, Chichibu really only became known as a tourism destination in recent years. Though home to a swath of rich heritage including many ancient shrines and temples, Chichibu was relatively unknown to Tokyoites compared to alternative day-long excursions like Kamakura. Despite Chichibu’s recent debut, its legendary Night Festival has been famously celebrated for some time. Along with Kyoto’s infamous Gion Festival and the Takayama Festival, the Chichibu Night Festival is considered one of Japan’s top three events of its kind.

Getting to Saitama & the Chichibu Area

The Laview trains depart from Ikebukuro Station en route to Chichibu

Though located at the westernmost reaches of Saitama, Chichibu can be reached in little over an hour from central Tokyo. The easiest way to get there is to simply hop on one of the Seibu Ikebukuro Line‘s Laview limited express trains. These trains depart from Ikebukuro Station and will take you all the way up to Chichibu in approximately 70 minutes. This route is by far the most convenient way to make the journey. Note that the Red Arrows are reserved seating only. While the trains come with free onboard Wi-Fi, you’ll need to purchase a limited express ticket in advance to ride one. As always, refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the best schedule for you.

The Seibu Ikebukuro Line will take you all the way to the Seibu Chichibu Station. From there, you’ll need to make the rest of the journey on foot. Luckily though, one need not complain as a leisurely stroll through the rustic streets of Chichibu is a great way to relax while orienting yourself with the area. Alternatively, you can also rent a bicycle at the nearby Tourist Information Center. Before getting started though, be sure to check out the station itself. It was recently renovated in 2017 and has earned the distinction of being named one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful stations. What’s more, the station also includes the Matsuri-no-Yu hot spring and food court complex. This conveniently located onsen is the perfect way to end a long day of exploring Chichibu.

Lastly, while outside the scope of this article, there are a few cool destinations en route to Chichibu on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line such as the Tove Jansson Akebono Children’s Forest Park in Hanno. If you want to hop-off and explore some of these en route, I suggest you purchase the Seibu 1 Day Pass. This all-you-can-ride ticket is extremely discounted for foreign visitors and will cost you only 1,000 yen. While this fee does not include the additional limited express fare needed to ride the Red Arrows, it does help save a few hundred yen if you opt to hop-off at some point en route.

Check Out the Venerable Chichibu Shrine

The first gate leading into Chichibu Shrine in Saitama Prefecture

All right folks, without further adieu, let’s dive on into my proposed day-long itinerary. For simplicity sake, I suggest you begin by making your way to Chichibu Shrine. To get there, you’ll need to exit Seibu-Chichibu Station and make a hard left. From there, continue to head straight along while keeping the train tracks to your right hand side. Here’s a Google Map link to help orient you. While a portion of the journey can be covered by taking the Chichibu railway from the neighboring Ohanabatake Station, this option makes the trek more complicated. Given the distance is a mere 10 minute walk in total just rely on your own two feet.

On the way to the shrine, you’ll happen upon the charmingly historic Banbacho. This small shopping street forms something of a promenade that leads up to Chichub Shrine. Many of the buildings here date back to the Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods when Chichibu played the role of an industrial, silk-producing town. You’ll find a number of friendly neighborhood butchers, bakeries, and grocery shops scattered about the area. If you look carefully, you might notice that many of Banbacho’s 100-year-old buildings sport the the perfect blend of Western and Japanese architecture that characterized the era.

If you continue past Banbacho, you’ll soon thereafter reach the entrance to Chichibu Shrine that is pictured above. According to local hearsay, this shrine is said to have been established way back in the 1st century by histo-mythological Emperor Sujin. Generally speaking, this period pre-dates factual history and is more the yarn of legends than actual fact. The earliest historical evidence for Chichibu Shrine that scholars have been able to uncover dates back to the early Heian period (794 to 1185). Nevertheless, more than one-thousand years of history is certainly nothing to scoff at!

The main hall of the ancient Chichibu Shrine in Saitama Prefecture

As with many shrines across Japan, the current buildings that comprise Chichibu Shrine are reconstructions. In Shintoism, the buildings themselves are generally not treated as sacred rather what they enshrine is. Therefore, it was common for structures to rebuilt when and where needed. The current Chichibu Shrine dates back to 1592, just before the Edo period (1603–1868). Much like the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, one of the most distinguishing elements of Chichibu Shrine’s main hall is its numerous ornate carvings. In fact, the evidence hints that both structures were hand crafted by the legendary woodcarver, Hidari Jingoro.

As those who have seen the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko will be able to imagine, Chichibu Shrine is a site well worth savoring. The intricately decorated shrine hosts a number of scenes and motifs culled from the pages of Japanese and Chinese mythology. While I don’t want to spoil all the fun, there’s some significant meaning behind several of the carvings; unfortunately, the explanations are only presented in Japanese. Therefore, I suggest you commit the following to memory before visiting Chichibu Shrine.

  • Mother Tiger and Cubs: Just to the left of the main building’s entrance there is a carving of several tiger cubs alongside their watchful mother. Astute viewers will notice that she is actually sporting a leopard’s fur and not a tiger’s. I’ve read that this mixing of a leopard mother with tiger cubs was a trademark of Hidari Jingoro and is one of the main reasons we know that he was responsible for constructing Chichibu Shrine.
  • The Energetic Monkeys: Most have heard of the famed three monkeys of Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine. After all, the “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” motif has been appropriated the world over across many interactions. Chichibu Shrine has its own take on these monkeys seeing the trio are the exact opposites of their cousins in Nikko. The theme here is “See it all, listen intently, speak your mind.” The carvings are truly a wonder to behold!
  • The Owl of the North Star: Located on the backside of the shrine, this little guy is said to bless all those who engage in academic endeavors. The owl also has an adorable little thing on his head which I can’t quite figure out whether or not it is a hat. If you know, email me or hit me up on social media!
  • The Chained Dragon: Last up, we have my favorite of all of the carvings, the chained dragon. Local folk tales hold that once upon a time, Chichibu was terrorized by a menacing dragon who lived in a nearby pond. Miraculously, its reign of terror ceased when the carving on Chichibu Shrine was bound by iron. If you look closely, you can still see the chain wrapped around the dragon today!

In addition to all of the above points of interest, the grounds of Chichibu shrine are also home to a number of branch subsidiary shrines including a Tenjin Shrine, a Toshogu Shrine, and a Suwa Shrine among them.

Enjoy Chichibu’s Epic Night Festival

A bunch of revelers pull one of many night floats from the Chichibu Night Festival

As alluded to in the introduction to this article, Chichibu is most famous for its lively night festival. Held every year on December 2nd and 3rd, this early winter celebration is often hailed as one of Japan’s top festivals. The main draw is a series of ornately decorated festival floats that parade around Chichibu. These are adorned with lanterns, tapestries, and gilded wood carvings. Of course, as with many other festivals, the revelry is accompanied by copious ranks of drummers and flutists. As if this weren’t enough, there’s also a two-hour long fireworks display and plenty of festival street-food to sample as well.

Though the weather can be rather cold, this event is not to be missed if you’re in Japan during early December. That said, the Chichibu Festival is extremely popular and the celebration can become very, very crowded especially so along the parade route. In order to grab front row seats for taking in all the action, you’ll need to get there early to snag a spot. Alternatively, if hordes of people aren’t really your shtick, consider instead watching from the big screen in front of the Seibu-Chichibu Station. This way you can avoid the stampede and maybe even get a seat on one of the last trains back to Tokyo.

As amazing as this all sounds, the majority of visitors to Chichibu will not be here for the festival. Nevertheless, there’s a great way to get a sense of what you’re missing. Located just next to Chichibu Shrine, you’ll find the Chichibu Festival Museum which chronicles the annual celebration. For a few hundred yen, you can get a taste of what it would be like to experience the Chichibu Night Festival. While English is sorely lacking, there are ample pictures and even a cool projection mapping exhibit that helps to recreate the vibe. Should you have half an hour or so to spare, the scene is definitely worth your time.

Savor Some of Chichibu’s Local Cuisine

A man in Chichibu cuts some soba noodles

When it comes to good eats, Chichibu’s food is real serious stuff. Generally speaking, the local specials are hearty meals geared towards providing energy and filling empty tummies after a long day of labor. This of course is not surprising given Chichibu’s long history of mountain asceticism as well as its time as an industrial town. While the area’s soul food tastes amazing, you’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting a perfectly presented gourmet experience. That said, Chichibu’s cheer certainly does what it was designed to do and will give you all the vigor you need to explore the area.

Diving into the specifics, know first and foremost that Chichibu is known for its soba noodles. The area’s high elevation means that rice doesn’t grow all that well so farmers have traditionally instead harvested buckwheat from which soba is made. Consequently, this ancient practice has culminated in soba being one of the area’s many meibutsu (meaning local specialty). Looking for a good place for lunch? Why not check out the Chichibu Hometown Hall. Here you’ll find the fresh soba and regional specialty restaurant Soba no Mori on the second floor. This eatery has some of the tastiest soba noodles around as well as many other famous Chichibu delights. They have a killer miso pork and soba noodle set running you about about 1,600 yen that you have to try!

Before moving on, in addition to the region’s soba noodles, one other thing that I suggest you check out while in Chichibu is the miso potatoes (which, as the name suggests, are just potatoes covered in a tasty miso sauce). You’ll find several shops selling these all over Chichibu and you can even get some to go at Matsuri-no-Yu back at the Seibu-Chichibu Station.

What about Chichibu’s Seasonal Allures

The shibazakura at Chichibu’s Hitsujiyama Park in Saitama Prefecture

As you might imagine from the descriptions thus far, the Chichibu valley is blessed with a wide variety of natural attractions. Many of these assets have their own seasonal rhythms but if the timing aligns with your travels, I would recommend making the additional effort to check them out. A word of caution though… If you’re going to be including any of the below in a day trip itinerary, it really would behoove you to get a head start. Make a point to get up early and take one of first few Laviews to Chichibu!

Anyway, since as of this writing it is spring in Japan, let’s begin there. By far the biggest draw in Chichibu for spring is the stunning shibazakura that are pictured above. This pink paradise is a short 10–15 minute walk from the Seibu-Chichibu Station in Hitsujiyama Park. Shibazakura translates literally to “lawn cherry blossoms” but these blooms actually have little in common with Japan’s iconic blossoms. Truth be known, shibazakura are actually a type of moss that is known in English as “moss phlox” or “pink moss.”

Interestingly enough, shibazakura can be found all over Japan in springtime. Nevertheless, there are a few places like Hitsujiyama Park that use the moss plantings to make arrangements. Typically speaking, Chichibu’s shibazakura are in bloom from around the middle of April until the middle of May. While the park is open year round, the grounds transform into something much like a colorful beer garden while the flowers are in bloom. You’ll find a plethora of festival-style stalls scattered throughout the park peddling all sorts of delectable goodies. Keep in mind that this is an especially good option if you’re traveling with your significant other.

Moving right along, shall we talk about summer? Unfortunately, there’s not as much going on in Chichibu between the spring and autumn seasons other than the Chichibu Kawase Festival (which strangely enough tends to be one of the most happening times in Japan). That said though, Chichibu’s remote mountainous location is sure to be a lot cooler than the inner city hell of Tokyo. If you’re looking to escape the dog days of summer in the world’s biggest megalopolis, it’s a great choice. Note that if you’re a fan of hiking or fishing, Chichibu is a good spot for these leisure-time summer activities.

Chichibu really comes alive again in fall when the surrounding mountainsides become ablaze with vibrant hues. Throughout the season, you’ll be treated to many jaw dropping vistas that are spectacularly colored with the turning autumn leaves. While there are many locations throughout Japan to witness fall’s splendor, few places can compete with the majesty of Chichibu. Of course rounding out the season is the aforementioned Chichibu Night Festival in early December.

The Icicles of Misotsuchi in Saitama Prefecture’s Chichibu

Lastly, we have winter which brings with it one of the most magical sights in all of Japan as can be seen above. Often hailed as the “Misotsuchi Icicles” in English, this combination of a natural phenomenon and human ingenuity produces an otherworldly sight. As temperatures drop and frigid winds blow, the spring water freezes solidly on the rock face and over time transforms into a collection of enormous icicles. These frozen formations can only be seen from early January through about the middle of February when conditions are at their coldest.

While the sight of the icicles is an amazing feat of nature in and of itself, local residents have raised the bar even further by setting up an ingenious series of lights that shine upon the frosty spears. This causes the color of Misotsuchi Icicles to gradually shift from white, to blue, to green. As the hues change, their reflections on the icy stream below creates a hauntingly bleak sight that redefines the very meaning of cold. If you’re looking for an awesome winter photo, know that the illuminations run between 5:00 PM and 9:00 PM during January and February.

Before moving on, please note the Misotsuchi Icicles are well off the beaten path and are not easy to get to. While I’ll likely do a piece of content on the icicles in the future, for now you’ll need to rely on the likes of Google to figure out how to get there. The final bus departs from this area quite early at 5:41 PM so if you want to see the icicles illuminated at night, you’ll need to plan on taking a taxi back to civilization.

There’s Still More to the Chichibu Area

Chichibu’s sea of clouds as seen from Minoyama Park

The entirety of the Chichibu area is actually quite expansive. In addition to what I’ve covered thus far, you’ll find many other attractions scattered about the valley. Many of these locations have strong ties to either mountain asceticism or Chichibu’s history as an industrial town. Though by no means necessary for what I would consider the core experience, what follows is a handful of suggestions for those looking to get a little more out of their time in Chichibu.

  • Sea of Clouds: Known as “unkai” in Japanese, this atmospheric phenomenon occurs when the cloud cover becomes so thick and rolling that it is like an ocean. Though Mt. Fuji is often considered to be Japan’s most famous site of unkai, thanks to Chichibu’s mountainous terrain, the area’s Minoyama Park is also a spectacular site (as can be seen in the above photo). From what I can gather, the best times to witness this natural spectacle are in April and November.
  • Pilgrimage Circuit: Chichibu is actually host to a 100 km long Buddhist pilgrimage that includes a total of 34 temples dedicated to the deity Kannon. This, in turn, is also part of a much larger course that incorporates the Bando Pilgrimage and the Saigoku Pilgrimage. If you’re a glutton for pain, you can actually partake in a large portion of the route while you’re in Chichibu. Not up for hiking? Don’t worry! Several of the sites actually reside quite close to Banbacho and Chichibu Shrines allowing you to sample the pilgrimage without working up a major sweat.. Just look for the numbered temples on any of the big maps scattered about the city.
  • Meisenkan: Located only minutes from the Seibu-Chichibu Station en route to Hitsujiyama Park, this museum chronicles the area’s history of silk production. During the Edo period (1603–1868), Chichibu was a major center for the silk industry. The area boasted a special type of fabric that was held in very high regard among the upper classes of the time. At the Meisenkan, you’ll learn all about how silk is produced from the worms to the finished product. Though primarily a museum, the Meisenkan still continues to produce silk, albeit at a smaller scale, which can be purchased on-site.
  • Mitsumine Shrine: Sitting atop the 1,110 meter-high Mt. Mitsumine, this ancient site of mountain asceticism certainly deserves its own post. Unlike with most other Shinto sites, Mitsumine Shrine’s consecrated grounds are protected by wolves who were believed to be of divine nature in years gone by. Unfortunately, a visit to this remote site is a day trip in and of itself so if you want to include it in your Chichibu itinerary, you’ll need to overnight somewhere nearby. Luckily for the intrepid adventurers out there, Chichibu has a lot of quaint ryokan to choose from.
  • Wado Kaichin: Are you a nerdy history buff? Well this one will interest you! If you head a little bit north of Chichibu to Wadokuroya Station, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of a oversized replica of a Wado Kaichin, one of the ancient coins minted in Chichibu. This site is a homage to the copper mines that originally put Chichibu on the map in the early 700s. I’ve read that if you explore the hills nearby, you may even be able to uncover a few old mining sites!

Until next time travelers…