The Seibu-Chichibu and Chichibu Main Lines in Saitama Prefecture help do the leg work for urbanite lovers of the great outdoors.
With more than 2 million passengers entering and exiting its platforms each day, Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo is one of the capital’s — and the world’s — busiest train stations. On weekday mornings the station primarily serves commuters from residential districts in the northwest of the city and Saitama Prefecture beyond, but the station is also the start point for the recreational few whose plans for the day lie away from the city.
Limited Express trains on the Seibu-Ikebukuro Line transport passengers from Ikebukuro through Tokyo’s northern suburbs to Hanno in Saitama in just 40 minutes. Passengers changing platforms here for the Seibu-Chichibu Line are considerably more relaxed in appearance than those dashing between trains at Ikebukuro Station less than an hour earlier. Dressed in sensible hiking clothes and carrying light backpacks, small groups of middle-aged and elderly people chat merrily in the box seats as the train wends through the Koma River Valley deep into the countryside.
Every now and again, at one of the ten stations along the line, a group rises and disembarks. Once outside the station, they will instantly find themselves on one of the many fine hiking trails of Chichibu.
Seibu Railway has produced detailed topographic maps and hiking routes for the area which can be downloaded from the excellent website here. The maps are published in Japanese but can be easily cross-referenced by the kanji-challenged walker with the trail markers along the routes. Twenty-four maps in all have been produced, introducing hiking routes of varying lengths and grades of difficulty, from those which you might take with children to tough mountain climbs. A feature of all the hiking maps is that routes begin and end at a railway station on the Seibu-Chichibu Line — and not always the same one.
A popular hike at the time of writing (end of April) is that beginning at Yokoze Station taking in the famed “Hill of Pink Moss” at Hitsujiyama Park. The spectacular display of shibazakura moss phlox is one of the region’s signature events, in which vast beds of the tiny pink, white and purple flowers form patterns evoking the colorful designs of Chichibu-Meisen, a silk fabric once produced on a major scale in the town. A farmer’s market accompanies the flowering of the moss phlox, providing the droves of visitors at this time of year with an opportunity to sample all of the produce for which the Chichibu region is famous: buckwheat soba, umeboshi and umezuke pickled plums, salt-grilled ayu sweetfish, honey, mountain vegetables, miso-topped potato and miso-preserved pork, sake and, believe it or not, craft whisky.
Prior to reaching Hitsujiyama Park, the three-hour hike from Yokoze takes in six of the temples in the Chichibu 34 Kannon Sanctuary, which together make for a walk of another kind: the 100-km Chichibu Pilgrimage. Walkers cut through terraced rice fields under the gaze of dynamite-sculpted Mount Buko — the limestone resource for one of the region’s chief industrial products, cement.
The Yokoze hike ends at Seibu-Chichibu Station, from where walkers may return from whence they came, or press on.
Not far from the station is Chichibu Shrine, the old center of town around which the sericulture cottage industry first grew many centuries ago. At the nearby Chichibu-Meisen Museum, visitors can practice for themselves the local dyeing and weaving techniques, or rent out kimonos and happi coats and go for a colorful stroll.
Seibu-Chichibu Station is a five-minute walk from Ohanabatake Station on the Chichibu Main Line, which provides access to yet more areas of outstanding natural beauty. Just twenty-minutes along the line from Ohanabatake is Nagatoro, one of the region’s biggest sightseeing draws. Here the Arakawa river is flanked for some distance by an unusual rock formation known as Iwadatami, or “tatami mat rock” terrace. On the water, skilled boatmen wielding punts steer narrow sightseeing boats through the beautiful gorge, navigating some tricky rapids along the way.
The 71-km Chichibu Main Line runs parallel to the Arakawa river from end to end and takes in some beautiful mountain scenery along the way. Rumbling through the woods and stopping at small wooden stations along the way, passengers are transported less from A to B than they are to a peaceful, bygone age. That magical, nostalgic mood may be accentuated aboard the SL Paleo Express, a beautiful old steam train that runs at a leisurely pace along the line on weekends and national holidays.
Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal