Japan City Guides: Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture
Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture 熊谷 埼玉県
by Johannes Schonherr
Kumagaya is a city with close to 200,000 residents located in central northern Saitama Prefecture. The city is a stop on the Joetsu and Hokuriku Shinkansen lines, it is also served by rail by the JR Takasaki Line and the Chichibu Railway.
Today, Kumagaya is the northern-most outpost of the Tokyo Metropolitan Area. In other words, it's a regional center in the giant sprawl of suburbs stretching north from Tokyo covering almost all of central Saitama. When traveling to Kumagaya from Ueno Station, Tokyo on the JR Takasaki Line, nothing but a scenery of endless suburban housing and the occasional industrial facility will unfold outside the train windows.
Suburban housing and industrial facilities also dominate Kumagaya itself. The scenery becoming slightly more semi-rural in the northern parts of the city, towards the Tone River, forming the border with neighboring Gunma Prefecture.
City Between Two Rivers
The geography of the city can easily be described as being framed by two rivers: the Arakawa River in the south and the Tone in the north.
The Arakawa River is in short walking distance of Kumagaya Station. Arakawa River Park, stretching out along the river, offers a nice walkway on top of a dam, lined with cherry trees.
Especially during the cherry blossom season in late March, early April, the views from Arakawa River Park are stunning. On very clear days, Mount Fuji can be seen far across the river. But that is rare.
More importantly, snow-covered Mount Asama in Gunma Prefecture is in good view whenever the sky clears up. Though distant, Mount Asama is a distinct feature of the riverfront. In the cherry blossom season, many people will congregate below the cherry trees with food and sake and have parties celebrating the arrival of spring.
The northern end of the city and of Saitama Prefecture, is marked by the Tone River. Much wider than the Arakawa River, the Tone is Japan's river carrying the largest volume of water. It gets very wide when it finally flows into the Pacific Ocean in Choshi, Chiba Prefecture.
The dam along the Tone River, featuring a walking / bicycling path offers good views to the Gunma mountains in the distance to the north.
Hottest City in Japan
In the mid-2000's, Kumagaya was for a few years the hottest city in Japan, recording a record temperature of 40.9°C on August 16th 2007. The city administration quickly jumped at the notoriety and turned it into a marketing campaign.
"Very hot! Kumagaya" became the slogan of the city, a sweating mascot waving three paper fans, Atsubee, briefly became the symbol of the city. It is still on sale today.
In summer, Kumagaya is still one of the hottest cities in Japan though it has had to hand over the title of record-holder to other, more southern places now.
That the Atsubee mascot of the "Very Hot! Kumagaya" campaign was waving paper fans was of course no coincidence. Those fans stood as a symbol for the biggest event in the annual Kumagaya calendar: the Uchiwa Fan Festival, held from July 20th to July 22nd.
Uchiwa translates to paper fan. Thus, the Japanese name of the festival is Uchiwa Matsuri.
Though the festival ties in very well with the notion of extreme heat in Kumagaya summers today, its history has little to do with unusual weather.
In 1750, in the midst of the Edo Period, the organizers of several small shrine festivals petitioned the authorities to allow a unified summer festival. The wish was granted.
Soon after, businesses began to hand out steamed rice with red beans during the festival. Handing out free dishes proved to be a very successful advertisement.
In 1897, one merchant decided to hand out paper fans instead of the traditional steamed rice with red beans, instantly scoring a great uptick in the sales of his wares. Other businesses swiftly followed his lead. Since then, the festival is known as the Uchiwa Matsuri.
At the about the same time, industrialization had set in in Japan and Kumagaya had become a center of the silk industry. Thus, the city's various neighborhoods had some wealth to display and started to do so in the form of giant floats paraded through the city during the matsuri.
Today, 12 large floats are carried through the city during the festival, about 750,000 people from all over Kanto attend the ceremonies on the three festival days combined. That's about 250,000 per day in a city of just under 200,000.
Kumagaya started out as a small trading post on the Nakasendo Highway, the inland road connecting Edo (today's Tokyo) with Kyoto in the Edo Period. The city became rich through its silk and cement industries in the Meiji Period.
Tragedy befell the city in the early morning hours of August 15th 1945. Mere hours before the acceptance of Japan's surrender by the U.S., ending World War II, Kumagaya was heavily bombed, the city center almost completely destroyed.
Since then, Kumagaya has gradually being swallowed up by the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, turning it into the commuter town it is today.
Menuma Shodenzan Kangiin Temple
When Kumagaya City absorbed the town of Menuma in 2005, it acquired a national treasure: the Menuma Shodenzan Kangiin Temple.
Founded in 1179, the Shingon sect temple is dedicated to the spirit of Shoden, widely considered to be a Japanese Buddhist derivation of the Hindu god Ganesha, the God of Wisdom.
Shoden is also known in Japan under the name of Kangiten, the God of Bliss. Thus the second name of the temple, Kangiin, meaning the Temple of Bliss.
The Shodenzan Temple is a large site, starting at the Kisoumon Gate, built in 1851. Before arriving at the Main Hall, you pass through two more historic gates. The Main Hall is an impressive structure, finished in 1760.
But the real treasure of the temple is the Inner Hall behind the Main Hall. It houses a statue of Shoden which is usually hidden from the public.
The outer walls of the Inner Hall however make the Shodenzan Temple truly special: they feature an incredible amount of colorful wood carving from the mid-Edo Period.
The carvings remind very much of the famous carvings at the temples and shrines in Nikko. In fact, the Menuma Shodenzan likes to call itself the "Nikko of Saitama".
One carving on the Inner Hall depicts an eagle with a monkey in its claws above a waterfall. That carving is attributed to Jingoro Hidari, the legendary master carver of Nikko, active from about 1596 to 1644. His most famous artwork are the Three Wise Monkeys in Nikko.
Shodenzan guides offer an interesting interpretation of the image of the eagle and the monkey: "An eagle rescues a monkey which is about to fall into a rapid current. The monkey represents the uncontrollable evil passions of humans and the eagle saving the monkey is indeed the principal image of Shoden."
Many eateries surround the Menuma Shodenzan Temple, all of them offering traditional Japanese dishes. The signature food of the temple, however, is a humble take-out meal, the Shoden Inari Sushi, rice and pickled vegetables wrapped in age, deep fried tofu.
From the Menuma Shodenzan it is about a 20 minute walk to the banks of the Tone River. The bicycle road on top of the dam parallel to the river offers good views to the mountains of Gunma Prefecture.
Menuma Shodenzan Temple Access
Go to bus stop number 6 outside the North Exit of Kumagaya Station. Every bus leaving from there will take you to Shodenzan-mae bus stop, the access stop to the temple.
While bus stop number 6 outside Kumagaya Station is clearly marked as departure point for the temple, featuring photos of the temple and English-language indications, once riding the bus, there will be no further English announcements.
To make sure to get off at your correct destination, Shodenzan-mae, you might want to tell the driver where you want to go once you enter the bus.
The ride takes about 25 minutes and costs about 460 yen. SUICA or PASMO cards are accepted in the bus.
Menuma Shodenzan address
1627 Menuma, Kumagaya
Tel: 048 588 1644 (in Japanese)
Visiting the Menuma Shodenzan Temple in general is free.
However, there is a special admission fee of 700 yen for viewing the carvings on the exterior of the Inner Hall.
That ticket booth also offers English-language information material on the temple.
Menuma Shodenzan website in English
Kumagaya City Website
(Japanese, machine-translated English-language option available)
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