Saitama’s Famous Icicles, By Night

Last weekend, I hopped an Express LaView for a two hour ride to Saitama Prefecture (which borders Tokyo to the north) to visit one of the Three Great Icicles of Chichibu.

The Express LaView–named for the massive windows in every car

I’ve done quite a bit of hiking in Saitama, but this was my first trip to any of the “Great Icicles”–and I started with the least “natural” of the three: the Ashigakubo Icicles, which form on a hillside and river bank about five minutes’ walk from Ashigakubo Station, in Yokoze.

I booked my ticket online the night before (a necessity this year, because the evening slots are limited and fill up in advance) and arrived at Ashigakubo Station shortly after sunset, with just enough time to walk to the icicles before my entry time. A winter storm the night before dumped just enough snow on the ground to allow a welcoming committee:

Yuki daruma (snowman) outside Ashigakubo Station

After showing my ticket at the entry gate, I followed a well-marked earthen path along a forested hillside parallel to the railroad tracks. Small lanterns near the path created just enough light to see the way. Soon, I saw a colorful glow in the distance, which rotated through a rainbow of different hues.

Moments later, I passed under a bridge and arrived at the entrance to the icicle display, which runs along a 200-meter stretch of hillside along the banks of a flowing stream.

The view from the entrance to the icicle illumination

The icicles themselves both are and are not “natural.” They are, in the sense that they only exist when the weather is cold enough for water to freeze and form the icicles. They’re not, in the sense that the town of Yokoze “creates” the spectacle by spraying water on the trees and hillside, which then freezes to form the massive icicle display. (Not all of the Great Icicles of Chichibu are “helped along”–which is one of the reasons I came to see these first, so I could save the “all natural” ones for later. That said, I’m not an “icicle purist” by any means, and to be honest: the icicles are real, and really neat, and I don’t really care how they got there in the first place.)

The snow on the icicles that night was 100% courtesy of Mother Nature.

Speakers at the venue play gentle background music, which coordinates with the many multicolored lights that cycle through various colors, designed to represent the four seasons of the year.

Winter blue

According to the website, the largest icicles measure 30 meters in height–and a few of them did look close to that tall, though most of them were in the 2-6 meter range. That said, there are thousands upon thousands of them, coating every bush, rock, and tree along the hillsides and the river.

The Torii at the entrance to the icicle path

It takes about 10 minutes to walk the length of the icicle display–or would, if you just walked directly from one end to the other, but nobody does. The icicles’ appearance changes dramatically with the lights, and just about everyone stood and watched them from each view point before moving to the next.

In some places, and some colors, the icicles look like fantasy ice cream sundaes.

About halfway through the display, I heard a familiar noise, and looked up the hill to see a line of spray from an oscillating sprinkler jetting out over the icicles. I knew nature had a helping hand, but it was entertaining to see the “reinforcements” hard at work, even while the illumination was going on.

The entire hillside is covered in icicles

It didn’t bother me though. Ice sculptures carved by human hands are awesome, and icicles made with human assistance are awesome too. (If it’s not your jam, that’s cool…but this probably isn’t the illumination for you.) The lights and music add a lot to the experience, and the dark sky makes a fantastic backdrop. I doubt the icicles would be as much fun during daylight hours, but I’ll probably go back next year in the daytime, to find out.

Winter blue and autumn red

Actually, my only complaint had nothing to do with the icicles themselves: I’ve just started wearing glasses again for distance after more than twenty-five years without them (thanks Lasik!) and my lenses kept fogging up, thanks to my muffler and the cold, so I had to keep stopping to wipe them off. (Nothing the organizers could have done about that one, though…)

The website suggested wearing boots, and dressing warm–both of which, I did, and recommend.

I also suggest planning your trip after checking the arrival and departure times of the trains you plan to take. The Express LaView doesn’t normally stop in Ashigakubo, but a few of them do when the icicles are on display–and being able to take the express instead of local trains cut a significant amount of time off the trip (and only added a few dollars/few hundred yen to the total cost).

The trail curls down along the river, between a pair of hills.

From there, it climbs another hill, toward an overlook where you can see the whole display.

Autumn red–a little creepy, but impressive

If you stand in one place for a minute or two, you can see the colors cycle through the entire “year”–from the pink of spring, to summer green, autumn red, and winter blue.

Summer green and autumn red

From the top of the overlook (where they serve hot tea and amazake in the daytime, but not at night) you return down a different path that leads back to the entrance, and then doubles back along the trail to the station. (The two sides of the trail to the station are divided, so people don’t crash into one another in the dark.)

All in all, I was thoroughly pleased with the trip–I love ice, and illuminations, so I’d expected to enjoy it, but it’s always nice when an adventure meets (or in this case, exceeds) expectations.

According to the organizers, the icicles this year (2022) are the best they’ve had since the event began in 2014, so although it took me more years than I planned to get there, it looks like I ended up going at the right time after all.

What do you think: are you up for an adventure on a winter night? Or are you happier seeing the icy sights from the warmth of your home and computer screen?