Shakes and Paper and Autumn Leaves : Wandering Through Saitama

Rites of Fall

We had our first frost here in Kawagoe the other day, but I have known for weeks that colder weather was on the way.

Bright autumn leaves have added a splash of color to department store displays for some time now. These leaves are made of paper, but they mirror the red and yellow leaves outside that adorn the lampposts in the streets. Those leaves are made of plastic.

A more reliable sign of the changing seasons was the debut of HOT buttons on the ubiquitous outdoor vending machines. During the warmer months it is possible to buy iced tea and iced coffee from machines on every street corner and railroad platform in the land. As of a month ago, the machines began to offer hot tea and coffee as well. When that happened, I knew hat the end of summer was near.

When Big, a local izakaya, began to fly their “Nabe Matsuri” flag — advertising their annual “Stew Festival” — I knew for sure that I had seen my last warm day until next year. Old Japanese men have been wearing longs johns every day for weeks now, and stylishly knotted scarves have begun to appear on people of all ages. Murky vats of oden are now steaming away on the counters of 7-11 stores everywhere.
Winter is practically here.

Famous Leaves in Nagatoro

Viewing autumn leaves — real ones — is a venerable tradition here in Japan. For urban residents, this means making a special trip into the mountains, a ritual I’ve somehow missed out on during each of the previous years I’ve lived here.

This year was different. The Saitama International Exchange Network (SIEN) organized a trip to Nagatoro, Saitama’s premier leaf viewing spot, and I decided to go along. I wanted to see if what people say about this prefecture is true.

Last year, Saitama ranked dead last in a national quality-of-life survey. People who live here like to say that this is because the prefecture has no seashore, but the survey also took into account Saitama’s high levels of air pollution and low levels of cultural attractions. (Apparently, convenient access to the cultural attractions next door in Tokyo didn’t count.)

I’m happy to report that Saitama is not the desolate wasteland it is so often made out to be, especially in its northern reaches. The Nagatoro River is a beautiful stretch of water that flows through a long, rocky gorge that is rimmed with trees that were all ablaze in orange, yellow, and red. For about one kilometer on the northern shore, there are broad natural shelves known as iwadatami, or “stone tatami.” Tatami are the smooth, tightly woven bamboo mats that make up the floors of traditional Japanese rooms. The iwadatami are a bit more rugged than their name might suggest, but they make ideal platforms from which to view the foliage on the opposite bank. They’re also good vantage points to watch the passing boat traffic. Every few minutes a kayak, a rubber raft, or an old-fashioned wooden boat would go by. The latter were long and narrow and crammed with about twenty tourists apiece, piloted through the rapids by men standing upright in pajama-type outfits and straw hats.

Not far from the river, but completely hidden by trees, is the Saitama Museum of Natural History. One of its main attractions is a life-sized model of a vicious-looking 12-meter shark whose fossilized teeth had bee found nearby. It was easily big enough to swallow a grown man without even chewing. So, even in the days when Saitama did have a seashore, it still would have ranked pretty low in the quality-of-life surveys.

(Incidentally, the teeth had previously been kept at a local shrine, where they were venerated as “tengu fingernails.”)

Another Nagatoro landmark is Mt. Hodo, a mountain which has a small Shinto shrine at the top, and a larger complex of shrines at the base. There’s a cable car that takes visitors almost to the summit, where the view is startling. From above, Nagatoro is revealed as a small city that covers most of the valley floor below. However, the area around the river itself has been so well preserved in its natural state that visitors who walk to the river directly from the train station, as I did, are left with the impression that they are out in the wilderness, miles from any city.

Famous Paper in Ogawa

A week earlier, a friend who lives in Ogawa-machi, also in northern Saitamai, had taken me on a tour of his town. Ogawa is smaller and less famous than Nagatoro, but it has made a name for itself in the field of traditional Japanese handmade crafts. The most famous of these is fibrous washi paper.

My friend took me to a small family-run shop where the paper is still made by hand. Their factory is a barn-like building with a thatched roof. Our guide for the morning was an ancient and diminutive lady whose looks were deceiving. She dashed from room to room at breakneck speed and lifted large crates and pieces of machinery out of the way so we could get a better look at the paper-making process.

It begins with the kozo plant, or paper mulberry. The wood of this plant — particularly the roots, it seemed — is soaked in water for a period of days or weeks until it becomes slimy. At that point, it is taken out and shredded into fine, thready pulp. The pulp, in turn, is then mixed into a large quantity of water to create a substance that resembles very thin wallpaper paste. It is from tubs of this watery paste that the paper itself is finally made.

Hanging over the tub is a horizontal wooden frame. A thin, flexible bamboo screen is laid flat in the bottom of the frame, and then the whole thing is lowered into the tub. The frame is filled with paste and sloshed around until a very thin layer of pulpy sediment is deposited on the screen. The remaining liquid is dumped back into the tub, and the whole process is repeated two or three times.

Finally, when the sediment on the bamboo screen looks reasonably solid, the screen is removed and flipped over onto a wooden table. The screen is then gently peeled back from the table, leaving its layer of mulberry pulp behind. To my surprise, the old lady stacked dozens of wet sheets of proto-paper right on top of one another. Apparently the fibers set so tightly when the water drains off of them that there is no danger of the sheets sticking to one another. Final drying of the paper is achieved later, when she sticks the sheets up onto the smooth metal sides of an old furnace.

Because of the texture of the mulberry fibers, even a simple sheet of this paper is pleasing to look at and touch, but there are deluxe versions as well. In some cases the lady I met scatters flower petals onto the bamboo screen so that they actually become part of the paper as the pulp accumulates around them. I have even heard of this being done with whole flattened butterflies.

After we had tried our hands at making paper ourselves, my friend and I went to lunch at a soba restaurant where the noodles are made by hand on the premises. Then we went for a leisurely hike on one of the mountains near town, and returned to Ogawa-machi in the late afternoon for a visit to the local sake factory. One particular brand of sake this factory makes is simply called Ogawa Jizake (Ogawa Local Sake). It is as clean and sweet as spring water, which is in fact one of the main ingredients. Its smooth deliciousness makes it potentially dangerous, but the fact that they chose to name this excellent product after the town, with no further elaboration, says a lot.

So, there are plenty of worthwhile attractions in Saitama, especially in the rural north, but they can’t be enjoyed at that manic speed that is often possible in the big city. If you want to enjoy Japan slowly, then northern Saitamais a fine place to start.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

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