A Backpacking Guide To Saitama City, Japan

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Japan
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A city that lies just north of Tokyo offering a variety of tourist attractions and numerous day trips is the city of Saitama. The area is well known for its sake as there are over 35 breweries in the Saitama Prefecture. As the area is relatively undiscovered by many travelers it brings hidden gems with some of the best prices. Here are 9 things to do in Saitama City.

Day trip to Kawagoe

Located just 20 km from Saitama is the quant city of Kawagoe otherwise known as “Little Edo”. More than five million people visit this town every year.  It offers a prime example of traditional Japanese architecture and picturesque alleyways lined with artisan stores. While backpacking through Saitama, be sure to try traditional Japanese deserts made from Kawagoe’s specialty product; the Japanese ice cream-filled sweet potato. The Kashiya Yokocho is a popular charming street lined with small shops to try Japanese candy.

Kurazukuri Street is filled with clay-walled warehouse-style buildings from the Edo period. Here you’ll find the Kawagoe Castle with features remaining from a 15-century castle. Also, close by you can visit the Kita-in Temple and the Toshogu Shrine with free entrance. While it is completely feasible to walk around to the main sights, the city also offers a regular bus. This bus covers the main attractions in a 40-minute loop called the Koedo Kawagoe loop. Kawagoe can make for an easy day trip from Saitama City with regular buses which cost nearly $4 one way. This then makes for a budget-friendly backpacker destination.

Saitama
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Nagatoro

Just an hour’s drive away from Saitama City is the town of Nagatoro. It offers the view of beautiful blue mountain peaks surrounding the Nagatoro River. While some attractions are free, others come at a reasonable cost for backpackers. The river flows through the Nagatoro Prefecture. Here you can take a cruise on a traditional wooden riverboat or raft over white water rapids. Additionally, there is a ropeway that climbs Mt Hodo giving panoramic views of Chichibu.

Within the town, you can take part in traditional craft and cooking workshops featuring local Japanese dishes. Also, you can pay a visit to two museums for the price of $10; the Saitama Railway Museum or the Museum of Natural History. The Saitama Museum of Natural History showcases dinosaur bones found from the region. Mount Hodosan is a nearby mountain you can visit at no cost. Backpackers can visit a shrine at the base and a sprawling plum tree grove with seasonal flowers at the summit.

Omiya Bonsai Art Musem

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Among the many things to do in Saitama City is the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum. It showcases the art of bonsai with ornate tree specimens, history displays, and bonsai shops. This is a prime site for those interested in international gardening styles and the Bonsai art form. It brings in visitors from all over the world. Also, the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum is also referred to as “Omiya Bonzai Village”. It had begun nearly 100 years ago when Tokyo’s bonsai artisan moved to the area seeking quality soil, clean water, and rich nature.

Bonsai tree planning is a traditional Japanese art form dating back to the 6th century. It uses cultivation techniques to preserve a tree in a small container. The concept was derived from the minimalistic culture of Japanese people living in tight tidy spaces. Also, around the Bonsai Museum, you can find bonsai nurseries, restaurants, and workshops. These workshops teach you to make your own bonsai from the masters.

Cherry Blossoms

Japan
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One of the most popular attractions in Japan is the beautiful cherry blossom you find during the spring. Saitama city offers some of the best places to see the beautiful cherry blossoms in Japan. Also, it hosts amazing cherry blossom festivals each year. The three best places to see them are Omiya Park, Kumagaya Sakura Tsutsumi, and Nagatoro.

Pink, red and white cherry blossoms flourish in these parks drawing thousands of visitors every year. Omiya Park also hosts a cherry blossom festival for two weeks starting at the end of March. Here, you can expect to see around 1,000 cherry blossom trees. Festival lanterns line the pathways for a massive gathering to celebrate their beauty. At Kumagaya you’ll find a line of Sakura trees stretching over a half a kilometer with plenty of space for people to lie down and enjoy “hanami”; a picnic under a cherry blossom tree. Also, the sloped ground is covered with colorful wildflowers as well.

Railway Museum

Train Saitama City
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A unique museum that teaches train operation using interesting simulators explaining the evolution of railway technology is the Railway Museum found in Saitama City. This museum recounts the history of the railway in Japan. It displays an enormous collection of previously used train cars including steam and diesel locomotives. Most of the exhibits can be explored from the inside as well as views from below.

The museum further displays one of Japan’s largest dioramas. Another section explains railway concepts, science, and systems through models and hands-on activities. The museum includes multiple train driving simulators which include an impressive steam locomotive simulator. Additionally, the museum includes a restaurant and rooftop garden providing nice views of trains in service from the nearby tracks of JR Takasaki Line. Getting to the museum is fairly easy. It takes a three-minute ride from Omiya Station through a shuttle costing less than $2 each way.

Omiya Hikiwa Shrine

Saitama City, Japan
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Located in Saitama City is the Omiya Hikiwa Shrine which is the grand head of 280 Hikiawa shrines all over Japan. The shrine used to be the head Shinto shrine of former Musashi Province which covered present-day, Greater Tokyo. Reaching the shrine includes a 2 km walk through plush greenery and gardens after passing the tall vermillion torii gate where several secondary shrines are located. Along the way, you’ll pass a bridge over a pond. Here,  you’ll reach a two-story Roman Gate. This gate marks the entrance of the main shrine grounds.

During the festival seasons, you’ll find food stalls lining the walkways serving Japanese dishes like Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki. Japanese Shinto wedding ceremonies are very common on the shrine grounds. Also, located close to the shrine is the Omiya Park along with a zoo and museum. The shrine is about a ten-minute walk from Kita-Omiya and just a twenty-minute walk from Omiya Station.

The Icicles Of Misotsuchi

Chichibu is well known for its natural environment where you can see the “icicles of Misotsuchi”;  ice art by mother nature. The icicles are viewable during the months of January and February and look fantastic lit up after dawn. The color of the lights alters between white, blue, and green giving a mystical effect. The colors and shapes of the ice cycles are reflected by the stream creating a mirrored image.

Saitama City
Image by WikiCommons

Additionally, the spring water freezes with a consistent flow over a large ridge. This then forms giant icicles over the course of time. There is a small restaurant next to the icicles that offer amazake and miso soup to keep warm. Getting to Chichibu generally takes an hour from Saitama City by bus through the mountainous countryside. There are several train options to nearby towns such as Ikebukuro if you want to explore Saitama further.

Visit Kinchakuda

The largest Higanbana field in Japan is found at Kinchakuda,  an hour and a half drive west from Saitama City. Kinchiakuda is a purse shaped field bordered by the Koma River. In the peak season, mid of September, the site is filled with over 500 thousand gorgeous red Higanbana flowers otherwise known as red spider lilies. You may be able to find these in Tokyo and similar Japanese cities. They are common garden and decoration pieces.

Japan Saitama City
Image by Raita Futo on flickr

The bulbs of Higanbana are poisonous and often used around rice paddies to keep pests and rodents away. The Japanese originally planted them around graveyards to keep wild animals from disturbing the deceased who had full burials. For this reason, they have superstitious qualities as they are believed to lead souls into the afterlife. The Kinchakuda Manjushage Festival is held at this time drawing hundreds of visitors. The entrance fee comes at a low price of 300 yen.

Metropolitan Underground Discharge Channel

The world’s largest underground floodwater diversion facility, also known as “the Underground Parthenon,” is found in the city of Kasukabe; an hour north of Saitama City. It was built to mitigate the overflowing of major city waterways, including Saitama City and Tokyo, during typhoon seasons. Nearly seven times a year, the system is put in use diverting water from heavy rainstorms. This then keeps the city streets functional.

Also, when you visit the facility you can soak up the tunnel’s enormous atmosphere while you wander the massive underground corridors and tunnels of the Kasukabe Underground Flood Protection Tank. The tunnel system runs 50 meters deep and is 6.5 km long. Connected to the tunnels are five gigantic collection silos. They are said to be as big as the Statue of Liberty. Along with the facility is the “Ryukyukan” or Underground Exploration Museum of The Metropolitan Area Underground Discharge Channel. Here you can learn how the system was built and how it works.

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