S is for Saitama

It seems fitting that my first ‘place’ post is for my home.  Now, for those of you who are wise on Japan’s geography, you might wonder exactly what I mean by Saitama: is that the Prefecture (the Japanese equivalent of the American state or English county), or the city of the same name, Saitama City, the capital of the prefecture?  Well, both in fact: I have lived in two different abodes in Japan, and both have been in Saitama Prefecture, though they couldn’t be more different from one another: my first home was well out in the countryside, hugged by mountains on one side and an endless forest on the other, but Saitama City is a humming metropolis that blends seamlessly into Tokyo just to the south.

I have often found myself defending Saitama Prefecture (hereby referred to as just Saitama; the city will have the suffix added): the nickname for Saitama among the Japanese is ‘Dasaitama’, with ‘Dasai (ダサイ)’ meaning ‘uncool’.  Yes, Saitama has gained a reputation of being a dormitory prefecture, full of the worker bees who slouch their way into the capital Monday to Friday (including me).  This is really unfair, because it’s like having a band play on a separate stage at a festival while Muse are on another: no matter how awesome you are, the BIG draw, Tokyo, will always make you look bad.  But Saitama has its own charms and treasures that make it it’s own worthwhile place to both visit and live.  And here is your whistle-stop tour!

Kawagoe is a city in the west of Saitama, and is only 30 minutes out of the capital by train.  Alighting from the main station, it appears much like any other city in Japan.  But take a walk along the Crea Mall street, over the crossroads and through the cute little shrine with pebbles paths that offer your bare feet some much needed tortu- er, massaging, and you arrive at the old Edo town.  This place has barely changed since the Edo Period, complete with wooden housing, winding back alleys, and an old bell tower.

Further up north, nestled in the mountains, is Nagatoro, with the massive Iwadatami, a singular rock by the riverside that seems to stretch on forever, and is great for exploring and scrambling over.

Further into the mountains is Chichibu, the city of the December Night Festival, one of the biggest in Japan and arguably the close you can get to a festive atmosphere in Winter, as well as the Shibazakura (lawn cherry blossom) in Spring, painting a park in hues of pink, white and purple with waves of flowers.

Kumagaya is an awesome city, and is the biggest in Saitama that stands apart from the Tokyo Metropolitan area.  This city, literally meaning ‘bear valley’, has both one of the biggest festivals in Japan (the Uchiwa Matsuri) with towering masses of floats and a labyrinth of festival stalls and revellers, and also one of the biggest fireworks festivals too. Expect lots of oohs and aahs and an aching neck the next day!

Finally, though, we come to the icing on the cake, my home city: Saitama City.  It could be accused of being just being an overspill of the megalopolis of Tokyo, Saitama’s historical roots run far deeper than the capital’s with the Hikawa Shrine having a history spanning well over 2000 years.  In fact, this was the shrine that Emperor Meiji championed and frequented throughout his life, until the shrine built in his memory in down Tokyo ironically superseded it.  Surrounding the shrine are not one but three massive recreational parks, a zoo, sports stadiums for the local soccer/baseball/athletics, and lest we forget the ‘bonsai village’, a neighbourhood with the biggest concentration of bonsai gardeners in Japan.  And there’s an interesting history to why they are in Saitama…but that’s for another time.

And cripes, I haven’t even mentioned gems like the Saitama super arena, the rivalry of the Urawa Reds and Omiya Ardija, the biggest shopping mall in Japan…but there is no denying Saitama’s greatest blessing and curse is it’s proximity to Tokyo.  But there is also no doubting that it has it’s own character and features worth exploring, and is worth it just to escape the cramped ant’s nest Tokyo can often feel like.

Moreover, Saitama is my home, and has been mine for three years.  Japan is a wonderful country and I have seen many wonderful things the length and breadth of the land, but I have never considered living anywhere else.  Dasai or not.



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