If Tokyo is the hot blooded, sexy, pulsating supermodel of Japan, Saitama is its buck-toothed, slightly chubby, less attractive sister. Saitama is the neighboring prefecture to Tokyo and largely an industrial area, full of factories making gum and car parts, and mile after mile of second hand car dealerships. It’s flat, mostly lacking in character, and it’s a place we go to twice a year, because it’s where the in-laws live.
It might sound like a harsh criticism but even my husband agrees (and says it all the time), going to Saitama is pretty depressing. There isn’t much to do and it’s largely a commuter town due to its cheap rent and proximity to Tokyo. A lot of shops and restaurants are closed, and the ones that are open have no customers. We saw a sign up advertising a 3LDK (that’s three bedrooms, plus dining room and kitchen) right next to Shin-Sayama Station for just over US $100,000. In downtown Tokyo, by contrast, a 3LDK would cost at least a cool USD 1 million.
When in Saitama we stay in an area called Sayama. The nearest train station is Shin-Sayama, on the Seibu Shinjuku line. And there are three neat things about the town, that I’m glad to share with you today.
- HAMAZUSHI – If you love sushi but don’t have buckets of money to eat in a fancy restaurant, then Hamazushi with its ‘conveyor belt’ of rotating sushi is a life saver. And trust me, it is absolutely delicious. Every standard dish is just 105 yen (under US $1) and the menu is very varied. Best of all, for hapless gaijin like me, the electronic menu is in English – a rarity in Japan! You just use the electronic menu to choose whatever food you want to eat, and seconds later it comes whizzing down the belt, alerting you that your selected dish is about to arrive.How to get there – From Shin-Sayama station go out the North Exit, and walk down the main shopping street playing spooky music until you reach a ‘T’ at the end of the road. You’ll see a huge PC DEPOT with a Hard Off and Book Off straight ahead of you. Turn left, and walk just under 10 minutes. You’ll find Hamazushi on your left, just after a katsudon place.
- HARD OFF – Who doesn’t love a bargain? And thankfully in Japan, second hand stuff is in excellent quality and good brand names too. Every time I go to Sayama I have to go to Hard Off, just to look around. You can stock up your entire kitchen with beautiful Japanese tableware, or buy super cheap baby clothes. Furniture, sporting goods, shoes, bags, you name it, they’ve got it, and it’s damn cheap.
- SAYAMA ZOO – If you’ve got kids (or even one kid, like I do), a trip to Sayama Zoo is a fun way to spend a few hours. Feed the ducks, pet the goats, watch the guinea pigs get a manicure, and observe the red bottoms in the monkey enclosure. The zoo had a few school buses there that day but otherwise it was quiet and empty. I believe it was also only 200 yen!
See? It’s not all doom and gloom in Saitama. It might not be the most exciting place in Japan, but at least you’re not that far from all the action downtown!