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Sunday, June 7, 2009

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All aboard for Saitama's splendors


By MANDY BARTOK
Special to The Japan Times

"Get ready!" comes the call from Kato, our river guide who is standing at his post in the stern of our wooden longboat. My gaze snaps forward, scanning the waterway.

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Pole position: An apprentice boatman (above) with the tool of his trade in hand, ready to guide passengers on a yakata-bune (below) along the scenic Ara River (top). MANDY BARTOK
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Up until this point, our cruise on the Arakawa (Ara River) in Saitama Prefecture has been an idyllic outing. Floating past imposing limestone cliffs set against a verdant background, I've let my eyes drift away from the water as it makes its way toward far-off Tokyo Bay to feast on the magnificent scenery. But ahead, white water swirls menacingly.

Kato gestures at the plastic sheets in the bottom of the boat and we scramble to pull them tightly around our bodies, and hunch away from the side of the boat, as the swirling eddies loom large in front of us.

With grunts of exertion, Kato and his team thrust bamboo poles into the depths and angle the craft through the turbulence. After a short drop akin to a roller-coaster ride, it splashes down through the churning water and back into a calmer stretch of the river again. We tourists laugh and shake off our splattered plastic shields, while Kato and his crew of polemen merely smile and steer us back on course.

For them, it's all in a day's work as rivermen running the Nagatoro Rapids.

Boats have been plying their trade on the Ara River for centuries, and the craft we're in is not much different from its ancient forebears. These vessels, known as yakata-bune ("pleasure boats"), are traditional wooden longboats, piloted by men who've spent their lives on the area's waterways. With only their sturdy poles to steer the craft down the swift and occasionally treacherous Ara River, it's a profession that takes consummate skill.

"We've been doing this for 16 years," says Kato, indicating that the poleman in the bow has an equal pedigree on the job. Together, they are training a new recruit, letting him take the stern rudder for a portion of our journey. Apprenticeship, however, can last a long time, Kato explains. "The only real way to get promoted to master in this line of work is to wait for someone to retire."

On fair-weather days from spring to late autumn, Kato and his crew might make several trips down the 6-km stretch of river that skirts the town of Nagatoro. On weekends and holidays, tourists from Tokyo greatly swell the visitor numbers, often filling the boats to capacity.

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Natural glory: Saitama's Oku-Chichibu region from Mount Hodo MANDY BARTOK

The surrounding landscape is clearly the most obvious attraction. Here, the Ara River cuts through high rock walls, carving out a passageway through layers of schist laid down on a long-gone ocean floor. Though those waters have long since receded, the formations created in prehistoric times still dazzle the average daytripper. As we drift past a section of particular beauty, Kato gestures at the high cliffs and declares: "Thirty-three meters — the highest along the river."

Prehistoric wonders aside, Kato also credits a thoroughly modern invention for bringing the recent influx of visitors to the river.

National broadcaster NHK has been filming "Tsubasa," its current morning TV drama, in the prefecture, and though the long-running series is still in its early months, its popularity has caused a spike in tourism to Saitama. Filmed on location in both Nagatoro and the nearby town of Kawagoe, "Tsubasa" follows the life of a young girl who works in her family's confectionary shop. One day, her long-lost mother returns home unexpectedly, throwing the family into a tailspin, and the ensuing antics that unfold are both heartwarming and hilarious. Among the show's ensemble of colorful characters is the girl's grandfather, who makes a living running the Nagatoro Rapids — a fact that Kato points out with pride.

Twenty minutes later, Kato and his capable colleagues ease our boat onto a rocky beach and passengers clamor ashore to explore the surrounding terrain. The cliffs above are crawling with camera- toting tourists, though at first glance, the significance of this particular outcrop is completely lost on me.

"This spot is known as Iwadatami, or the 'tatami rocks,' " says Yokosuka resident Yoko Imai, after noticing my befuddlement over the popularity of what is essentially a heap of stone. The fascination, she explains, comes from the fact that the entire cliff is formed from one single mass of rock.

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Sight seeing: An artist paints atop the Iwadatami Rocks overlooking the Ara River. MANDY BARTOK

Impressed, I head over to examine a section at the cliff's edge. Though fractured from years of merciless weathering, the telltale layers of sedimentary history are evident. Extending for hundreds of meters along the river's edge, the "tatami rocks" are an impressive testament to the forces of nature.

However, never one to wax philosophical over an age-old boulder, I instead see the rock for what it is now — the perfect place from which to watch the boats come through the gorge. I'm not alone; the cliff provides an ideal vantage point for photographers and painters alike, and I settle in for a while to watch Yoko's husband, Yasuji, as he sketches the scene.

Then, on Yoko's suggestion, I soon detour from the river and head for the hills behind Nagatoro town. Mount Hodo is the region's most notable peak, and a small cable car makes a twice-hourly run up to the mountain's viewpoint. In spring, the slopes are covered with blooming azaleas forming vivid pink carpets that can be seen for miles. Winter visitors, however, are treated to the rare sight of robai (yellow wax blossoms), and paths to the small shrine on the peak are lined with the golden petals of this cold-weather flower.

The cable car terminates a few hundred meters short of the actual summit, but the panoramic view of the countryside from the nearby terrace is second to none. To the south, my eyes are drawn back to the cliffs, though the Ara River remains tantalizingly hidden. Further on, the Chichibu basin spreads out into fertile lowlands. With so much vegetation in sight, it's hard to imagine the watery existence this part of the country once enjoyed.

From the viewpoint's north side, fiery azaleas frame my view of the folded hills of the Oku-Chichibu region. But that day, while stunning in their blanket of spring greenery, the trees only served to highlight the dark clouds slowly rolling across the landscape. I cut short my exploration and head back to the cable car as the sun disappears behind an ominous mask of rainclouds.

Back down in the town, I grab a quick snack of sweet peanut mochi, a local specialty, before ambling back to the train station. On the way, I pass a gaggle of tourists heading down to the riverbank for their own yakata-bune adventure. I smile as I imagine Kato and his team gearing up for their next run through the rapids, their boat having been trucked back to the starting point. Just another day in the endless flow of life on the Ara River.

Yakate-bune boats pass through the Nagatoro Rapids every day from mid-March to late November/early December (weather permitting). A 3-km, 30-minute course costs ¥1,550; the full 6-km, 60-minute option is ¥3,100. Cable cars leave twice an hour from the foot of Mount Hodo on the other side of Nagatoro town. The 7-min. trip costs ¥420 one way. For more information on these and other sights in Nagatoro, visit www.nagatoro.gr.jp (Japanese only). Visitors from Tokyo should take the Seibu Line from Ikebukuro Station (¥1,370, 78-min.) to Seibu-Chichibu Station and connect to the Chichibu Railway for Nagatoro (¥460, 23 min.).


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