Saitama is probably the most unfairly maligned of all the prefectures. Not even Shimane, who advertises itself as the least interesting prefecture, gets it this bad. However, if you go north, beyond the areas that are similar to Tokyo but not as cool, you’ll start to see valleys, mountains and houses with pet goats. Chichibu is one of these places. It’s probably most famous for the Iwadatami Rocks, a collection of layered rocks that lie on the banks of the Nagatoro River, and sometimes the middle of it.
Despite all the beautiful shrines and boat rides, the main thing that the local tourist board would like you to know is that it was the setting for “Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai” (Don’t worry, even Japanese fans abbreviate it to AnoHana). There are posters for this anime series everywhere and even a promotion where you can get a special card stamped at certain locations around town.
Our original plan was to stop at Seibu Chichibu station itself and follow the river to Nagatoro, stopping at the shrines and temples along the way. We soon found out there were too many of them to stop at every single one and make it to Iwadatami in time to take one of the famous boat rides. Sure, we could see them listed on the map, but couldn’t have predicted that they’d all have something unique about them that we’d want to see. We settled for stopping at a few interesting ones, and taking the train the rest of the way. Most locations were a little off the path, with few visitors. It turns out that our route wasn’t particularly close to the river either.
Eventually, we decided to skip a section of temples and head straight for Nagatoro River. This is a fast-flowing river that doesn’t require a boat to have a motor, paddles or sails to travel along it. All that is needed are two crew members with long sticks who know the river well enough to guide the boat around the rocks. The river does the rest.
You don’t need to book in advance for the boat ride (prices and an explanation of the three different routes in Japanese). You don’t even really need to bring a change of clothes. On the standard boat ride, every time you pass a rock that has even the slightest chance of generating a splash, the crew members raise a plastic sheet tucked into the side of the boat to protect you. And to think that I had been debating whether or not to take my camera on the boat at all.
Whitewater rafting is another matter entirely, since the climax of that expedition is being dumped into the river. As we set off on our boat, a group of rafters floated by, buoyed by their lifejackets. They immediately started shouting out to us and saying ‘hello’. It’d been a long time since I was in a place where foreigners were still a novelty. Rare, sure, but never a novelty. Of course, we waved back.
The boats only travel down-stream. You have to get the bus back to Nagatoro Station, which is provided free of charge. We had a quick look around Hodosan Shrine, which has a beautiful white torii gate, then settled down for a snack.
I’d already picked out the place in question. Asami Reizou is famous for its traditional shaved ice, also know as kakigoori. People queue up outside for it, despite having two branches in Chichibu. That’s how good it is. I chose kuromitsu, and my ice arrived piled high in a lacquer cup, with a jug of kuromitsu syrup and a jug of condensed milk. I couldn’t eat it all.
Chichibu is great choice for a day trip outside Tokyo, despite feeling much further away at times. However, many people turn it into a weekend break and spend more time at places such as onsen. Frankly, I don’t necessary recommend you do everything in the order we did.