I wasn't exactly thrilled to be coming back to Saitama. Saitama is basically a New Jersey to Tokyo's New York basically just another sprawling limb of the Tokyo metropolis. It is barred along with train lines that radiate out from Tokyo like spokes on a wheel. It takes me 20 minutes to ride to central Shinjuku, but it takes around 2 hours and three different train lines to get to my old town of Hanno in western Saitama, even though the distance is about the same.
The word for suburb in Japanese is bedo-taun, "bed town", and the phrasing is accurate. It seems that most people just sleep here, with all their working and playing done in the big city.
Urawa itself didn't really seem particularly promising. Hanno was a bit removed from the great Tokyo sprawl, folded into the foothills of the Japanese alps, a river sweeping through it, the air was noticeably lighter and fresher than Tokyo, from there on out it was precipitous valleys and Buddha statues atop mountains, guarding small hamlets. Urawa on the other hand is central Saitama. It is one of the three interlocking Saitama urban centers that were recently incorporated into the blandly name Saitama city, which is incongruously written in the phonetic script and not it's original emotionally resonant kanji, which strips it of the meager dignity of it's own history. Imagine San Francisco, Oakland and Berkley merged into one city renamed Kaleefornia City and you'll get an inkling of what I'm talking about.
However, tonight after I came back from Howl's Moving Castle, my head still washed in the movie's images of small towns nestled in sharp mountains, Urawa opened up to me. There was a chorus caroling outside the station, singing familiar Christmas carols in their original German. The station entrance opens up onto a square that forms the entrance to the local branch of the Isetan department store. Isetan had just closed, and employees were filing out the service entrance, winter coats over their scarf and skirt uniforms, a chef in whites handing out bags of leftovers to them as they punched out. The streets then broke up into a wandering series of back alleys lined with noodle shops, cafes, bakeries, bars and the occasional pachinko parlor. One pachinko parlor had a young woman in her early thirties in a Santa suit dishing out free bowls of pork soup from a massive kettle to all the midnight gamblers. 12 car express trains bypassing Urawa station slid through the neon signs. And in that moment Urawa seemed to be one of the most interesting places I've ever been in Japan, it's resolute ordinariness coming together to make it something I've never seen before. It is a living breathing city, unpretentiously and thoroughly Japanese; it doesn't have the manic anxious energy of central Tokyo, desperately chasing the new thing, or the quiet resignation of the countryside, slowing watching it's young bleed away to the city. In it's Thai restaurants perched on the second story of working class red-lantern bars, in it's department store ladies and salarymen hurrying home in the cold, blond haired gaijin selling jewelry out of suitcases, packs of 13 year olds on bicycles, it is Everytown, Japan, in a way that no other town I have seen is.