Since the 1970s, “Dasaitama” has been the nickname Japanese people have given to Tokyo’s northern neighbour of Saitama Prefecture and its 7.1 million residents. It’s a play of words as “Dasai” means “uncool”, so ‘Dasaitama” is a short form for Dasai Saitama as a put-down indicating ‘dasai-ness’ of the prefecture and its people. But is Saitama really a dasai hole above Tokyo? The answer is no.
In the 1970s, Japanese economy was growing fast and people were more and more into ‘urbanness’ and modern way of life. Tokyo was the symbol of the wealth at that time and felt itself entitled to look down on its neighbours, and Saitama was an easy target in comparison to the other prefectures. From what we see, it didn’t have the glamourous beach life that the other neighbours of Kanagawa and Chiba Prefectures had (Shonan and Enoshima for Kanagawa and Kujukuri and Onjuku for Chiba). But the effective and catchy “Dasaitama” nickname really cemented the image of an uncool prefecture for decades. Many Japanese (particularly those living in Kanto) wouldn’t agree to date, but Saitama is in fact a great place to visit, if not a great place to live in. To discover Saitama, here are must-visit places within the under-explored prefecture.
Green Tea Plantation – Sayama-cha
Can you name three major areas of green tea production in Japan? “Shizuoka…. Kyoto and… and…”? Saitama in fact is one of the three most traditional green tea production areas in the country. The tea produced in Saitama Prefecture is called “Sayama-cha” and is on the shelf at many department stores. Of all the cities in Saitama, Iruma City hosts most green tea plantations. So, begin your stip from Iruma City Museum where you’ll get to learn all about Sayama cha. The museum was built during Japan’s bubble economy, so it’s well built and well maintained. Believe it or not, you’ll have a private tour guide for a fee of 200 yen, who can explain all things Sayama-cha in a matter of half an hour.
Handmade Udon – Japanese Thick Noodles
After the museum, you must try local udon. Btw, can you name three regions famous for udon? “Well, Kagawa’s Sanuki udon… and… and…” is the typical answer even among Japanese people. Saitama is in fact the second after Kagawa Prefecture in terms of the quantity of udon production. Saitama’s udon is known as “Musashino Udon”. Compared to other types of udon, Musashino Udon is extra thick, harder and more brown. Once you try, you’ll find it rather addictive and there is an increasing number of Musashi Udon fans. Three must-visit handmade udon shops are these!
Teuchi Udon Sawada
From the outside, you won’t be able to recognise that it’s actually a restaurant. Sawada looks like just like a regular house as there is no typical eatery signage shouting “UDON”. Walk inside and you’ll still feel like you are visiting a grandmother’s house. Sawada is a unique and one of a kind handmade musashi udon shop. Sawada’s menu is very simple. Udon, Niku Meat Udon or Tempura Udon. Sawada’s udon is typical musashino udon, hard, chewy and brown. The soup is actually quite sweet. This has something to do with the fact that Sawada is located in the middle of the large green tea plantation area and the workers there are tired and crave sweet soup? Sawada is open only between 10:30 and 14:00 and closed on Mondays and Fridays.
Sancho-me no Teuchi Udon
If you are a curry fan, this is the shop you’ll never regret visiting once in your life. Sancho-me no Teuchi Udon is located Seibu Ikebukuro Line Musashi-Fujisawa station in Iruma City. This is a shop where deadset udon fans flock to like Pokemon fans visit Pokemon Center. All the three shops introduced here, Sancho-me no Teuchi Udon is the priciest of all, as it’s located close to a major station. But their udon is worth every yen you’ll pay and to be on the safe side, make sure you order curry udon, which tastes like you are in heaven.
No, not that fish market near Ginza. Tsukiji is located in the middle of ordinary residential area, i.e. hard to find for tourists. But it’s definitely worth a trip. Sawada offers handmade udon made of 100% Saitama wheat flour. The owner is the second generation and only uses locally produced ingredients. His motto is “As long as I make enough money to make a simple living, there is no need to be greedy.” Regular size udon starts from 480 yen and all tempura are 60 yen. Most popular is the niku jiru udon (580 yen) and even if you add a few tempura, it won’t hurt your wallet.
Chichibu the Sacred Mountain & Matsuri Festival
Chichibu is definitely Saitama’s hidden gem. To begin with, Chichibu throws festivals all year round, but the Chichibu Night Festival, which history believed to stretch back some 350 years, draws the largest crowd. It made into the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2016. The Chichibu-matsuri festival is held annually at Chichibujinja shrine and dates back more than 300 years to the Edo Period. Two decorative halberds and four floats are carried on around the city amid festival music. Chichibu is an easy access from JR Ikebukuro station – just take Red Arrow and you’ll be there before you can finish your obento.
Super Sento Paradise
Japanese love rankings, and there is naturally a yearly, bi-yearly and even a monthly ranking of onsen being announced all year round. Now, guess which super sento onsen made the national onsen rankin of 2016. 4 out of 10 best onsen super sento are located in Saitama! Here is the actual ranking:
- Sugito Tennen Onsen Gagaku no yu (Saitama)
- Taiko no yu (Hyogo)
- Spa Eas (Kanagawa)
- Hitachinaka Kirari Bettei (Ibaraki)
- Miyamae Daira Yukemuri no sho (Kanagawa)
- Ogawara Onsen Kawaraku no yu (Saitama)
- Bigaku Onsen SPA-HERBS (Saitama)
- Hottarakashi no yu (Yamanashi)
- Tsunashima Gensen Yukemuri no sho (Kanagawa)
- Miyazawako Onsen Kirari Bettei (Saitama)
Don’t you want to try No. 1 onsen super sento, chosen by discerning Japanese onsen lovers? Sugito Tennen Onsen Gagaku no yu is only an hour or so by train from Shinjuku. Definitely worth a visit and it’ll be the best omiyage story you can take back to your home country.