Saitama’s Nagatoro is home to stillness, motion and an endless variety of color

by

Special To The Japan Times

It wasn’t immediately clear what the man tossing large pebbles at the torii of a shrine was trying to achieve.

What appeared to be the desecration of a religious structure, with the vocal encouragement of his wife, turned out to be related to superstition, the act not of a vandal but a supplicant. When one of the stones landed on the cross-beam of the gate, remaining there alongside a number of others, whoops of satisfaction rang out and the couple clapped their hands and bowed in the direction of the shrine. Anyone it seems, who manages to place a stone in this manner will secure good fortune. If you reflect on it, Shinto as a religion is highly participatory, with a number of activities related to providence.

Should you come to Hodosan Shrine in northern Saitama Prefecture during the cherry blossom season, you will find the broad uphill road leading to its entrance lined with flowering trees. Most walk, but a few visitors board horse-drawn carriages to cover the 800-meter-long approach to the shrine, an interesting alternative to the costly rickshaw rides that have become a staple of tourism in Japan. The South Cherry Blossom Tunnel, as it is known, extends for 3 kilometers north and south of Nagatoro Station on the Chichibu Line. During the scorching days of summer when I visited, the trees provided welcome shade.

Hodosan Shrine is small, but has the bijou quality of a well crafted, meticulously maintained national treasure. The current structure dates from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and is dedicated to three deities: Oyamazumi, god of mountains, Jimmu, the legendary Emperor of Japan, and Homusubi, the god of fire.

The Meiji government’s campaign to destroy Buddhist works of art, non-nativist institutions and cultural imports, undertaken in an effort to subvert Buddhism in favor of state-sponsored, emperor-centered Shinto, was later echoed by the vandalism of temples and their priceless treasures during China’s Cultural Revolution and the violent iconoclasm of the Taliban. Mercifully, Hodosan, being a shrine, was spared. Its lush and colorful decor, particularly under the eaves and transom, betray a distinctly Chinese aesthetic. The shrine is cantilevered above beds of gravel at the foot of Mount Hodo, and the contrast between the writhing dragon reliefs, splashes of yellow, green and red paint and the verdant greenery of the mountain, is striking.

Color is a running theme regardless of the season in Nagatoro. In spring and summer, the focus is flowers, and for many Japanese the area is synonymous with the Nanakusadera (Seven Flower Temples). Though the temple buildings themselves range from modest to nondescript, their association with seasonal flowers adds interest and texture to a journey. Although you would have to dedicate a full day to visiting them, all the sites are within walking distance of the station.

Consulting a flower almanac for suitable blossoming times, I find that Shinshoji Temple is best known for its golden lace flowers, Taihoji for balloon flowers. Houzenji is associated with boneset; Dokoji draws visitors for its Japanese pampas grass, Henjoji for arrowroot. Fudoji is popular on account of fringed pink, and Toshoji is known for its early autumn bush clover. If horticulture is a preoccupation of many Nagatoro temples, so, too, is statues of Kannon, better known as the Goddess of Mercy. In the spring and summer months, groups of determined pilgrims scour the area in search of all 34 sacred images.

Strolling down the hill from Hodosan Shrine, an imposing building, the Nagatoro Town Museum, soon appears. Another of Nagatoro’s traditional strengths is sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms and production of silk. The displays of looms, tools and fabric samples are a fine introduction to this craft. The Historic Arai Family House stands in the same grounds as the museum. Built over 270 years ago, it is now a designated important cultural asset. During the height of the textile boom, the house was used for the raising of silkworms and the creation of high-quality fabrics. With its stone-supported foundation, chestnut floors and a shingle roof, it’s an impressive building. The roof is something of a rarity in the mountainous parts of the Kanto region. In its pragmatic grandeur it’s a fine example of the architectural style of a comfortably placed rural family residence.

Such sights, however worthy, are a preamble to Nagatoro’s main draw, a natural formation shaping the upper ledges of a ravine bordering the Arakawa River. The flat rocks of the Iwadatami, as the name suggests, resemble the surfaces of geometrically organized tatami mats. The genealogy of the rock, known to geologists as crystalline schist, owes to millenniums crustal movement on the seabed, long before the stone plates surfaced and were then washed by river water. The flatness of the rocks, which can be gray, black, blue, green or the occasional pinkish hue, and their mineral content, record this process. It seems apt that a number of prominent Japanese geologists were born in this area of diverse metamorphic forms, and indeed geologic studies are still being vigorously conducted in the region. The Saitama Natural History Museum in Kami-Nagatoro, just one stop up the line, has a number of interesting displays of local rock strata as well as exhibits on wildlife and plants.

The Iwadatami cliffs, flat but irregular, extend for well over a kilometer above the river. Drawing its tones and coloration from the mineral content of the rocks, the fast currents and swirling knots of water have turned the river into a flailing blue dragon whose speed is augmented here and there by the serene, deep green of embankment pools. The name Nagatoro, in fact, means “long pool.” Before setting off along the ridge, I stopped off at the corridor of food stalls leading to the river, fortifying myself with a couple of sticks of grilled sweetfish, prepared in the same way as mountain trout, with crusty sprinklings of salt.

A flight of steps lead down to a broad shelf of rock above the river, a popular congregation point for tour groups. The view up and down stream, with slabs of rock underfoot, and with green Chichibu hills as a backdrop, makes the ideal spot for a group photograph. It was a sunny weekend, and the light was particularly good when I visited, which may have explained why a professional photographer was doing a roaring business with tour groups, posing them on and around a two-tiered stand. It may not be a branch of art with a lot of creative potential, but it looked like steady, honest work. Brightly colored rental kayaks are moored below the rock shelf, as well as a number of the wooden longboats that are propelled down the river and over its white water rapids.

The cliff top was getting busy, but this section of the rock plates, with its well-appointed pergolas and benches, felt like the center of a diorama — its views were a fine introduction to this bend in the river. It seemed to satisfy most of the visitors, and very few people ventured upstream into quieter stretches of the river, where the rural nature of the area asserts itself. Ten minutes into this terrain the only people I caught sight of were a boy with a butterfly net gazing wistfully over a pond as his father looked patiently on. The heat had brought out a number of snakes, as the warm surfaces of the rocks made for ideal basking decks. I later heard reports of the venomous mamushi, a type of pit viper, inhabiting these parts, but I only saw the harmless (albeit large) aodashi, the Japanese rat snake.

The river narrows here — vertical embankments press in on speeding longboats and kayaks, a thrilling experience for those on board, as they pass across the churning white water through a natural bottleneck. It comes as no surprise to see passengers wearing hard helmets and life jackets, though the people who helm these crafts, who are seasoned at plying this route, go without. Standing on rock ledges above the narrow defiles, with their rush of compressed water, you can bear witness to the powerful heart of the river.

This active stretch of water can be calming at times, lulling you into a near torpor, until the rapids bring you quickly to your senses. On board one of the longboats it’s a little like experiencing life itself in encapsulated brevity: adrenaline rushes followed by bouts of somnambulism.

Back on the toy carriages of the Chichibu Railway, the train feels positively tame after the thrill of the river. A good half of those who have boarded I note, are already nodding off.

JR Takasaki and Joetsu Shinkansen trains run respectively from Ueno and Tokyo stations to Kumagaya, where passengers change to the Chichibu Railway for the 50-minute ride to Nagatoro Station. Tickets for the longboats can be obtained at the boarding point or at an office in front of the station.