Tag Archives: Saitama

Holy Schist, Batman!

If Saitama has a popular natural tourist attraction, it’s the gorge at Nagatoro. Nagatoro Town, situated along the Ara River and enclosed in the Chichibu Basin, has done all it can to benefit from this natural wonder. There are river rafting and “line” boating (these are long wooden boats that carry many passengers) trips down through the gorge; there are shops selling kakigori (shaved ice) using natural ice from the mountains; there are numerous souvenir shops including a Gibli store; there’s Mt. Hodo with its blossoming tree gardens and cable car that goes up to a monkey park at the top, and a natural history museum. Because of Nagatoro’s abundance of exposed metamorphic rocks, it also holds claim to being the birthplace of geology in Japan.

The rocks at Nagatoro form part of a belt of metamorphic rock known as the Sanbagawa Metamorphic Belt. It is named after the Sanba River in Gunma Prefecture where those rocks are also exposed. This particular belt is quite long, extending from Kyushu and roughly following the Chuo (Median) Tectonic Line. The belt is gently curved with the curve of the Japanese Pacific coastline, but near the Izu Peninsular, it takes a sharp turn inland. This is because the Izu Penunsula is acting like a miniature India and pushing its way into Honshu, bending the Sanbagawa Metamorphic Belt inland in the process.

The metamorphic belt was formed long ago during the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous as coastal sedimentary deposits, largely mudstones, which were later subducted by forces of plate tectonics, heated and pressed deep below the surface, and then uplifted by the same tectonic forces. The rocks are exposed anywhere that rivers have cut through or the rocks have been uplifted. Though I’m unfamiliar with this rock belt in other parts of Japan, there is a Sanbagawa Gorge between Gunma and Saitama Prefectures not far from Nagatoro and a smaller Sanbagawa Gorge park in Tokigawa Town, also in Saitama.

The rocks have different appearances depending on the type of mud stones, varying in colour from blues and greens to browns and dark, ash greys. In many places, quartz veins can be seen in the rocks, and indeed much of the belt is comprised of schists.

Though Nagatoro’s “iwadatami” (rock tatami) is the most prominently recognized formation, a trip to the riverside from Kami Nagatoro Station offer views of many more varieties of schist. In fact, it is possible to follow the river from Kami Nagatoro Station to Nagatoro Station, a delightful walk with beautiful riverside scenery and a natural exhibit of fascinating rocks.

Kami Nagatoro 13Kami Nagatoro 09

Kami Nagatoro 04Kami Nagatoro 02

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Kegon Falls of Chichibu and a Highland Farm

With the Golden Week holidays beginning at the end of April and continuing through the first few days of May (May 1st and 2nd being regular work and school days), I had planned two early morning outings into the Chichibu Mountains of western Saitama. Unfortunately, unanticipated car trouble has for the moment kept me from making a second trip (a visit by train is still possible but I can’t be out there before sunrise); however the first trip was very successful.

Chichibu Highland Farm 秩父高原牧場

Coming down from Yorii via R294 and turning onto R11, then slipping onto R361, I followed the road up to the Chichibu Highland Farm area. Divided into several parts, the farm appears this time of year as patches of green grass broken by stands of trees and surrounded by forest. Farm houses and barns can be spotted here and there, and there are places for families to park and visit. At 5:00 am, though, I was more concerned about capturing the dawn scenery. Apparently, by the end of May, the fields should break out in colorful reds and pinks as poppies bloom.

02 Highland Morning

Nihongi Pass 二本木峠

The route reaches Nihongi Pass, and there is a small place to pull over and park. Here is a short trail leading up a small peak and a campground nearby. What got me to pull over was the explosions of varying shades of pink mountain azaleas amidst the trees. There was more pink than green below the tree canopy and it was certainly a stop worthy of the Scenic Saitama photo project.

08 Pink Eruption

A Secret Cave

My next stop was a small cave that I had discovered while driving back down R284 in April. At that time it was just a reconnaissance visit, but this time I returned and made a good time of examining the rocks. The cave is easily missed as it is down a steep slope and at the creekside, and grasses along the road partially obscure the view. Even while I was down there visiting, at least four vehicles passed on the road and not one driver looked down at me. The cave is yet another example of the many limestone formations in the mountains of Saitama.

Secret Cave 10

Kegon Falls of Chichibu 秩父華厳の滝

One of Japan’s most famous waterfalls is the punchbowl falls of Nikko in Tochigi: Kegon Falls. Draining from Lake Chuzenji, the water plummets over a lava rock precipice into a bowl-shaped cavity known as a punchbowl. Coming from British Columbia, I know at least two other excellent examples of such falls.

In Chichibu there is no lava rock, and no grand punchbowl. But there is a quaint little cascade that slips down a chert rock face and drops into a pleasant, shallow green plunge pool. This waterfall bears the appellation Kegon Falls of Chichibu. Though only a minnow in comparison to its namesake, the cascade itself is very lovely. The draining water tumbles through a gorge of striated rocks – the strata all crumpled and crooked – and flows down into a typical mountain ravine. There is parking, a small structure advertising soft ice cream for sale, and a path leading to view points below the gorge, below the falls, and above the falls next to a road. The road leads on to two more waterfalls, roughly 600 metres and 1,000 metres away.

Soft green crowns of flowing maple leaves surround the falls and plunge pool when viewed from the path leading to the road above, and I know that I will have to return in autumn when the maple leaves are turning colour!

Falls 05

Nenokami Falls

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Excited about my new project, which I have tentatively decided to call “Scenic Saitama”, I bought a map book of the prefecture and a guide book for hiking. A long list compiled of waterfalls, gorges, and mountains of interest was checked and locations were marked in the map book. Then on Sunday, April 15th, the first target was visited: Nenokami Falls.

The falls looked to be one of the more impressive cascades in Saitama, based on Internet research; however, they were not so easy to actually find. Turning north on R284 from R37 in Chichibu City, the falls’ location is soon reached, but there is no sign on R284. A short distance up the road, there is an illustrated map that shows the falls are just back down the road. Nothing gave away the secret location though, and I decided to cross a small bridge. From there I could see the gorge. Once across, however, there was still no signage until I decided to turn the car around near a rock and soil yard and an old summer cottage type of place that looked unused. Up on a slope behind this place was a tower with a ladder, which I later found out was a rocket launching site for a local festival.

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It was here when I turned around that I spied a weathered sign and a wooden footpath leading to the trees. The sign explained that the falls tumbled over an uplifted bed of sandy mudstone from the middle to upper Triassic Period. The falls measure roughly 13 metres across and 13 metres high. I followed the boardwalk to the trees where it made a left turn. And there ended the public access. A moss-covered picnic table sat on a viewing deck with part of the wood beam railing collapsed, and from this hazardous-looking vantage point, I could see the twin cascade below. But behind me, where the boardwalk made a 180-degree turn and transformed into steps leading down the steep slope, yellow tape marked with the Kanji for “Entry Not Permitted” blocked off access.

Judging by the current condition of things, I wondered if the steps down were rotting. The boardwalk was sagging in places. I decided to chance it and go carefully. I stepped over the yellow tape and cautiously made my way down to the stream below.

Without incident!

IMG_4322Once down by the water’s edge, it was easy to go about photographing. The one big disappointment was that I often had to remove plastic garbage from the scene. I also found plenty of litter had been dropped from the road above down a washed out chute in the steep slope. A propane tank and a paint can also sat among the rocks. Once again, human beings prove their great love, care, and respect towards nature. I later found a large sign proclaiming, “Nature is everyone’s treasure. Please don’t litter!” But sure enough, the next place I scrambled down to the river, there were many cans and other rubbish.

Evidence of human idiocy aside, the rocks of the falls captured my attention. Facing the cascade, I noticed that the cliff to my left and the largest of the boulders in the stream were a light grey colour and very fine-grained. To my right, however, the rock was a pale but warm sand colour and without clearly marked edges or strata. The stream appeared to have cut a gorge where these two rock types meet. The falls though, tumbled over a precipice of mudstone.

If you should try to visit Nenokami Falls, look for the rocket launching tower and soil and stone yard. There you can park at the side of the road and go down the sagging boardwalk, look over the collapsed railing of the mossy viewing deck and possibly ignore the “keep out” tape and venture on down to view the falls from below. I did!

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Saitama is 44th!

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.

Futagoyama 02

The West Peak of Futagoyama

19 Arakawa

A hidden gorge along the Ara River

02 Chichibu

Bukozan at dawn

05 Tokigawa

The Toki River

02 Saitama Mountains

Dawn somewhere in the mountains

08 Saitama Mountains

A hidden waterfall

April was a good month

Spring came in a hurry. It always seems to and yet it still takes me by surprise. Each year I swear that April is my favourite month as I feel inspired to get up early and get out to photograph somewhere. During the winter, my early morning outings are limited to Sundays as I need to be home early on other days. Monday to Friday my kids need to go to school and I go to work early some days, and Saturdays I also have to leave for work early. But in April the sun rises early enough that I have time to get out and do some shooting.

My first trip was out to part of the Tsuki River just before the Ranzan Gorge, which I have visited a few times before. First, I stopped on some countryside road to shoot some misty fields when I stumbled upon a large old tree spreading out majestically.

tree

Then I moved on to the river and checked out the Toyama Pothole before exploring the gorge a little from the entrance end.

pothole

Soon it was time for the cherry blossoms, and I went to a favourite old location, the burial mounds at Sakitama in Gyoda.

blossomsmound

As I am working on completing a new book called, Waterside, I wanted to visit a few more waterside locations and decided to visit Onuma, a crater lake on Akagisan, a volcanic mountain less than two hour’s drive north of where I live. I went out early to get there before the sunrise but I didn’t anticipate the -5 degrees temperature or the blasting icy wind. I wasn’t dressed for it, so I stuffed my spring jacket with a cloth shopping bag from the car for extra insulation.

Akagi 08

Akagi 12

My last outing was another early morning start, this time to Ryogamisan, a mountain in Saitama and again less than two hours way by car. I hiked up the trail to photograph the stream where it flows over some exposed chert beds. I’ve climbed the mountain twice before and each time wanted more time to photograph the rocks and the stream.

Ryogami 14

Ryogami 15

I have one more location to hit for my book project. But there will likely be a second one to add. Early this month, I was asked to go to Daisetsusan in Hokkaido for another episode of Journeys in Japan. I am sure to get some waterside photos up there.

One final bit of good news, my book Little Inaka was reviewed briefly in Fuukei Shashin – 風景写真, a Japanese landscape photography magazine.

Little Inaka

When my son was born in 2008, I still had a fair bit of freedom. It was a good year for earnings from photography and writing and I was beginning in earnest to complete my book project on the Japan Alps. When I was away, my wife took our infant son to her parents’ home.

In 2010 things changed. My wife became pregnant with our second child and it was not so easy for her to bring our growing boy to her parents’ house as there was not enough space and he was restless. I wrapped up my book project a little early, managed a few more hikes and a trip abroad to attend my sister’s wedding. After that, my adventures seemed to have come to an end, at least for the time being.

Not wanting to give up photography entirely, I began a project of shooting locally. I purchased a used DSLR and chose some places that were within reach. I would wake up in the early morning and go out somewhere to shoot, trying to make it home by 7:30 to help get ready for the day. Three years later, my son entered elementary school and I had to be home by 6:45. We moved house and autumn brought later sunrises. My three years of early morning photography were also temporarily wrapped up. I had, however, amassed a few hundred photographs or more and set about putting them into a book. The result is this: Little Inaka.

The locations are the Sakitama Burial Mounds in Gyoda City, Hatcho Park in Yoshimi Town, a rural area in Higashi Matsuyama City, and a rural area straddling Ina Town and Ageo City. All places are in Saitama Prefecture, Japan.

IF

A tumulus at the Sakitama Burial Mound Park in Gyoda City

February Snow

It all started on February 4th. I stepped outside of my workplace and watched feather-sized clusters of snow flakes falling from a heavy grey sky. It was as though the gods were in the throes of a pillow fight.

Cluster flakes!

Cluster flakes!

I looked forward to the following day because after a busy working morning I would have time for a leisurely stroll through a rural area in Ina Town.

Melting snow in a rural area in Ina Town, Saitama

Melting snow in a rural area in Ina Town, Saitama

The sun was up that morning, however, and the snow was already melting by the time I set out with my camera around my neck. Not sure if and when we might get snow next, I tried to at least get a few record shots for my photographic files of the area.

A small chestnut tree casts its shadow over the rapidly melting snow.

A small chestnut tree casts its shadow over the rapidly melting snow.

I was barely aware on Friday the 7th that things were about to get a little more serious. A heavy snow warning was issued and I was told that my morning classes on Saturday were cancelled. We would see about the afternoon and evening. The moon was still visible in the sky that night but by Saturday morning a gentle shroud of powder was settling over the ground. Not trusting the trains, I drove to work against my wife’s protests. With only summer tires on the car she was very worried about whether or not I would be able to come home that night.

Falling snow in a wetland area between Ina and Hasuda in Saitama

Falling snow in a wetland area between Ina and Hasuda in Saitama

The snow fell heavily – over 20 centimetres – but I not only successfully drove the car home again but also managed to head over to a supermarket and pick up a few things in case we couldn’t get out the next day.

It’s surprising to see how many drivers don’t know how to drive safely in snow. On a tertiary highway, I was able to keep a speed of 30 to 40 km/h and only slowed down for curves and intersections. But I encountered drivers who barely attained a speed of 15 km/h and – on the way to work in the morning – an idiot who thought tailgating me in the snow as I followed a truck was an entirely proper and sane thing to do. I also had to pass a driver who drove in the middle of a two-lane highway and when I did try to pass, the car moved in front of me without evening a signal flash. Then there was the driver with 20 centimetres of snow piled on his roof. As he turned through the intersection, greats cakes of snow calved off and slid over his windshield. And the final fool of the night was the man riding his bicycle on the highway, against the traffic, while holding an umbrella in one hand.

The next morning the news was reporting 28cm of snow in Tokyo, the most in 45 years! I spent much of the morning with my neighbour’s snow shovel and a couple of other neighbours digging out our cars and street.

The morning after the February 8th snowfall in my neighbourhood.

The morning after the February 8th snowfall in my neighbourhood.

A tree in my garden was bent over the street and I had to snip off some branches. This would have been a great time for winter scene photography but it wasn’t until Tuesday morning that I finally took a bit of time to visit Higashi Matsuyama for some rural photography. That day was February 11th – a national holiday – but I had to go on a school trip that day. The good news for me was that after the working day was done, I was treated to a fairly decent sunset as I drove through Hanyu Town.

A rice field under the snow

A rice field under the snow

A dirt road is only just becoming exposed three days after the snowfall.

A dirt road is only just becoming exposed three days after the snowfall.

Sunset in Hanyu

Sunset in Hanyu

By Friday the real trouble was about to begin. Once again the snow began to fall and as I walked from the station back home I thought how beautiful the snow looked in the lights of the local warehouses and courier depot. Without my camera, I had to resort to some iPhone snaps.

At my train station

At my train station

Walking home

Walking home

A tree in the lights of a warehouse

A tree in the lights of a warehouse

The warehouse fence

The warehouse fence

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Snow-covered tree under a street light

Snow-covered tree under a street light

But the next morning the snow had turned to rain and the worse case scenario occurred: a thick layer of water-soaked snow. In Kumagaya, not far from where I live, they had received a record-breaking 61cm. The roof of the gymnasium at Fujimi High School collapsed from the weight. Green houses and car port covers bent and folded. The roof of the sports dome at the Kumagaya Sports Park tore in great gaping holes. My trees were almost touching the street from the weight of the snow they bore. My neighbour’s son had to take an entrance exam in Omiya that day and they fought and struggled to get out of our neighbourhood in their car. I helped push three times as they got stuck. No one came out to clear their cars or the street until the sopping rain had stopped by early afternoon. My train was not running and my car was blocked in. My neighbour had taken his shovel to Omiya and so I used a dust pan to excavate my car. As a neighbour across the street stepped out to inspect the circumstances, a great avalanche thundered from her roof and came down over her garden wall, knocking an ornamental picket fence to the street and bending her mailbox post to an 80 degree angle.

Me with a dust pan and my neighbour with a snow shovel - man we cleared a lot of snow!

Me with a dust pan and my neighbour with a snow shovel – man we cleared a lot of snow!

There was no pleasant sunshine today to help melt the snow as there had been the previous weekend. Tokyo reported the most snow in 120 years. Kofu in Yamanashi reported 140cm! In Chichibu, Saitama, the local train line was immobilized and as of the 27th of February it was still not running past Chichibu Station and into the mountains. To make things worse, hundreds of trucks were stranded on the Usui Pass between Nagano and Gunma. A visit to the supermarket brought back memories of the 11/3/11 earthquake as bread, milk, and other commodities with short expiry dates were unavailable.

Got milk?

Got milk?

Give us this day our daily bread...

Give us this day our daily bread…

As the snow began to melt floods began occurring as the drains were blocked. The news reported only about the snow and the Winter Olympics.

A tumulus at the Sakitama Burial Mound Park in Gyoda City

A tumulus at the Sakitama Burial Mound Park in Gyoda City

Benches facing a lake of windblown snow and thick ice

Benches facing a lake of windblown snow and thick ice

A field near the Sakitama Burial Mounds

A field near the Sakitama Burial Mounds

But the days warmed up and the snow once more began to disappear. On Thursday night, as I stepped out of the supermarket across the street from my station, I looked over to the taxi rotary and saw a mini Alaskan Range. A chain of snow mountains shone under the rotary lights like peaks in the moonlight. At one end there stood an enormous hulking mass of snow – the Denali Peak of the scene. I wished to photograph my impression but the orange plastic poles blocking off the area to vehicular traffic stood in front of the scene like security poles without a rope at a museum exhibit.

Damage done: A collapsed green house in Konosu City, Saitama

Damage done: A collapsed green house in Konosu City, Saitama

Expensive repair job: the new roof with air conditioning and sunroof at the Kumagaya Sports Park

Expensive repair job: the new roof with air conditioning and sunroof at the Kumagaya Sports Park