Recently the annual ranking of Japan’s prefectures based on overall attractiveness was released, and Saitama ranked at number 44. This is not a surprise as Saitama usually ranks in the 40s and only ever achieved a ranking of 39 once between 2009 and 2017. The ranking is conducted by Brand Research Institute Incorporated (a translation from Kabushiki Gaisha Burando Sogo Kenkyusho – 株式会社ブランド総合研究所) and is based on a number of aspects such as a prefecture’s landmarks, scenic places, tourist attractions, promotion and advertising, appearances in dramas and movies, and attractiveness as a place to reside.
Topping the list as always were Hokkaido, Kyoto, Tokyo, Okinawa, and Kanagawa. Bottoming out the list was Ibaraki Prefecture, which proudly holds the 47th position year after year, except in 2012 when it came in 46th. Some prefectures continuously hold a certain position such as Nagasaki, which can always be found somewhere between 9th and 11th position except in 2015 when it peaked at 5th place. Other prefectures float around, like Miyazaki, which has drifted between 12th position in 2015 and 25th position in 2014 over the years between 2009 and 2017.
Why am I concerned with Saitama’s ranking? Because it has been my place of residence for 18 years. Located just north of Tokyo, Saitama has acquired the image of being a bedroom community for Tokyo workers and students. On a TV program a few years ago comparing Saitama and Chiba, TV personality Matsuko Delux of Chiba barked a claim that Saitama had nothing and reeked of potatoes. Saitama has also the unfortunate nickname “Dasaitama”, which incorporates the pejorative term “dasai” – uncool, unfashionable, outmoded, and even clumsy or loser – with the prefecture’s name. But all things considered, it maybe can’t be helped that Saitama ranks so low.
The bedroom community view is unavoidable. With the densest area of population being in the Kawaguchi/Warabi/Saitama City area, just north of Tokyo, and the two main train lines, the Takasaki and Utsunomiya Lines, running straight through the prefecture and heading off to Gunma and Tochigi Prefectures respectively, it’s easy to understand how Saitama can be seen as a residential area for workers, students, and shoppers of Tokyo. Historic sites such as the old buildings of Kawagoe City or the tumuli of Gyoda simply do not have the same pull as Kanagawa’s Kamakura or even historic sites in Tokyo. Saitama’s mountains and narrow river gorges are of the same mountain orogeny and rock types as those of western Tokyo and also neighbouring Yamanashi. Add to that the fact that there is only one train line that connects Tokyo to Saitama’s mountain city central Chichibu and that once in Chichibu it’s not so convenient to reach the areas of natural scenic splendor, and you can see that Tokyo residents are not likely to be pursued to make the effort, especially when they can enjoy similar nature in western Tokyo. Besides, Tokyo has its own attractions such as Sky Tree, Asakusa, the Imperial Palace, or Tokyo Disneyland, which is actually nearby in Chiba. For day trips, Tokyoites are more likely to visit Chiba or Kanagawa than Saitama’s more difficult to reach places. For longer holidays, the hot springs, mountains, coastlines and cuisine of the Tohoku, Hokuriku, or Kansai regions are also going to be more alluring. As for the rest of Japan, those visiting the Kanto area will likely have their sights set on the nation’s capital, Disneyland or the beaches of Chiba, or Yokohama and Kamakura in Kanagawa. Saitama is just a throughway and the final passage to reach Tokyo.
Nevertheless, don’t let that convince you that Saitama has nothing of interest. The populous south eastern corner includes Saitama Super Area where concerts and large-scale events are held, Saitama Stadium for soccer matches, and Seibu Dome, home of the Seibu Lions. There are many lesser-scale historic sites and hilly parks and zoos replete with green forests. We find three of Japan’s Hyakumeizan – those 100 distinguished mountains – in Saitama and one of the hyakusen (one hundred selected) waterfalls. Nagatoro boasts being the birthplace of geological study in Japan and visitors can enjoy riding in large wooden canoes down the Ara River past cliffs of metamorphic rock.
As a long-term resident of Saitama, I can add to the list of natural attractions many river gorges and countryside and mountain views, though I have noted that a lot of places I have discovered are not well known and rarely if ever promoted. Some places are discoveries I made by turning down a winding mountain road or clambering through the trees to reach the riverside. By coincidence, I decided late last year to make my next book project and exploration of hidden and lesser-known places of natural beauty in Saitama. The tentative title was “Secret Saitama”, though I am now considering calling it “That’s Saitama”, a play on the near-phonetic similarity to “Dasaitama”. Watch this space for more news as the year progresses.
Looking at the 2017 prefectural ranking list again, we notice Gunma and Tochigi Prefectures just above Saitama. This is perhaps more surprising as Gunma is home to many mountains and waterfalls and one of Japan’s three biggest hot spring towns, and Tochigi is home also to many famous mountains and falls, lakes and natural scenic areas, and Nikko, which must be among the top three historic sites in Japan. I can understand by this that Saitama is with very good company then.
I leave you now with a few of the photos that are earmarked for this next book-making project.
The West Peak of Futagoyama
A hidden gorge along the Ara River
Bukozan at dawn
The Toki River
Dawn somewhere in the mountains
A hidden waterfall