In Saitama: the floral beauty and funky kimono of Chichibu
Shibazakura (moss phlox) paints a hill in Hitsujiyama Park east of Chichibu in a notable exhibit that my wife and I took a trip to see on April 28. We also stopped at Chichibu Jinja (shrine), one of a number of notable shrines and temples in the city.
On the way from the park to the shrine, we came across the Chichibu Meiseikan who is dedicated to preserving a local technique of kimono weaving and dyeing that was popular in the 1920s and 1930s.
It is a municipal park that extends over the hillsides east of Chichibu. It has the facilities expected of Japan’s outlying municipal parks, including tennis courts and children’s playgrounds.
Admission is free year-round ー except when around 400,000 shibazakura bloom on a hill at the south end of the park. Three hundred JPY admission (approximately US$2.30) to this area is charged during the blooming period to cover the provision of additional facilities for visitors and the numerous guides who direct vehicles to parking lots and visitors to the hill.
When we visited, some of the many separate flowerbeds were past their prime, but others were still in full bloom.
The park’s website is updated daily with photos showing the current state of flowers.
Gently sloping paths that can be navigated with strollers and wheelchairs allow viewing of the many distinct varieties of shibazakura. Fortunately, they are identified by small signs.
A number of log benches on a hill overlooking the shibazakura-covered hillside provide space to relax and enjoy the panoramic view.
The bench is also a good place for a picnic or a snack.
A mountainside nature park might not be the most obvious place to find Japanese street food. But at the western exit of the flower zone, there is a large market area with individual vendors offering typical Japanese festival foods, such as yakisoba. There are also more expensive items such as wagyu (Japanese marbled beef) and items particular to the Chichibu area.
We had a plate full of sansai tempura (mountain fern tempura) as a snack.
Drinks ranging from ramune to draft beer are available. Food can be taken elsewhere in the park or eaten at standing tables in the market area.
Ramune is perhaps the oldest soft drink in Japan, dating back to 1884. It was the creation of a British pharmacist who served the foreign community in Kobe.
The market area and its stalls only operate during the festival period, April 15 to May 5 this year.
The valley from Hanno to Chichibu is a commercial forest area. The sawmills are visible from the train. A stall in the market area sold handcrafted wooden utensils.
The forest areas of the Chichibu Mountains are also known for nest-building insects, including the the ‘murder hornets’ that captured the attention of the foreign press in 2020.
A store sold nests and medicinal concoctions containing these insects.
Less exotic items available include preserved ferns and sweets made with local ingredients.
From the market area, one can also see artifacts of the product most associated with Chichibu: cement. Bukosan 武甲山 in the southeast of the park has been a source of limestone for over a century. The scars of mining are clearly visible even on cloudy and foggy days.
The Seibu Chichibu Line opened in 1969, and until 1989 it had freight trains carrying cement for further transport on JR lines. The Chichibu Railway which connects Kiryu, Kumagaya and Chibu celebrates its 123rd anniversary. It too was built to transport cement, and its main shareholder is Taiheiyo Cement.
The Chichibu Railroad operates steam excursion trains as described in my May 2019 JAPAN Striker article. Current information can be found here.
After passing through the more generic section of Hitsujiyama Park, we headed towards Chichibu Jinja. Along the way, I noticed signs pointing to a silk museum. We decided to visit as it was on our direct way to the shrine.
I wasn’t expecting much. But it turned out to be very instructive, as well as providing an opportunity to see people dying and weaving silk fabrics.
The Chichibu Meisen Center is dedicated to preserving a type of silk textile that was popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike the very expensive and elaborate materials, kimono and accessories that are associated with Kyoto and its Nishijin weavers, the The Chichibu gender is decidedly plebeian.
It was developed to use even discolored inferior yarns to produce a simple and brightly colored kimono for casual wear.
The production process involves screen printing dyeing only vertical yarns (weft) with the horizontal threads (warp) in a complementary color added later.
The result is a textile with bright, bold colors, a distinct sheen and a somewhat rough texture.
Few kimono are made with this type of textile today. But it lends itself to mats used for cutlery, purses, and the like. These are available in the museum shop.
One of the showrooms presents a collection of kimono made with this fabric. Visitors are encouraged to take selfies wearing the traditional haori Japanese hip or thigh length jacket worn over a kimonoof their choice.
The center is a five-minute walk from Seibu Chichibu Station. Admission is ￥100 JPY for children, ￥200 JPY for adults ($0.75 to $1.50 USD, respectively.) Practical possibilities for dyeing and weaving are available with fees starting from ￥1000 JPY (approximately 7.50 USD) for single items.
The fuji (wisteria) have just bloomed in Tokyo. Notable viewing sites such as Koishikawa Korakuen had no flowers last week. On the other hand, there were many wisteria in full bloom in Chichibu, including those in the Meiseikan.
It is one of 34 shrines and temples that are part of a pilgrimage circuit in Chichibu. The main shrine building features gilded wooden carvings similar to those at the Toshogu in Nikko.
Unfortunately, scaffolding that is part of a five-year restoration project obscures the carvings on the facade of the main shrine building. Less prominent panels on the side of the building, however, give a sense of the artistry embodied in these sculptures.
The main street leading to the shrine’s entrance is full of shops that are both late Edo and what might be called Roman Taisho, a mix of Japanese and European features.
Chichibu in general and the shrine in particular feature in a popular TV anime. Posters depicting characters from the anime were prominently displayed near the shrine.
A worthwhile train journey
There is frequent train service on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line. Some trains go directly to Chichibu after reversing direction at Hanno. Others are timed to meet a connecting service from Hanno to Chichibu. The base fare is ￥760 JPY (5.85 USD) for adults to Yokoze, or ￥790 JPY (6.08 USD) for adults to Seibu Chichibu.
We used the Laview Express which only stops at Tokorozawa, Iruma, Hanno, Yokoze and Seibu Chichibu. The express ticket costs ￥710 JPY (5.40 USD) if purchased in advance. There is a ￥200 JPY (additional charge of 1.55 USD if tickets are purchased on the train).
the Laview Express was designed by Kazuyo Sejimaa famous female architect, and features spacious seats that recline and windows that stretch from the floor to the luggage racks.
The bold design of this train has been featured in numerous articles in foreign English-language media.
Unfortunately, there’s only generic Tokyo suburbs to see until the train enters the Hanno-Chichibu segment. Sitting on the right side when leaving and on the left side when returning offers the best view of the scenic river valley the line follows.
If you’re prone to motion sickness like me, ask for halfway tickets. There is significant movement near the crossings between cars when the train is traveling at full speed.
Most guidebooks recommend walking from Chichibu Station to the park. It involves a steep climb. Walking from Yokoze station is better: gentle uphill and quite scenic.
The route was very well marked with guides at the crossroads.
There were wheelchairs in the flower area and shops, but those coming by train would probably have to use a taxi to get to the park itself.
The weather forecast for the remainder of Golden Week points to a mix of dry and light rain days. Flower arrangements such as Hitsujiyama’s often look their best during or after a light rain.
Overcast skies make photography easier. There’s no blinding sun from the wrong direction and no harsh shadows that can lead to photos with under or overexposed parts.
The park and Chichibu have a lot to offer. Now is the perfect time to escape the city of Tokyo with a low-cost day trip to one of the mountainous regions to the west.
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Author: Earl H Kinmonth
Photographs by EH Kinmonth. Find more stories about Tokyo and its surroundings by Dr. Kinmonth on this link.