The Ashigakubo Icicles in Yokoze Town, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture are artificially created by spraying water over the trees which are then illuminated in various colors at night.
Ashigakubo Icicles, Yokoze Town, Chichibu Region, Saitama Prefecture あしがくぼの氷柱, 芦ケ久保, 横瀬町, 埼玉県
by Johannes Schonherr
In January and February, the Chichibu region in western Saitama Prefecture offers visitors three bizarrely formed icicle landscapes. All of them are well worth visiting.
The Misotsuchi no Tsurara is a natural frozen waterfall; the Onouchihyakkei Icicle Park in Ogano and the Ashigakubo Icicles are artificially created.
Water is sprayed over the trees in frigid, shadowy valleys, resulting in wildly shaped ice crusts on their branches. All three icicle fields are colorfully illuminated on weekend evenings.
Illuminated Ashigakubo IciclesFlyer promoting the three icicle parks near Chichibu. From left - Onouchihyakkei, Misotsuchi, Ashigakubo
Of the three, the Ashigakubo icicle landscape (Ashigakubo Hyochu) is the largest - and by far the one most easily accessible. It is just a 10 minute walk from Ashigakubo Station on the Seibu Chichibu Line. Trains run frequently and late into the night. You won't have to cut short your visit to the illumination nights in order to catch the last bus.
The walking path from Ashigakubo Station to the icicle park is very well marked by multiple flags spelling out Ashigakubo Hyochu in Japanese. Buy your ticket (300 yen per person), then pass through below the train tracks in a small tunnel. The icicles start right behind the tunnel.
A gate shaped like a torii at the entrance of a Shinto shrine leads into the actual ice world. The icicles cover a whole small valley with a stream running on its ground. Water from that stream is constantly sprayed on to the ice to keep the icicles in shape.
A winding path leads through the ice landscape, offering views onto the icicle fields from multiple angles. The path leads to a natural platform above them. There, wood-fired stoves provide some warm air. Two temporary outlets offer drinks to the visitors. One serves amazake (a kind of sweet, non-alcoholic sake), the other hot local green Sayama tea. A cup of either amazake or tea per person is covered by the admission ticket.
If you want to see the icicles glistening in the sunlight, you should arrive well before noon. Sunlight hours are short in the valley - they would otherwise melt the ice away.
The admission ticket is good for the whole day. So, you can go out and return for the illumination night - provided you visit the icicles on a weekend or holiday. On weekdays, the icicle area will be closed in the evening.
Ashigakubo Icicles in the daylight Ashigakubo Icicles covered with snow
It might be worth checking out a bit of Ashigakubo Village before returning for the illuminations.
The village of Ashigakubo, now part of Yokoze town and located on Highway 299 leading from Hanno (and by extension, Tokyo) to Chichibu is perhaps best known for its Michi-no-eki roadside rest house.
Michi-no-eki are a sort of country road equivalent to the rest stations on the national highways. They are typically located in a scenic area, they serve food, sell local farm products and souvenirs, provide spacious restrooms and plenty of information on the surrounding area.
The Michi-no-eki in Ashigakubo, officially called the Road Station Ashigakubo Kaju Koen, always pulls in plenty of motorists. Bike riders in need of a leak, a can of coffee and a cigarette break, families stocking up on fresh vegetables and fruits.
Locally made fruit jam is sold in a specialized shop. The soba noodles served at the rest house are famous in the region. There is a coffee house but you can also sit with a drink of your choice on a bench overlooking the Yokoze River flowing by closely.
Ashigakubo train station of the Seibu Chichibu Line is right behind the rest house, a few steps further uphill. On the opposite side of the river (and Highway 299) Ashigakubo steeply slopes up.
The single houses dotting the hillside are not very remarkable but the Kannon (Goddess of Mercy) statue of Genjuin Temple (源寿院別院) in the upper region of the village looks impressive from afar and gives the scenery a slightly mysterious touch.
It's easy to walk up to the Kannon statue - if you are used to hiking up steep slopes. On a closer look, the Kannon turns out to be of rather recent vintage and being located at a small temple which also looks new. It's all concrete.
However, the view towards quarry-scarred Mount Buko with the Kannon in front makes the temple well worth a hike. Around noon at the latest, that is. In the afternoon, a blinding sun will set right behind Mount Buko.
Ashigakubo Village with the Kannon of Genjuin Temple in the background (left)The Kannon of Genjuin Temple, Ashigakubo, Saitama Prefecture
Tea & Strawberries
Ashigakubo is famous in the region for its strawberries and walking through the village you will encounter many strawberry farms and greenhouses. Strawberry harvest season starts in January here - it's the perfect time to pick some up and take them to the icicles.
Ashigakobu is also home to a few tiny tea fields. Being deep in the mountains, the village must be one of the most extreme outposts of the Sayama tea area. The variations grown here, Sayama no Kaori and Yabukita are the same as in the flatland Sayama Tea areas around Tokorozawa but the plants in Ashigakubo must be especially sturdy to survive the harsh winters. Tea connoisseurs might taste a difference.
The green tea stand at the icicles sells packs of locally produced Sayama tea. Both variations are on offer.
Higher up in the hills are a large fruit garden and Nozon Park, a large nature playground with a sort of fixed-wheel sled track for children running across the park. Local information calls it a "rollercoaster" but that's not what it really is. You place your children on a plastic sled and let them race down the hill transported by a track of thousands of fixed steel rollers.
Back down on Highway 299 but still across the road from the rest house, it pays to visit the small Shirage Shrine, a very traditional small, countryside shrine.
On Highway 299, right at the entrance to the Michi-no-eki, you find the Buko Information Center. It offers a wealth of information on events taking place in the region throughout the year. All flyers etc. on offer are only in Japanese, however.
A train passing by the illuminated Ashigakubo IciclesIllumination night at the Ashigakubo Icicles
Unfortunately, Ashigakubo has no onsen hot spring bath. If you have the time to spend, it might well worth visiting the Buko Onsen in Yokoze to warm up your body before returning to the Ashigakubo Icicles.
Yokoze is one stop by train from Ashigakubo in the direction of Chichibu. The Buko Onsen is about a 10 minute walk from Yokoze Station and offers, besides indoor facilities, an outdoor hot spring pool.
Illumination night at the Ashigakubo Icicles
Though usually rather crowded, illuminated nights at the Ashigakubo Icicles are a magical sight. The bizarrely shaped icicles are lit up in permanently changing colors. Add to this the trains racing through the night close to the torii gate and you do get the feeling of being in a strange but beautiful fairy tale land.
Open from early January to late February (in 2018 from January 6th to February 25th)
Opening times: Monday-Thursday 9 am to 4 pm, Friday to Sunday and national holidays 9 am to 8 pm.
Admission: 300 yen (the ticket includes a cup of amazake or green tea)
Website: www.yokoze.org/shisetsu/hyoutyuu (in Japanese)
Fast connection: Red Arrow Limited Express (reservations required) from Ikebukuro Station to Hanno, change to the local Seibu Chichibu Line, get off at Ashigakubo Station.
It is slower but cheaper to take a Seibu Ikebukuro Line train to Hanno (no reservations required), change in Hanno to the local Seibu Chichibu Line, get off at Ashigakubo.