Just an hour outside of Tokyo in Saitama lies a foreigner-friendly retreat that provides a convenient and less-expensive alternative to Hakone. In a location famous for, and named after, a stunning park that makes Yoyogi’s look like your neighbor’s backyard, Shinrin Koen dishes up a host of activities that cater to everyone from the lazy to the energetic.
If kayaking, fishing, horse-riding, cycling, tennis and golf don’t provide you with enough alternatives, you can even get married at the Heritage Hotel, which has extensive wedding facilities. In fact, the Heritage is central to this great escape, as it offers packages for foreigners that includes accommodations, indoor and outdoor onsen, a golf course, a six-course dinner and a buffet breakfast—all for ¥11,000-¥18,000 per person. Hotel staff will even pick you up from the station if notified in advance.
First up for sightseeing is the park itself. Here, cycling enthusiasts can ride a 6km route surrounded by an impressive collection of indigenous plant life (all of which are labeled for those who take that kind of thing seriously). There’s a massive outdoor pool for the summer and a theme bus that regularly transports sightseers on a 90-minute trip around the park. Restaurants and strategic viewpoints put the finishing touches on a solid day out.
For something different, Saitama Farm Park, just a 10-minute drive from the Heritage Hotel, offers mini-golf (or “putter-golf,” as it’s called in Japan) and a cross-country cycling course with old-fashioned penny-farthing bicycles available for hire—don’t forget your bowler hat, champagne, and strawberries and cream. A tranquil river further along the drag provides an ideal spot for kayaking; boats, helmets, life vests and oars are available for rent. Nearby Namegawa Joba Horse-riding Club caters to those who like to view the countryside from a different angle and at a different pace. Experienced riders can try their hand or earn their spurs on the show-jumping obstacle course, and lessons are available for first-timers.
For the kids, Saitama Children’s Zoo boasts a collection of koalas, giraffes, kangaroos, zebras, camels and birds. The Saitama Museum of Rivers is, unfortunately, 25 minutes away from the station and from central Shinrin Koen, and possibly not worth the taxi fare there and back if you are not traveling by car. Nevertheless, it has a windmill and interesting information on, well, rivers.
Back at the hotel, it’s feet up—unless you’re getting married—in the sauna, the large outdoor swimming pool with a center island, and the indoor, outdoor and mixed onsen. As summer approaches, the Heritage promises a series of poolside barbecues as an alternative to the Japanese/Western-style set dinner.
Since the Japanese economic bubble burst, golf has become cheaper and cheaper, yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a round as cheap as at the Heritage. Although it’s a nine-hole course, the ¥6,000 (weekdays) and ¥7,500 (weekends and holidays) fee will get you a round of 18, including onsen (the Japanese equivalent of the proverbial 19th hole). The course is not the area’s most taxing, and it won’t exactly have those Tiger wannabes backing away in fear, but the greens are true and the fairways in good shape, providing a good way to spoil a walk for the avid golfer.
While Shinrin Koen has no shortage of outdoor adventures to choose from, it also provides the English support that’s key to getting the trip from the drawing board into motion. It’s hard to imagine that such a gem lies just a stone’s throw away from the concrete jungle that is Tokyo.
From Ikebukuro stn, take the Tobu-Tojo line to Shinrin Koen (¥700), which is the last stop on the line. It’s advisable to shoot for the express train that leaves every 15-20min, as it takes just under an hour. Taxis and buses are available at the station, or contact the Heritage Hotel for transportation to wherever you plan to go. A taxi costs approximately ¥2,000 to the hotel and the bus around ¥300. For golf/hotel reservations, contact: Jun Abe at 03-5950-1212 or 048-536-1212. Mention Metropolis magazine to make sure you get the foreigner’s discount. See www.hotel-heritage.co.jp (Japanese).