A Side Trip to Saitama: Discovering “Little Edo”, Cafes, and the Railway Museum

A Side Trip to Saitama: Discovering “Little Edo”, Cafes, and the Railway Museum

Located just about half an hour north of Central Tokyo, Ōmiya Station (大宮駅 Ōmiya-eki) is the gateway to the neighbouring Saitama Prefecture (埼玉県). It is also a stop on more than half of Japan’s shinkansen routes, but the surrounding museums, shrines, gardens, and local cuisine of the prefecture still feel like some of Japan's best kept secrets. For an off-the-beaten-path spot in Japan that's so accessible it's a stop on the shinkansen, try a visit to Omiya!

Ōmiya Station serves as a central node for JR East shinkansen lines before they split up and continue to their respective destinations. However, perhaps unbeknownst to many travellers, the surrounding area is filled with many amazing attractions and surprises, making it a worthy destination of its own, from historical shrines and streets, to local food specialties.

To find some of Saitama's hidden treasures, we consulted with those who know best: the JR staff at the local Saitama train stations! In this article, we explore areas accessible from Ōmiya Station, starting with one station that serves as a gateway to a town where visitors can feel like they have been transported back in time. 

 

Kawagoe Station: A Visit to “Little Edo”

Kawagoe's iconic clock tower in Little Edo
Take a walk in Little Edo "Koedo", Kawagoe | Photo by JAPANKURU

Take a trip back in time with an easy train trip from Omiya to Kawagoe (川越), only about 20 minutes on the JR Kawagoe Line! Kawagoe is famous for its beautifully preserved streets dating back to various periods in Japan's past, and while you can find some very chic retro architecture from the Taisho Period (1912-1926) on Taisho Roman Yume-dori (大正浪漫夢通り), many of the most popular areas date back to the Edo Period. Slip on a kimono and walk down streets like Kanetsuki-dori (鐘つき通り) to feel like you've stepped back into a scene from historic Tokyoalso known as Little Edo (小江戸)and make sure to grab a picture of the 400-year-old Toki no Kane (時の鐘 Bell of Time) that gave the road its name. 

 

Unagi omelette (tamagoyaki), a popular street food in Kawagoe
Unagi omelettes (tamagoyaki) | Photo by JAPANKURU

With so many people strolling the streets of Kawagoe, the historic district has also become a hotspot for local street food. The busy streets are lined with shops selling Japanese street food classics like dango or senbei (rice crackers), and you can even find Japanese-style unagi omelettes or unagi on a stick for sale from the counter at Unagi Denbe. But these days, Kawagoe's most popular local snacks all revolve around sweet potatoes!

 

Unagi Denbe (うなぎ傳米)
Access: Take a bus from Kawagoe Station (川越駅) and get off at either Otemachi (大手町) or Ichibangai (一番街) bus stop. Alternatively, take a 25-minute walk from Kawagoe Station. 

 

Osatsu sweet potato chips, a type of street food found in Kawagoe
Osatsu chips | Photo by JAPANKURU

Walk down the street and you'll often see fellow sightseers holding cups filled with what look like long slices of sweet potato. If you don't mind waiting in line, then you too can try the crispy-crunchy osatsu chips (sweet potato chips) from Koedo Osatsuan, which come with a light sprinkling of salt and a sweet or salty dipping sauce (salty butter sauce or purple sweet potato cream are the most popular).

 

Koedo Osatsuann (小江戸おさつ庵)
Access: Take a bus from Kawagoe Station (川越駅) and get off at either Otemachi (大手町) or Ichibangai (一番街) bus stop. Alternatively, take a 25-minute walk from Kawagoe Station.

 

Tantoku Garden in autumn, Saitama
Tantoku Garden | Photo by Tantoku Garden

To escape the hustle and bustle of Little Edo, slip away down the back alleys to find the tranquil hideaway of Tantoku Garden (丹徳庭園), a cosy Japanese garden behind a traditional house built at the turn of the century. Though small in size, the garden is full of details that make it irresistible, like a tiny shrine devoted to the god Inari with a base made from lava rock from Mount Fuji, a compact Zen garden with a carefully placed stone resembling a ship full of treasures, and the gurgling sound of water flowing past small pebbles below the hand-washing fountain.

 

Japanese tea ceremony or sado
Japanese tea ceremony | Photo by Tantoku Garden

Just a short visit to the garden is enough to leave you feeling refreshed, but Tantoku also offers the chance to visit the house for a tea ceremony experience where you prepare your own traditional sweets, to really soak up the traditional atmosphere. And if you fall in love with the Tantoku house and its garden (which you might), you can even book a night to have the place all to yourself! The overnight accommodations include access to the tea room detailed in rich ebony, and a luxurious open-air bath.

 

Tantoku Garden (丹徳庭園)
Access: 3-minute walk from Kawagoe Station (川越駅)
*Note: Reservations are required for accommodations at the garden.

 

Urawa Station: Unagi Cuisine & Chewy Dango for the Foodies

Station staff at Urawa Station
Welcome to Urawa Station | Photo by JAPANKURU

Ask the locals around Urawa Station (浦和駅), and they'll tell you that there's a bit of a long-term feud between the Urawa and Omiya areas of Saitama, with each one vying to prove they're the best. But there's no reason why travellers shouldn't get to visit both and enjoy what makes each of the areas so special! Urawa Station isn't a stop on the shinkansen, so it doesn't quite measure up to Ōmiya Station in terms of size, but it has an even longer history and celebrated 140 years of railway service in 2023.

 

Urawa Station is also a station overflowing with love for the local soccer team, with a whole section called the "Urawa Soccer Street" dedicated to the Urawa Red Diamonds (or "Urawa Reds"). Urawa's hometown pride is evident wherever you look, giving the whole area a convivial atmosphere that's fun to be around.

The Urawa Station staff were more than happy to give us recommendations for exploring Urawa, and the area around the station has plenty to see. The nearby temple of Gyokuzoin (玉蔵院) dates back to the Heian Period (7941185), when it's said it was founded by the famous monk Kobo Daishi. In the other direction, Tsuki Shrine (調神社) is somewhere around 2,000 years old, and not only is the ancient shrine guarded by rabbits instead of lion dogs, but it's also one of the few shrines in Japan that has no torii gate at all! (Shrine legend says that the gate was removed because it got in the way of offerings sent to the yearly gathering of Japan's eight million gods in Izumo.)

But most of all, Urawa was once a stop on Japan's major Nakasendo road, a route that connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital. And because of its particular location, Urawa has been the go-to lunch spot for travellers since the Edo Period (16031868).

 

Unagi on a bed of rice
Nakamuraya’s unaju | Photo by Nakamuraya

Though it's hard to imagine these days, Saitama was once full of the kind of marshy land where eels thrive, and to this day the area is known for serving some of Japan's best unagi (うなぎ eel). In the days when samurai followed the Nakasendo route to traverse Japan, Urawa was just the right distance from Tokyo for travellers to stop in for a hearty midday meal before they were back on their way, and you can follow in their footsteps by taking a break from your own journey at Nakamuraya. This family-owned restaurant specialises in unagi kabayaki (うなぎかば焼き grilled eel), and the eel is cooked over binchotan charcoal while being basted with their special house-made sauce for rich, mouth-watering flavour that goes perfectly over a bed of warm white rice. Order the unaju (鰻重) for a taste of Urawa history!

 

Nakamuraya (中村家)
Access: 7-minute walk from Urawa Station (浦和駅)

 

Dango at a dango specialty shop
Tokiwa Dango’s iconic dango | Photo by JAPANKURU

Saitama has some of the highest rates of dessert consumption in Japan, so for something a little sweeter, look no further than the dango specialty shop Tokiwa Dango. Dango (団子) are chewy little Japanese dumplings made of rice flour (sometimes called mochi), and at this shop in front of Urawa Station, they top them with slabs of sweet red bean paste or a thick dusting of kinako (きな粉 roasted soybean powder). The shop interior has a handful of tables and the cosy feel of an old-fashioned Japanese cafe, providing the perfect place to relax and enjoy the simple flavours of these traditional sweets.

 

Tokiwa Dango (ときわだんご)
Access: 2-minute walk from Urawa Station (浦和駅)

 

Naka-Urawa Station: A Walk in Besshonuma Park

Besshonuma Park’s autumn foliage
Besshonuma Park’s autumn foliage | Photo by JAPANKURU

While Ōmiya Station might be a lively transportation hub, it's not the only place to spend time in Saitama, and many other stations nearby offer very different experiences. The quiet neighbourhood around Naka-Urawa Station (中浦和駅) is full of locals going about their everyday life, and nearby Besshonuma Park (別所沼公園) is a peaceful oasis of striking dawn redwoods (also called metasequoias) reflected in the placid waters of a large marsh, populated with ducks and koi fish.

The park is the perfect place to get a breath of fresh air and enjoy a walk among the redwoods, and you can savour the dappled sunlight coming in through the tree canopies. Autumn might be the most beautiful time of year to visit Besshonuma Park, especially once the tall trees go from green to a warm shade of orange, but it's worth seeing all year round. Even after dark, thanks to the lamps along the path that light up the trees from below!

 

Besshonuma Park (別所沼公園)
Access: 4-minute walk from Naka-Urawa Station (中浦和駅)

 

Toro Station: Become a Bonsai Expert

Artistic bonsai at Omiya Bonsai Art Museum
Artistic bonsai at Omiya Bonsai Art Museum | Photo by JAPANKURU

It's hard to find a hobby that feels more Japanese than bonsai (盆栽), and there's nowhere better to learn about this unique part of Japanese culture than the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum (さいたま市大宮盆栽美術館). Close to a century ago, a group of bonsai specialists moved from Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake, settling in Omiya and bringing their art with them. The area was named the Omiya Bonsai Village, and to this day it's still dotted with bonsai tree specialist shops and related facilities, including this museum.

 

Omiya Bonsai Art Museum’s Collection GalleryOmiya Bonsai Art Museum’s Collection Gallery | Photo by JAPANKURU

A tour of the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum starts with a trip through the Collection Gallery, to give visitors a quick but thorough introduction to the art of bonsai, perfect for the uninitiated. On one wall, simple displays go over the features that distinguish different kinds of bonsai, from the type of tree to the way it's planted and pruned. On the other wall, a varied collection of trees and bonsai accessories give visitors a chance to train their eyes.

 

Bonsai trees at the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum
Omiya Bonsai Art Museum’s Bonsai Garden | Photo by JAPANKURU

After learning about what makes each bonsai tree unique and admiring the museum's zashiki-kazari (座敷飾り tatami room decorations) displays set up within traditional tatami mat rooms, guests get to explore the bonsai garden, which contains dozens of carefully maintained examples of the art. The tiny trees rarely top more than a couple metres in height, and the diminutive stature often seems to contradict their true age—many of the bonsai have been alive for over a century, and at least one is literally over 1,000 years old. 

Of course, the art of bonsai is all about cultivating the majestic grace of a full-grown tree in miniature! Head up to the museum's second floor to look out over the garden and marvel at the wonder of these trees that have been so carefully taken care of by so many generations of bonsai lovers.


Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama (さいたま市大宮盆栽美術館)
Access: 5-minute walk from Toro Station (土呂駅)

 

Ōmiya Station: Hidden Cafe Gems Galore

Tokiwa Coffee Roasters, a coffee shop enroute to Omiya Hikawa Shrine
Tokiwa Coffee Roasters | Photo by Tokiwa Coffee Roasters

In recent years, little cafes have also started popping up along the sides of the big Hikawa Shrine (氷川神社)—arguably one of Omiya’s most important Shinto shrines—path, and there are now several places to stop for a coffee break along the way. One of these is Tokiwa Coffee Roasters (no relation to the dango shop earlier), which offers as many as 30 different types of coffee beans to choose from, and roasts the beans fresh for each order! 

 

Hand drip coffee at Tokiwa Coffee Roasters
Enjoy a cup of coffee before heading back to Ōmiya Station | Photo by Tokiwa Coffee Roasters

Savour your fragrant cup of fresh coffee while relaxing in the indoor or outdoor seating areas, or bring it with you as you walk along the shrine path. When you're ready to go, Ōmiya Station is just an easy walk away!

 

Tokiwa Coffee Roasters Omiya Hikawa Sando Branch (常盤珈琲焙煎所 大宮氷川参道店)
Access: 12-minute walk from Ōmiya Station (大宮駅)

 

Ōmiya Station: Geek Out at The Railway Museum

The Railway Museum near Tokyo has dozens of old rolling stock on display
The Railway Museum | Photo by The Railway Museum

Before making your way back to Tokyo, here’s a unique spot that needs to be on your travel bucket list: JR East’s very own Railway Museum

Near the station, Omiya's Railway Museum or Teppaku (鉄道博物館) is worth a visit whether you're a railway fanatic or not, to see the fabulous rolling stock room filled with real trains both old and new, along with one of Japan's largest model railway dioramas, and hands-on exhibits on everything from the science of railway mechanisms to music and movies inspired by trains. Their many railway simulators are especially popular with museum visitors, offering the chance to drive a (simulated) E5 series Shinkansen Hayabusa and a (simulated) steam locomotive, or even try working as a train conductor by opening train doors and making announcements.

 

The Railway Museum (鉄道博物館)
Access: 1-minute walk from Saitama New Urban Transit New Shuttle Tetsudō-Hakubutsukan Station (鉄道博物館駅), which is just a stop away from Ōmiya Station

 

Exclusive Souvenir from Ōmiya Station for JAPAN RAIL CLUB Members!

Towel with a shinkansen bullet train motif - up for grabs!
An E5 Series Shinkansen Hayabusa Towel, courtesy of JR East Omiya Branch Office! Image is for illustration purposes only | Photo by JR East Omiya Branch

Did you enjoy our tour of this little side trip to Saitama? Just a train ride away from Tokyo, Omiya Station serves as the gateway to this neighbouring prefecture, offering a plethora of sightseeing opportunities. To round up your trip, and as a teaser to March’s Omiyage Snack Box, JAPAN RAIL CLUB members will receive an exclusive gift from our friends at the JR East Omiya Branch Office (JR東日本 大宮支社)! 

If you’re not yet a member, get started on your subscription journey with us and enjoy savings of up to SGD55 (USD42) with these two promo codes—applicable when you subscribe to a quarterly (3-month) or bi-annually (6-month) plan with us — IZUOFF3" or "IZUOFF6"!

To find out more about sightseeing spots around Omiya Station, head over to JR Times to read our sister article. The possibilities in Saitama are endless!

Meet the author

JAPANKURU

Bringing you the best of Japan, from an international creative team experiencing it first-hand and hoping to share it with the world. From unique travel destinations with millennia of history, to the best deals on great food, fun shopping, and relaxing hotels, find more on must-see tourist spots and hidden treasures frequented by locals, and guides for everything from Tokyo daytrips to road trips that explore the deepest reaches of Japan, plus pop culture, news, and more!

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October Maker’s Story: Railway Goods from TRAIN...

In line with the theme of “Tetsudo Encounters” this month, it's only fitting that we...

Behold the Harvest Moon: Exploring Japan's Otsukimi Festival
Sue Lynn

Behold the Harvest Moon: Exploring Japan's Otsu...

One festival stands out after the succession of extravagant firework and dance festivals as summer draws to a close. From the mesmerising full-moon-viewing practices to savouring delicious tsukimi dango, Otsukimi offers an...

Sue Lynn Festival

Behold the Harvest Moon: Exploring Japan's Otsu...

One festival stands out after the succession of extravagant firework and dance festivals as summer...

Taiyaki
Sue Lynn

The Art of Japanese Sweets: Exploring Tradition...

From the traditional wagashi to modern adaptations, Japanese sweets are a delightful exploration of taste and tradition. Let's embark on a journey to discover the art of Japanese sweets—such as...

Sue Lynn Japanese Snacks

The Art of Japanese Sweets: Exploring Tradition...

From the traditional wagashi to modern adaptations, Japanese sweets are a delightful exploration of taste...

Savour the Ocean: Exploring Must-Try Japanese Seafood Snacks
Sue Lynn

Savour the Ocean: Exploring Must-Try Japanese S...

If there's one thing Japan is known for, it's the country's incredible range of seafood. Surrounded by the sea, Japan's geographic position has significantly influenced its culinary traditions, with seafood...

Snack Lover Japanese Snacks

Savour the Ocean: Exploring Must-Try Japanese S...

If there's one thing Japan is known for, it's the country's incredible range of seafood....

Friendly staff at Japanese snack shop
Sue Lynn

September Maker's Story: Rabbit motif snacks fr...

Hailing from Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, Hamausagi has been making rabbit-themed snacks and confections for over 90 years.

Sue Lynn Maker's Story

September Maker's Story: Rabbit motif snacks fr...

Hailing from Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, Hamausagi has been making rabbit-themed snacks and confections for over...

japan festival food yakisoba
Sue Lynn

What your favourite Japanese summer festival fo...

During the hot months of July and August, summer festivals (夏祭り natsu matsuri) are held all around Japan where celebrations take shape in the form of mesmerising dances (Awa Odori,...

Sue Lynn Festival

What your favourite Japanese summer festival fo...

During the hot months of July and August, summer festivals (夏祭り natsu matsuri) are held...

5 Exciting Fireworks Festivals in East Japan during Summer
Sue Lynn

5 Exciting Fireworks Festivals in East Japan du...

Summer in Japan is incomplete without a spectacle of fireworks! East Japan, where major cities like Tokyo, Sendai, Nagano, and Yokohama are located, is home to many exciting displays of...

Sue Lynn Summer

5 Exciting Fireworks Festivals in East Japan du...

Summer in Japan is incomplete without a spectacle of fireworks! East Japan, where major cities...

8 reasons why people are buying Japanese snacks
Sue Lynn

8 reasons why people are buying Japanese snacks

Visit Japan and you'll notice the wide array of Japanese snacks that make for the best souvenirs to bring home to your family and friends. From unique flavours to seasonal...

Sue Lynn Japanese Snacks

8 reasons why people are buying Japanese snacks

Visit Japan and you'll notice the wide array of Japanese snacks that make for the...

Marine Day: Exploring Umi no Hi and how it is celebrated in Japan
Sue Lynn

Marine Day: Exploring Umi no Hi and how it is c...

Marine Day, also known as "Umi no Hi" (海の日) in Japan, is a national holiday that celebrates Japan’s ocean and maritime activities. Unlike traditional festivals and holidays that are often...

Sue Lynn Culture

Marine Day: Exploring Umi no Hi and how it is c...

Marine Day, also known as "Umi no Hi" (海の日) in Japan, is a national holiday...