Tokorozawa 所沢市, 埼玉県
by Johannes Schonherr
Tokorozawa is a city in Saitama Prefecture located northwest of Tokyo and with a population of around 330,000. Tokorozawa's small urban center outside of the west exit of Tokorozawa Station has big department stores, high rises and a pedestrian shopping street known as Prope.
The majority of Tokorozawa consists of residential neighborhoods, made up of both apartment blocks and large areas of single family houses.
Commuter Family Town
At Tokorozawa Station, the Seibu Shinjuku Line (Seibu Shinjuku Station - Hon Kawagoe) and the Seibu Ikebukuro Line (Ikebukuro Station - Hanno / Chichibu) intersect. Thus Tokorozawa provides convenient transportation links to both Tokyo as well as to the recreation spots in Chichibu and beyond. Tokorozawa is also within easy reach of historic Kawagoe.
The convenient rail connections, combined with relatively low rents and property prices as well as a great number of parks and other greenery make Tokorozawa attractive for Tokyo commuters, especially for young families. Unlike in many other parts of Japan, you see plenty of children in the streets of Tokorozawa.
Though most of Tokorozawa has been built after World War II, the city has a number of historical attractions on offer.
Birthplace of Japanese Aviation
Tokorozawa's biggest claim to fame is the fact that Japanese aviation started with an airfield built in the city in 1911. At Tokorozawa airfield, the first Japanese pilots were trained by French aviators and it was in French airplanes that they took off into the air.
Soon, Tokorozawa became the center of Japanese aviation, though rather in the form of flight schools and experimental engineering than in the form of a commercial airport.
After World War II, the American Airforce took over the Tokorozawa airfield and turned it into an American airbase. When the land was returned to Japan in the early 1980's, the current Kokukoen (Aviation Park) was built on the site.
The Air Traffic Control Center for Kanto (eastern Japan) is still located in Tokorozawa. All flights to and from Narita and Haneda airports as well as those of the smaller regional airports are coordinated and supervised from Tokorozawa.
Kokukoen and the Tokorozawa Aviation Museum
Kokukoen is a large park built on the grounds of the former Tokorozawa airstrip and its environs. The layout of the original airstrip is still visible and various monuments in the park remind on the early days of aviation. There is a statue for French flight pioneer Henri Farman who provided great assistance to Japanese aviation in its early days as well as a statue for the first two Japanese airmen to die in a plane crash (in 1913).
The park also houses the Tokorozawa Aviation Museum, dedicated to the history of Japanese aviation. Plenty of vintage airplanes and helicopters are on display at the museum, some of them can be entered.
Aside from its aviation history, Kokukoen is known for its many cherry trees. In the cherry-blossom season, many families and groups of friends hold parties under blossoming trees. Throughout the year, the park is popular for walking, bicycling, sports and the like.
The Prope, Tokorozawa's main shopping and restaurant street starts right at the west exit of Tokorozawa Station and leads towards Kokukoen. "Prope" is short for "propeller" and the history of this street is also directly linked to Tokorozawa as the early center of Japanese aviation.
In 1911, when the first airstrip was built, a new road was also constructed, leading from the then new Tokorozawa Station to the airstrip. Today's names for the three urban streets that the old road has turned into reflect the history.
Walking from Tokorozawa Station, there is first the Prope. The gate over the pedestrian shopping street shows a propeller and underneath images of vintage double-decker aircraft. Walk through it to the other end and you will enter Faruman Dori, named after French aviation pioneer Henri Farman, which after the Faruman Dori intersection, continues as Hikoki Shindo (New Airplane Road). Under that name, it leads straight to Kokukoen.
Prope Street is always crowded with pedestrians and with people handing out flyers and free paper napkins. Most stores and restaurants on the street are however chain stores and chain restaurants. Cheap, convenient and busy but not much to write home about.
If you continue walking on Faruman Dori to the Faruman Dori intersection, turn left, then turn right in front of the Maruetsu supermarket into the small lane with the gate that spells out Sakazuki Yokocho, you will reach Tokorozawa's small historic entertainment district.
"Chain stores are boring!" is the motto of the tiny bars and restaurants in Sakazuki Yokocho, as spelled out on the website of the Sakazuki Yokocho restaurant association.
The 20-odd small bars and eateries in the narrow allies comprising Sakazuki Yokocho each have their own distinct personalities, marked by the personal tastes of their respective owners.
What they all have in common, however, is a certain nostalgic atmosphere reminiscent of the post-war Showa times, an atmosphere palpable already when you enter the narrow first alleyway.
Fukai Soy Sauce Factory
If you cross the small Azumagawa River behind Sakazuki Yokocho and turn to the left, you enter old Tokorozawa. Soon you will reach the small Yakuoji Temple and, after the bend in the street, the historic Fukai soy sauce factory.
The factory dates back to the late Edo Period, to 1856 to be exact, and it is housed in buildings not much younger than that. The store at the Fukai is well worth a stop. It offers a great variety of traditional soy sauces produced right at the premises as well as its very own Tamari pickles (tamarizuke), cucumbers or daikon radish pickled in a heavy soy sauce.
The Shinmeisha Shrine is Tokorozawa's main shrine. According to legend, it was founded in the year 110 A.D. by mythical warrior god Yamato Takeru.
Today, the shrine holds a number of popular festivities throughout the year. The shrine gets very crowded in New Year's night for its New Year's celebrations. In autumn, it always holds a kagura stage play in the honor of the old Shinto gods.
Most famous is however the Shinmeisha Shrine Doll Memorial Celebration held on the first Sunday of June. It's a truly unique event.
Tokorozawa is famous for its manufacture of hand-made traditional Japanese toys. Those dolls are considered not merely as children playthings but as close confidants of the children, as true friends to the children, they acquire their own sort of soul. Thus, they can't just be disposed of in the garbage later on.
At Shinmeisha Shrine, you can hand in all dolls you want to remove from your house throughout the year. At the Doll Memorial Celebration, those dolls will receive their final departure ceremony. A few of them will be burned on an impressive pyre, symbolically standing in for all the thousands of dolls handed in to the shrine during the year.
The Tokorozawa Matsuri is the city's biggest street festival. It is always held in early to mid-October.
In fact, it's two festivals rolled into one. On the one hand, a large number of traditional Japanese matsuri floats are pulled through the streets between the West Exit of Tokorozawa Station and the Central Public Library near Shinmeisha Shrine.
On the other hand, the festival features the big, colorful, Brazilian-inspired annual parade of the Tokorozawa Liberdade Samba Club. It's a bizarre spectacle to see the dancers in exotic costumes slowly make their way through the streets of Tokorozawa.
Parts of Tokorozawa are still semi-agricultural, especially the northern areas of Kita Tokorozawa and Kita Iwaoka. Tokorozawa is part of the Sayama tea region, Japan's northern-most tea growing area and much if not most agriculture here is focused on the production of tea.
The tea here is grown on small family farms which do their own tea processing. You can buy the tea right at the small farm shops.
Tea harvest time is in late April. From early May on the new tea (shin cha) is sold. That's the best time to buy fresh green tea right from the source.
Throughout Tokorozawa you find Sayama tea shops which offer product from various farms. Here you can find a variety of different local teas. Ask for tezumi tea - that's the hand-picked tea. It's the best.
Sports: Seibu Lions
The Seibu Lions are a Japanese baseball team in the Pacific League owned by the Seibu Railway company. Their home stadium is Seibu Dome, right in front of Seibukyujo-mae Station of the Seibu Sayama Line (a branch of the Seibu Ikebukuro Line).
Sayamako and Tamako Reservoirs
Along with the Seibu-Yuenchi Station of the Seibu Tamako and Seibu Yamaguchi Lines, Seibukyujo-mae Station is also a good starting point for walks to the Sayamako and Tamako reservoirs. These are big freshwater reservoirs supplying water to Tokyo.
As it goes with drinking water reservoirs, they are strictly fenced in to prevent pollution of the water. However, both the Tamako and Sayamako reservoirs have long visiting terraces. Sayamako is surrounded by forests and in the distance, mountain ranges are clearly in sight. On especially clear days, Mt. Fuji can be spotted far beyond the lake.
From Tokyo Seibu Shinjuku Station: Seibu Shinjuku Line starting from Seibu Shinjuku Station next to Kabukicho (about an 8 minute walk from the main Shinjuku Station). A transfer from the Yamanote Line to the Seibu Shinjuku Line is possible at Takadanobaba Station.
Tokorozawa City website (in Japanese)
Access: Kokukoen Station on the Seibu Shinjuku line towards Hon Kawagoe
Opening times: Tuesday - Sunday 9:30am - 5:00pm
Admission: Museum: Adults 500 yen, Children 100 yen
IMAX Theater: Adults 600 yen, Children 250 yen
Combination ticket: Adults 800 yen, Children 300 yen
Tel: 04 2996 2225
Sakazuki Yokocho website (in Japanese)
Fukai Soy Sauce Factory (in Japanese)
Tel: 04 2924 2015
Open daily 9am to 5.30pm
Shinmeisha Shrine (in Japanese)
Tel: 04 2922 3919
Seibu Lions (in Japanese)