Rivers and rails in Saitama

By on July 26, 2009

If the steaming concrete and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of Tokyo get to be too much this summer, head for the hills of Saitama prefecture where the perfect family adventure awaits. 


Saitama’s sights are close enough to reach by car, but why not travel the countryside in style on one of Japan’s old-fashioned steam trains? Though the national rail company officially retired steam engines in the 1970s, a handful of the historic transports remain as tourist attractions. On summer weekends, a coal-colored locomotive nicknamed the Paleo Express makes one round-trip journey a day between Kumagaya and Mitsumine-guchi stations, the closest steam train experience to the capital. Kids of all ages will get a kick out of the uniformed conductors, train-themed toys, and ear-piercing whistles. Settle back on an authentic carriage seat and watch the scenery roll slowly past. 


Halfway into the 57-kilometer journey, hop off at the town of Nagatoro for an aquatic adventure on the Ara River. Slip on your sailing shoes and climb into your yakata-bune (old-style pleasure boat) as the capable crewmen navigate their way through a three kilometer stretch of rolling rapids. Tiny travelers will love the thrill of the boat (gently) plunging through the whirlpools while parents can sit back and soak in the bucolic scenery. 


Back on the riverbank, don’t miss a wander along the Tatami Rocks, a large stone formation which dates from the prehistoric age when most of Saitama was covered by the sea. Budding paleontologists can stay busy hunting for fossils in the rocks’ many layers while older kids can satisfy their curiosity of all things cretaceous at the local Natural History Museum.  


A short distance away from the river, families with a hankering for higher elevations can take a cable car up nearby Mount Hodo. Sweeping vistas over the Chichibu mountains greet visitors at the peak’s observation deck and numerous hiking trails crisscross the hill’s upper reaches, allowing ample opportunities for exploration. Animal lovers might want to pop in to the Mount Hodo Zoo near the cable car terminus, where engaging monkeys and deer are on display. 


When you’ve had your fill of fun in Nagatoro, catch the Paleo Express as it chugs back through town and relax in comfort on your way back to the capital.


How to get there

Saitama is easily reached from Tokyo. To catch the Paleo express, take the JR Takasaki line from Ueno to Kumagaya (70 minutes, ¥1,110). Residents of the western side of the city can take the Seibu Line to Chichibu station (78 minutes, ¥1170) and pick up the Paleo express from there. Boats run the rapids at Nagatoro every day from March to early December.

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