I’ve never been to Japan prior to this, I’ve always wanted to visit Tokyo but this trip is to the lesser well known and not so touristy prefectures in Japan. Read on as I share with you my travel experiences in these three-part series of exploring Saitama, Gunma and Toyama with Hokuriku Shinkansen.
After an entire day traveling from Singapore to Tokyo then to Saitama prefecture, which is just one hour away north of Tokyo, I finally arrived at Hotel Heritage located at Chichibu City after dark.
By then, my other travel companions from Malaysia, Thailand & Indonesia and I were all tired and famished but our host did not disappoint and arranged a really sumptuous dinner of Japanese banquet dishes for us. It was so good!
Feeling satisfied and with a full stomach, I checked into my hotel room. I was given a spacious twin bed room, lighting was kind of dim in the room. The bathroom was quite big considering that bathrooms in Japan are generally small, it had a bathtub but it was slightly smaller compared to the bathtubs we usually see. Not forgetting, Japan is also famous for their high-tech warm toilet seats.
It was a long and tiring day but still I wanted to check out Hotel Heritage’s Four Seasons onsen so I changed into my yukata provided in the room for hotel guests and headed there with another travel companion from Thailand, Sai.
Hotel Heritage’s Four Seasons onsen has a section for males and another section for females, there’s also a common area where males and females can soak in the hot spring together and enjoy drinks at the same time.
The thing about onsen is that it can be quite awkward and embarrassing for the first time, you have to get used to being naked with strangers, cleaning yourself at their bathing facilities and soaking in the hot spring. It was really an experience and soaking in the hot spring helped me relax and relieved the tiredness from the day.
Breakfast on the next day at Hotel Heritage was sumptuous with a variety of food to choose from, buffet style. Breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day. They dine a lot with these food trays that are divided into different compartments so you can put different food in each compartment without them touching each other.
The first activity I did in Saitama was the Nagatoro Rafting (Nagatoro Line Kudari), river rafting on a traditional Japanese wooden boat. We got tickets that cost 1,600 yen per person.
As we walk towards where the actual Nagatoro Rafting starts, we passed by a quiet street of shops selling fruits, vegetables and dried goods, there were restaurants too.
Nagatoro Rafting takes you through the clear water river with a series of slow and rapid streams. I was initially afraid of getting wet when they asked everyone to put on life jackets as a precaution but it turned out alright, even the splashes from the most active part of the river was no big deal. You get to breathe the fresh air and enjoy nature along the way.
It isn’t hard to get here to enjoy the Nagatoro Rafting (Nagatoro Line Kudari) as it is just a few minutes walk away from the Nagatoro train station.
Next was a visit to the Hodosan Shrine that has been dated to have been there for more than a hundred years. Before entering the shrine, all must cleanse their mouth and hands at the small hut on the left.
Things you can do at the Hodosan Shrine include praying, making wishes with coins, writing wishes on small wooden boards and buying charms for everything you can think of from health, wealth, doing well in your studies to having longevity.
Then we took the Hodosan Ropeway which is like a ropeway cabin that brings you up to the mountain top, there wasn’t much view that day because the weather was kind of foggy.
There isn’t much at the mountain top as well, just a small Hodosan Four Leaf Garden and I mean really small. Flowers bloom beautifully here, perhaps also because of the cooling climate.
I realized Japanese attractions always have these stamping stations where you can get a stamp that is unique to the attraction, marking that you have been there. This was available at the Hodosan Ropeway, at the bottom and top of the mountain.
For lunch, we had Nagatoro’s Ayu (Sweet Fish) at Club Yurin. I like the interior of this eating place, very traditional Japanese with its half-height chairs. Though there were many bones, the Ayu (Sweet Fish) is the sweetest grilled fish I have ever eaten, very delicious!
I also love their rice and soup dish, it isn’t like porridge that is milky, the soup for this dish is clear and you can taste every grain of rice. I love how the Japanese always complete a meal with a variety of food, makes eating very satisfying!
The next activity was “Washi No Sato” Kamisuki, a hands-on experience of the traditional Japanese paper making. They will take you through a series of steps from scooping, vacuuming of moisture to drying your paper on a flat heated metal board. I made my own paper!
The Japanese paper can also be colored. Firstly, the paper has to be folded and then randomly dipped into different color dyes. Depending on how you dip into the different color dyes, colorful designs appear when you unfold the paper. Everyone’s design will be different, it is said that no two designs will turn out exactly the same. These colorfully designed Japanese papers can be used to make lanterns or lamps.
I was very proud of my masterpiece, somehow pink hibiscus appeared for my design. This was the activity I enjoyed most in Saitama prefecture because it isn’t every day you can make paper from scratch back home.
If you like plants, the Saitama Agriculture & Forestry Park is a place for you. When I was there, it was drizzling so we were not able to enjoy the park as much as we wanted to but we were still able to walk around a little, checking out the plantation growth of many different fruits and vegetables. If I’m not wrong, fruits and vegetables picking activities were also available there. It’s nice to be close to nature with the vast open fields of grass. I heard on certain seasons, they also have festival performances outdoor.
My overall view of Saitama prefecture is that it is a very quiet, not so developed and laid back place. A good place to rediscover the old Japanese culture and also to relax and enjoy the not so stress, slow-paced way of life.