Hanno, Saitama Prefecture 飯能 埼玉県
by Johannes Schonherr
If you travel from Tokyo to the scenic Chichibu area in the mountains of western Saitama Prefecture on the non-reserved, slow but cheap combination of the Seibu Ikebukuro and Seibu Chichibu Lines, you have to change trains in Hanno. If you take the Red Arrow Limited Express from Ikebukuro Station to Chichibu, Hanno is a mere stop en route.
For most travelers, Hanno is not much more than a transit point on the way to more promising destinations deeper in the mountains, inside the nearby Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park.
The city does however have its own charm and is well worth a stroll. Hanno is a tranquil Tokyo suburb of about 80,000 inhabitants, located right in front of the mountains.
If you like to fire up a barbecue grill in an unspoiled river valley close to Tokyo, Hanno is the place to go. That's what the city is most famous for.
Barbecue in the Iruma River Valley
The Iruma River Valley with its iconic red pedestrian bridge is about a 15 minute walk from Seibu Hanno Station. In the valley area close to the bridge, known as the Hanno-gawara, the river is rather narrow but its gravel banks are very wide.
On sunny weekends throughout the warmer seasons of the year, large numbers of families, circles of friends etc. congregate there for barbecuing. Many of them come from Tokyo and many come by train. Parking is very limited in the area but here is no need to bring one's own grill. There are plenty of rental outlets where it's possible to get everything needed - the grill, the charcoal, they also sell a variety of meats and other foods in case you didn't bring your own. Of course, cold beer is also on sale.
It can get crowded in the central area close to the bridge on sunny summer weekends but if you are willing to carry your equipment and supplies a bit further afield, it's easily possible to find a spot where you are pretty much alone with your friends / family in the natural, wooded river valley.
There are more things to do in Hanno than barbecuing. The tourist information desk inside Seibu Hanno Station offers various maps including a Hanno guide in English. In order to explore the old town of Hanno, however, it's best to ask for the Japanese-language Hanno Walking Map. It's much more detailed and it features drawings of everything important on the path. The map is helpful and easy to handle even if you can't read Japanese.
The map suggests a walking route covering all the most important sites the city has to offer.
Walk out of the North Exit of Seibu Hanno Station, continue along a short row of restaurants, then turn left on to Odori Street. Odori Street is Hanno's traditional shopping street. It's a rather quiet avenue most of the time and modernization has taken its toll. Only a few really traditional buildings have been left standing.
One of those is the Misegurakinujin Building. Erected in 1904, the building originally served as a silk merchant's shop. Today, it is operated as an exhibition space, featuring changing art and doll exhibits. Whatever may be on display at any given time, the building itself is absolutely worth seeing. Especially the historic Meiji era porcelain toilet - which is part of the permanent exhibition and not to be used.
Odori Street really springs to life during the Hanno Festival, always held on the first weekend in November. The festival is the biggest event in the annual calendar of the city and it features plenty of artfully crafted mikoshi festival floats paraded through the streets in the center of Hanno.
History of Hanno
Though various temples and shrines predate the settlement that became Hanno, Hanno itself grew out of a lumberjack village. The village was established well before the Edo Period but during the Edo Period (1603-1868), timber was in high demand due to the rapid growth of Edo (today's Tokyo).
Hanno timber was rafted down to Edo on the Iruma River, a trip that took about 10 days.
Starting during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), reforms in municipal administration structures led to a rapid expansion of Hanno. Hanno City annexed multiple villages and stretches today far into the mountains. The latest such addition took place in 2005 and made the scenic Naguri Valley part of Hanno.
Walking to the end of Odori Street, you arrive at a crossroads. The road straight ahead after a small bend leads towards the Naguri Valley, towards the mountains. If you follow that road, you leave the Tokyo suburban area and arrive almost immediately in the countryside, with the Iruma Valley Hanno-gawara riverbank to your left and Kannon-ji Temple to your right just after crossing the intersection.
Kannon-ji Temple dates back to the year 810 A.D. but it clearly embraces modern pop-culture. A rather new statue of a white elephant is one of its prominent features and the ema prayer tablets sold at the temple feature modern female manga characters. Though obviously trying to appeal to the young, Kannon-ji is a tranquil, scenic traditional temple nonetheless.
Astro Boy Statue
If you follow the main street to the right at the intersection in front of Kannon-ji Temple, then turn left at the Hanno Kindergarten, you will soon arrive at a bronze statue of manga and anime character Astro Boy, better known in Japan by its original name Tetsuwan Atomu. A plaque next to the statue features a picture of Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka attending the unveiling in 1983. This was the first Astro Boy statue in Japan, it was initiated by a local youth group.
Shortly behind the Astro boy statue start the grounds of Nonin-ji Temple. Dating back to the beginning of the 16th century, Nonin-ji Temple belongs to the Soto Sect of Zen Buddhism.
The original temple was burned down in the Battle of Hanno (1868) during the Boshin War, the civil war that led to the Meiji Restoration. Shortly after, the temple was reconstructed based on its original design.
Nonin-ji is a serene, quiet temple today, inviting leisurely strolls on the extensive temple grounds famous for their autumn colors.
Right behind the temple buildings, a large cemetery covers the lower regions of Mount Tenran. Incense is always burning at the Mizuko statue, a statue commemorating children that died at birth. The slopes of the very well maintained graveyard offer good views over the city of Hanno.
You will not be able to hike up Mount Tenran through the cemetery, though. For that, you have to return to the main temple, then enter the walkway starting right behind the Astro Boy statue.
Mount Tenran and the 16 Rakan
Mount Tenran is downtown Hanno’s closest mountain. At 195 meters in height, it’s not particularly tall but it is a popular hiking destination.
Shortly below the summit, the trail splits. If you follow the trail on the left, you will soon encounter the 16 Rakan. Rakan were early followers of Buddha who achieved perfect enlightenment, who went straight to nirvana.
The 16 ancient stone statues dating back to Edo times sit in front of a steep rock wall and are, on brightly sunny days, lit up in ever-changing ways by sun rays breaking through the foliage from about 10 am to a little after noon.
Walking on, stone steps lead to the summit of Mount Tenran. A viewing platform affords a good view over Hanno City. On clear days, Mount Fuji, the Tokyo Skytree as well as the skyscrapers of Ikebukuro and Shinjuku are also in view.
In 2005, the village of Naguri deep in the Chichibu Mountains became part of Hanno City. A 50 minute ride on a Kokusai Kogyu bus departing from bus stop 2 outside Seibu Hanno Station's North Exit towards Naguri, Yunozawa or Sawarabi Onsen will get you to Sawarabi Onsen.
From there, the imposing Torii Kannon statues of Mount Hakuun are in easy walking distance. Scenic Naguri Lake (aka the Arima Reservoir) is also just a short hike away. Sawarabi Onsen itself is a large, modern natural hot spring bath.
Most of the places to stay in Hanno are near Hanno Station including the 3-star Hotel Heritage Hanno and the Marroad Inn Hanno, also a 3-star business hotel. Hotel Oxy is a love hotel to the north east of town in the suburbs.
Hanno City Access
Seibu Line Train
Take the Seibu Ikebukuro Line from Ikebukuro Station straight to Hanno. The Seibu Red Arrow Limited Express to Chichibu stops in Hanno.
JR Hachiko Line Train
At Higashi Hanno Station, it is possible to change from the JR line to the Seibu Chichibu local line.
Higashi Hanno Station is in short walking distance from Seibu Hanno Station.
Hanno tourism website: hanno-tourism.com (in Japanese)