Stepping out on a Chichibu trail

City slickers head for the hills to soak up the peaceful, mysterious allure of western Saitama

by Melinda Joe

The young man at the ticket gate thanked us politely as we stepped off the platform and through the wicket. The ride from Ikebukuro in Tokyo had been short, and somewhere between Tokorozawa and Seibu-Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture the concrete-gray city landscape had given way to brilliant shades of green. Outside the station, the police box resembled a log cabin, and there wasn’t a convenience store in sight.

We were definitely not in Tokyo anymore.

I’d only recently heard of Chichibu, the sleepy little town in western Saitama, but everyone else seemed to know it well. The people I talked to had not only been there, but had returned on numerous occasions. Still, no one could pinpoint what made the place so enchanting. Determined to uncover the small city’s mysterious allure, I convinced a band of my city-slicker friends to join me for an afternoon of hiking.

The sky was menacing and rain clouds loomed darkly above, but we remained ever optimistic. At the tourist information center, we picked up a map outlining the Kotohira Trail — the easiest of Chichibu’s 12 designated hiking courses — and headed out. The trail began in Hitsujiyama Koen (Sheep-mountain Park), where we passed the famed shiba-zakura (Phlox-flower) field. In springtime, this area would be blanketed in a profusion of flowers planted in bold pink with fuchsia swaths along the main footpath — and consequently inundated with photo-snapping tourists. Scraggly grasses cover the field now, and the only sounds come from sheep grazing on a nearby farm.

From the park, the route wound through a thickly wooded grove dotted intermittently with red-capped, stone Buddhist jizo statuettes. Before long, the flat path turned into an incline more challenging than any of us had anticipated. It wasn’t difficult, but we’d come poorly prepared; our smooth-soled shoes, fine on city streets, proved ill-suited to the slippery, gravelly terrain. Then it started to pour.

We pressed on through the rain toward the three temples we’d set out to see: En-yuji, Daienji and Hashidatedo. One of the region’s biggest attractions since the golden age of the Genroku Era (1688-1703) has been the Chichibu Fudasho Pilgrimage, a 100-km course through the mountains, punctuated by 34 temples honoring Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy.

The entire course takes more than a week to complete on foot, so we were just getting a taste. “Fudasho” derives from fuda, the wooden nameplates worshippers nailed to the sides of the temples to mark their journey. Today’s pilgrims opt for large stickers, which they paste on any surface they can find — the pillars, the walls and the undersides of the roof. The result is surprising, the black-and-white labels stunning in their multiplicity.

Mercifully, the rain cleared after about an hour, and the forest emanated a calm that contrasted with my earlier memory of Chichibu.

Yes, this was actually my second visit. I’d come in July to see the Kawase Matsuri, one of the 300-odd festivals held in the area every year. At that time, the city had been a chaotic explosion of colors against a background of constant, hypnotic drumming from the elaborate yadai floats. Streams of people flowed into the streets wearing vivid costumes, while children shouted, “Hou rai! (Welcome treasure!)” What a contrast to the solemn serenity I now found myself enjoying.

We hit a steep slope, then a rickety metal staircase, and soon the quiet of nature was replaced with our panting.

“I thought this was going to be like Mount Takao,” my friend Izumi remarked, referring to western Tokyo’s scenic peak and its hilly surroundings as he breathed heavily and clutched the handrail. “What are we going to see?”

“A few temples,” I replied.

“Oh, great,” he said. “Did I tell you I’m from Nara?”

I laughed uncomfortably, knowing that he was only half joking.

After a short distance, we came upon En-yuji, Temple 26 on the Chichibu Fudasho Pilgrimage. Surrounded by the forest in what seemed like a secret bower, the red structure sat placidly atop a frame of black wooden beams.

Izumi gazed up at the temple. “I’m glad I came.”

Perched high on a hill not far from the temple was the Gokokuji Kannon, a 15-meter-high statue of the goddess watching over the valley below. I’d almost passed on seeing it, as the climb to the lookout point involved scampering up — and then I had presumed down — rocks. However, the descent ended up being a gentle walk to Temple 27, Daienji, and I was glad I’d risked it.

“This is beautiful,” I whispered.

After stopping briefly to admire Daienji, we walked along the road to Temple 28, Hashidatedo, sited at the foot of an imposing cliff. Beside the temple was a stalactite cave, which we entered after shelling out ¥200 each. We donned well-scratched white helmets and left our bags at the entrance. Inside, the air was cool, and the roof of the cave glimmered with condensation. We wriggled through the tight, Swiss-cheese spaces and up narrow steps to finally emerge back into open air after about 10 minutes. By 5 p.m., we’d worked up an appetite and hopped on the train back to town. Chichibu is famous for its soba (buckwheat noodles), and we were all keen to try some. We headed straight to Oomura, a popular restaurant specializing in homemade soba and waraji don, which comprises twin cutlets of deep-fried pork served with a splash of sweet-and-savory sauce over rice.

Oomura is just up the road from Bukoumasumune Shuzo, where they produce excellent, full-bodied dry sake. A visit to the brewery provides an opportunity to sample some of its seasonal products, most of which are not sold outside of Chichibu.

We carried on to Suikado Cafe Gallery, where locals gather to sip coffee and shoot the breeze. Although Suikado usually features work by Chichibu artists, the gallery was hosting an exhibition by Tokyo-based artist Hanae Tanaka. Ms. Tanaka had spent several days in the area, and had created a series of four short films showing “the hidden side of Chichibu.” The pieces were quiet and contemplative — a far cry from the garish posters depicting the shiba-zakura fields commonly displayed on the trains in Tokyo.

Sadly, we had only enough time for a quick drink and a chat with Henmi-san, the cafe’s kimono-clad owner, before our Red Arrow was scheduled to depart. But as we made our way back to the station, we all had a feeling it had been a day extremely well spent . . . and we’d be returning soon.

From Ikebukuro, take the Seibu Limited Express Red Arrow directly to Seibu-Chichibu Station. Tickets are ¥1,370 and the ride takes approximately 80 minutes. Oomura Soba: 17-3 Miyakawacho (0494-22-4147) Bukoumasamune Shuzo: www.bukou.co.jp Suikado: suika-do.com/