The number of covid-19 cases in Tokyo is on the rise again, but several weeks ago when we enjoyed a moment’s optimism, we made a break for Saitama prefecture. We were able to avoid prolonged hours on public transport by renting a car, no doubt a safer option made better by our eclectic and cringe-worthy playlist of everything from Spanish hip hop to anisong to Dua Lipa’s most recent album drop. The adage of journey > destination is never truer than when you’re speaking from the perspective of an awesome playlist.
Rising early, we made a beeline for our first objective, to climb Hodosan. At a modest 497m in height, it’s not our most difficult climb to date. However, we did find ourselves puffing and panting in ways that we didn’t expect, in ways that we think would not have been the case in pre-covid days. Sure, I’ve never done as many burpees, push ups or hip raises in my kitchen hyphen gym as I have in the last three months and I certainly “feel” fitter in some regard. But it does go to show that ‘fitness’ is not a simple litmus test and that endurance training for the outdoors is an entirely different beast we need to ride on a regular basis.
But I digress. We don’t wander the outdoors to award ourselves with participation trophies, whether on a fitness tracking app or in real life. Hitting step goals and building up our bodies are by-products of enjoying how to simply be, in nature. With no time to beat, no treadmills to pound our Asics against and certainly no personal trainers to play the role of a #health hype man, your mind automatically focuses on what we do have. Trees five or six times taller than us, the crunching of sand, pebbles and dirt beneath, bird song or insect song or river song with their simple harmonisation to create nature’s orchestra. At a certain point, we’re wading in tall grass and distracting ourselves from the itchiness from our ankles up to our calves, by pretending Pokemon will jump out at any moment. In the absence of man-made stimuli, you’d be surprised at how resourceful your imagination is. In the wise words of Avril Lavigne – here’s to never growing up.
Sloping back down, we stop by Hodosan Jinja. Visitors typically come to pray for protection against natural disasters, a rather apt shrine to be at in these times. We head back into Nagatoro which offers such a breath of fresh air from the big smoke. The town in its entirety is a designated prefectural nature park and reserve. From the Iwadatami Rock formations down to the Arakawa River, it all comes together for incredibly scenic views a relaxing vibe. Mask-wearing people are about, some on boats partaking in river cruises, some playing the casual observer role from the bank.
Lunch is ayu and soba, the local specialty dish comprising of grilled sweet fish and buckwheat noodles. Salty, slippery and refreshing is everything we need to replenish our energy stores for the rest of the day. We wander the rest of Iwadatami Dori Shopping Street with full bellies and enough curiosity to push stomach space a little further for more snacks.
One last detour before our final resting spot – Urayama Dam. Admittedly, this isn’t normally on my sightseeing list but I’m convinced as soon as we arrive. There’s a certain calmness about it that comes through in the shades of blue and the persistent pace of some of the local runners who have taken to the dam itself as their training spot.
In Chichibu, we check into our ryokan, Hananoya. We’ve always loved traditional Japanese inns, from the homely to the slightly more grandeur. There’s something about their hospitality that can be overbearing but in a way that we’re familiar, doting Asian mom-style. And having exhausted ourselves throughout the day, the royal treatment feels way more deserved.
Dinner is a variety of shabu-shabu and sukiyaki that fills us to satiety. It’s a blessing that the ryokan also has a complimentary evening bus tour to Chichibu Muse Park, which gives us a chance to stretch our legs while taking in the bright city lights at night.
Breakfast the next day is also traditional with grilled fish, natto, pickled side dishes, soup and rice. At all hours in between, we make use of the free-flow sake, ice cream and as many trips as we can muster into our room’s private outdoor onsen.
Hiking ends up being a no-go the day after as clouds roll into the prefecture. We do what we can with trips to a few different “Michi no eki”, local little stands that exist to support the selling of local produce. We pick up boxes of cookies, sake and miso paste as souvenirs for family and friends, plus some dried mushrooms for our own home consumption. By 2 pm, we’re back in Tokyo. All in all, time spent away from the capital was less than 36 hours but a much needed reprieve from city life.