Misotsuchi Frozen Waterfall & Otaki Onsen, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture 三十槌の氷柱, 秩父市, 埼玉県
by Johannes Schonherr
The iconic quarry terraces of Mount Buko, overlooking the city of Chichibu, were covered in deep snow when I arrived at Seibu Chichibu Station. There had been no snow in Tokyo at all but Chichibu is a different world. The city is located deep in the mountains of western Saitama Prefecture and here, winter is really winter with freezing temperatures and snow on the ground.
I had not come to stay in the city, though. I had come to explore the Misotsuchi no Tsurara (Misotsuchi frozen waterfall) in combination with a hot soak at the nearby Otaki Hot Springs. I had seen impressive pictures of the waterfall in a Japanese newspaper the winter before and when I did a little research on it, I stumbled over the hot springs. Now, I was finally on my way.
Though the Misotsuchi is a popular winter tourist spot, buses going there are scarce. A few times a day, the Seibu Kanko Bus Company runs an express bus from Seibu Chichibu Station to the area, terminating at Mitsumine Shrine. I was lucky and one such a bus soon left from the train station bus terminal.
The bus made stops only at Mitsumineguchi Station, Otaki Onsen and two or three other places before I got off at Misoba, the stop closest to Misotsuchi.
All announcements in the bus were both in Japanese and English and they made clear that the Misoba stop was the one serving Misotsuchi.
From the bus stop, it was about a slow 10 minute walk along the road towards Mitsumine Shrine before the signs pointing to the Wood Roof Auto Camp directed visitors to a steep downward slope to the left.
This was the entrance to the Misotsuchi. On the bottom of the slope was the Wood Roof Café, serving a variety of hot dishes outdoors including Frankfurter sausages, udon noodles and hot miso potatoes to be consumed at the open fireplace in front of the café.
Behind the café was a large parking area. Visitors arriving by foot from the bus stop are admitted to the Misotsuchi for free, cars, motorbikes and buses will be charged a parking fee.
A steep slope down towards the Arakawa River led me first to a small shrine dedicated to the gods of water and eventually to the riverbank.
I had reached the Thirty Icicle Hammers to give a free translation of Misotsuchi no Tsurara, the full Japanese name of the frozen waterfall.
Across the cold waters of the Arakawa River, bizarrely shaped agglomerations of hundreds of long fragile icicles hung from the cliff-like rocks, providing a stunning view.
Throughout the year, rain water the slopes of the Mitsumine-san (1102 meters) can't absorb, drips, trickles or gushes into the Arakawa River here. In December, the mountainside water flow starts to freeze and from early January on forms the Thirty Icicle Hammers.
I had arrived about 1pm and the icicles were in the shadow. Just a little to the left of the Misotsuchi, bright sun rays hit the snow. For a short period in the morning, some of the icicles can be seen glistening in the sunlight, I had read. It must be an awesome sight - but obviously a very brief one. If the icicles were exposed to longer periods of sunlight, they would just melt away.
The Arakawa River Valley is narrow and shadowy here, and that keeps the icicles frozen in shape.
The Icicles of Ashigakubo and Onouchihyake
The wider Chichibu area boasts three icicle parks and they are often advertised as one set. The Misotsuchi is the original and it was created naturally.
Human intervention formed the other two icicle sceneries: shadowy mountain valleys are sprayed with cold water in the winter, creating frosty icicle landscapes. The one in Ashigakubo is very easily accessible as it is only a 10 minute walk from both Ashigakubo train station on the Seibu Chichibu Line as well as from the roadside rest area on Highway 299 just below Ashigakubo Station.
The Onouchihyake Icicle Park in Ogano sports a suspension bridge from which manifold icicles hanging from the valley's trees can be viewed.
But why go to see the copies if you can enjoy the original?
Misotsuchi is lit up daily from 5pm on, and of course, I didn't want to miss the colorful spectacle. But up to then, I was left with much time on my hands and a hot spring bath would be the perfect respite from the frosty icicle valley.
I walked back past the Misoba bus stop and into Otaki Village.
Otaki Village is an old-fashioned roadside mountain village. It houses a small shrine, a small minshuku family inn, a gas station, a post office, and a police station. At the end of the village towards Chichibu proper, after a 30 minute walk, I arrived at the Otaki Michi-no-Eki.
Michi-no-Eki, roadside rest houses, are usually busy places with many motorists stopping by to purchase local products at large specialized shops.
This wasn't the case here. The Otaki Michi-no-Eki appears at first glance to be a forbidding cluster of 1970's, gray, concrete, government buildings with a huge parking lot in front of them. The buildings house various Chichibu town offices including a local tourism development agency and a small local history and folk art center.
The Gorokan restaurant on the site offers good soba noodles and sells a few local products and then there is Otaki Onsen.
After arriving from a visit to the frigid icicle waterfall, the onsen offers the perfect rest and relaxation: a deep soak in hot water.
The onsen is located right on the Arakawa River and it has baths on two floors. The upper bath is lined with huge glass windows towards the trees on the other side of the river.
The lower bath, a flight of stairs downwards, has an open window towards the outside landscape, the view unimpeded. Cold, fresh mountain air freely flows into the bath while you relax in the natural hot spring water.
Misotsuchi Frozen Waterfall Illuminations
I did not even bother to check if there would be a bus heading back to the Misoba stop. I still had plenty of time. I slowly walked back to Misotsuchi and arrived there about an hour before the evening light-up was to start.
This time, I went inside the Wood Roof Café. You have to take off your shoes before entering the warm, cozy café. The dishes on offer inside are the same as the ones sold outdoors: miso potatoes, udon noodles, sausages on a stick, tiramisu.
Slowly, the café filled with visitors who had the same plan I had: seeing the Misotsuchi lit up. Some of them arrived with heavy camera gear.
At 5pm sharp, the lights targeted on the icicles went on. Though the sun had long disappeared behind the mountains, daylight was still bright.
Painfully slowly, evening twilight set in and the pale lights directed at the icicles began to turn vivid red, blue and green.
As the minutes passed by, the icicles took on a colorful new life very different from their daytime appearance. The colors of the lights changed gradually, highlighting different sections of the icicles.
The darkened valley felt more and more like an icy cave filled with brightly colored stalactites under artful illumination. But we were out here in the open, with the river flowing in front of us. Looking up, a multitude of nightly stars on the clear rural sky above the valley joined the brightly sparkling illumination of the shiny clear icicles.
Suddenly, my time was up. I had to run to the Misoba stop to catch the last bus back to Mitsumineguchi Station at 5.51pm.
I briefly pondered if I should call a taxi instead - but then decided that it was best to leave when the impressions were at their strongest point.
Seibu Red Arrow Express or Seibu Chichibu Line from Ikebukuro Station to Seibu Chichibu Station. Seibu Kanko express buses in direction of Mitsumine Shrine leave in front of Seibu Chichibu Station. Travel on the bus to Misoba (三十場) bus stop. The Misotsuchi no Tsurara is a 10 minute walk from the bus stop.
Alternatively, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Kumagaya Station in Kumagaya, change there to the Chichibu Railway and go to either Ohanabatake Station (a 3 minute walk away from Seibu Chichibu Station) or to Mitsumineguchi Station. Take the express bus from one of these stations.
Return: The last bus back from Misoba bus stop leaves about 5.50pm. This bus will terminate at Mitsumineguchi train station. Take the train to either Ohanabatake Station (transfer to Seibu Chichibu Line) or to Kumagaya (transfer to the Hokuriku Shinkansen).
Seibu Kanko express bus schedule: www.seibubus.co.jp/mitsumine.pdf (in Japanese)
Seibu Kanko bus schedule covering all buses towards / returning from Misoba bus stop (三十場) www.seibukankoubus.co.jp/chichibu_annai/pdf/M.pdf (in Japanese)
Mitsumineguchi taxi: call 0120 694 102 (the taxi will take about 30 minutes to arrive at Misotsuchi)
Misotsuchi no Tsurara
The Misotsuchi no Tsurara is open from about January 10th to the end of February, it is lit up daily from mid-January to mid-February from 5pm to 7pm (weekdays), up to 9pm on weekends and public holidays.
Opening times: Daily from 8am to 5pm when the icicles are not lit up, otherwise see light-up times above.
Admission is free for visitors arriving by bus.
Parking fees: car 500 yen, motorbikes 200 yen, microbuses 1000 yen.
Misotsuchi website: navi.city.chichibu.lg.jp/p_flower/1403
Wood Roof Café
Opening times identical to the opening times of the Misotsuchi no Tsurara.
Wood Roof Café website: www.woodroof.jp/tsurara/index.html
Chichibu City, Otaki 4277-2
Tel: 0494 55 0126
April 1st to November 30th: 10am to 8pm
December 1st to March 31st: 10am to 7pm
Adults 700 yen, primary school students 400 yen, children younger than primary school age 200 yen
Otaki Onsen Website: www.ootakionsen.co.jp
The Seibu Kanko express bus stops in front of the Otaki Onsen. Get off at the Otaki Onsen Yuyukan stop.
Misotsuchi no Tsurara on google maps
Other icicle parks in the Chichibu area
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