Roadside shrines offer glimpses into local life (Photo: Mark Buckton)

Walkabouts in Northern Saitama

Just do it!

Roadside shrines offer glimpses into local life (Photo: Mark Buckton)
Justin Dart   - 5 min read

Yes, I know what you are thinking......I 'borrowed' that subtitle from a supposedly famous sporting brand but, given the fact that a walk out and about in northern Saitama prefecture poses no threat whatsoever to the company that started out as Blue Ribbon, I think they would agree with me that anywhere and everywhere in the world, the true thread of local life is best to be found by taking it slow.

And slow, in the northeastern corner of Saitama is about as slow as it gets in this part of the Kanto plain.

Northeastern Saitama, not too far from the borders of Tochigi and Ibaraki is an area with a pace of life largely unchanged in the past two or three decades if not longer.

Rice fields can still be found within a few minutes of train stations, small roadside shrines in the middle of nowhere with food and drink offerings to the enshrined offer passers by the ideal spot for a brief sit down before moving on, and at many times of the day nature 'sounds' louder than any passing cars or trains.

Hanyu in the prefecture is one spot perfect for those perhaps staying in the capital looking to get away from the tourist traps and heavily beaten paths an hour to the south.

Situated on the Tobu Isesaki Line just before it crosses over the border into southern Gunma, Hanyu is for all intents and purposes an area time has left behind.

Head out of the east exit of the main station concourse, down the stairs and you will find yourself in a small rotary area. There may be a couple of taxis, the drivers lazily flicking through newspapers. Maybe not.

There will probably not be a bus service unless your arrival coincides with kids going or coming from school - so few and far between are the runs in this area. At weekends there is no service - period.

That said, if you have a reasonable pair of shoes on, a map of the area and perhaps something of a sense of adventure, all you need do now is walk.

The road leading from the station runs straight for about 5 kilometers. Within 5-10 minutes, having passed a mish-mash of family run and run-down stores, on the left a Seven Eleven should come into view. This will be the last chance to buy some eats or drinks for the next few klicks so should be considered, especially in hot weather. 

It is also outside this very same convenience store a small replica of the famous 'pissing' boy of Belgium can be found, although none of the locals nearby could enlighten this walker as to why this is the case. They did, however, mention with a cackle that he doesn't 'work'.

Another kilometer or so up the road, the buildings start giving way to patches of untended woodland, the odd bamboo grove and farmhouses set back from the road. Rice paddies follow soon after and before long are stretching out as far as the eye can see on both sides of the road.

In places egrets, tall, proud and with brilliant white plumage stand ankle deep in the flooded fields looking for small fish or insects to snap up. Elsewhere ducks swim up and down the carefully planted rows of rice plants removing any bugs. Killifish are an ever-present in the shallow water of the paddies.

By this times the cars passing are fewer and farther between.....until, roughly 5 km out from Hanyu Station you approach the access road to the Hanyu Interchange on the Tohoku Expressway.

As peace shattering as this road is after the better part of an hour alone with your thoughts and the sounds of nature, stick with it, follow it off to the left, 700 meters, under said expressway, and keep going.

Before long roads off to the left will be carrying signposts for a local agricultural park which, whilst nothing too outstanding unless you can - and are willing to  - carry back bags of spuds, carrots and the like, is accessed by way of some of the quietest country lanes in the prefecture on weekdays. Less so on weekends.

At this point you will be around the 8 km mark out from the station, and should be starting to think about the trip back. 

Do you turn around and head back from whence you came along the same route? Or, do you put that map to use and make your way through the back streets of this unknown corner of the Kanto plain? Whatever you decide - do make sure you are back at the station before dark as street lights in this neck of the woods are very few, very far between.

Oh, and if you want to do this walk in the shoes of any famous sporting brands, your call. The Blue Ribbon boys have always served me well.   

Justin Dart

Justin Dart @justin.dart

I am a country boy transplanted from Wisconsin in the USA to central Gifu Prefecture.The main focus of my life in Japan has been to introduce people to the world and the world to local communities and culture through international exchanges and educational programs. My hope is that people will ha...