This is the Japan I had been expecting: mega-structures, bold urban design, a de-humanizing city of the future. Saitama Super Arena さいたまスーパーアリーナ and Saitama Shintoshin Station さいたま新都心駅 are not built for the human scale; yet between these concrete and steel monsters, hundreds of trees grow, arranged in a large grid, providing physical and spiritual shelter to the people walking underneath. This is the Keyaki Hiroba Plaza けやきひろばプラザ, or Saitama Sky Forest, although I’ve seen it given many names. (1)
I first read about the Sky Forest in architecture and design blogs, so naturally the language was florid, describing vertical potentialities and the naturalistic vernacular, or some such design-speak. My two visits to the Sky Forest both have been accidents, the first the result of an overzealous sanpo 散歩, and the second because of a beer festival my friends invited me to.
Blue Lights Symphony
On my first visit, as dusk turned to night, the plaza was transformed by thousands of Christmas lights, an annual tradition that now seems more popular in Japan than in the West. At the Keyaki Hiroba Plaza, the lights are on display from November through mid-February, called “Blue Lights Symphony” in 2013, and “Dance with Twinkle Lights” in 2015.
Illumination イルミネーション history:
- 2013: Friday, November 16, 2013 to Saturday, February 14, 2014, just in time for that popular Japanese holiday, Valentine’s Day.
- 2015: Saturday, November 7, 2015 through January 1, 2016.
Directions / locations:
The Sky Plaza is located a few hundred yards from the west exit of Saitamashintoshin Station, which is a mere 22-minutes from Ueno Station on the JR Utsunomiya or JR Takasaki Lines. In this map, the Sky Forest is the area labeled “Keyaki Hiroba“..
- Keyaki Hiroba Plaza けやきひろばプラザ / Saitama Super Arena さいたまスーパーアリーナ
- Saitama City, Chuo-ku, New City 10、〒330-9111
- 〒330-9111 さいたま市中央区新都心１０番地
- Link to Google maps
Under the trees
Below the tree plaza are shops and restaurants, and a playful public space with trees, lights, and an undulating walking surface that complements the naturalistic feel of the trees overhead.
Those trees, by the way, are zelkova, a type of elm known in Japanese as keyaki, hence the name “Keyaki Hiroba” (zelkova square). This confused me because I saw keyaki spelled using the phonetic hiragana alphabet, where けやき is comprised merely of the sounds け (ke) や (ya) and き (ki). When I put “けやき” into google translate, though, instead of keyaki I kept seeing “zelkova” as the first English translation, a word I had never before seen or heard.
Keyaki Hiroba Spring Beer Festivals けやきひろば ビール祭り
While I appreciated the plaza on my first visit, it wasn’t until the beer festival that I saw how important the trees were to the Sky Forest’s role as public space.
In the absence of trees, what a strange and sad sight it would be, thousands of people drinking beer while sitting on hard stone and concrete. But surrounded by trees, the feeling is one of being in a forest, albeit a crowded forest. The trees frame the experience and provide a sense of intimacy that would otherwise be impossible for such and large space.
- (1) Keyaki Hiroba Spring Beer Festival けやきひろば ビール祭1 (Ended May 1, 2016)
- (2) Keyaki Hiroba Fall Beer Festival けやきひろば秋のビール祭り2016 (ended September 15-19, 2016)
- Festival website
Saitama Super Arena
Walk a few steps north of the Sky Forest and you find yourself, incongruously, at the Saitama Super Arena さいたまスーパーアリーナ. When I was there, thousands of girls waited patiently for a concert by the J-POP artist Nishino Kana 西野 カナ. Hopefully they had more fun at the concert than waiting in line; they looked rather sullen, but maybe it’s because I was there.
Saitama-Shintoshin Station さいたま新都心駅
The tour is over, time to head back to Tokyo. We’re all the way in Saitama, 20 miles from central Tokyo, but we’ll be home in no time. Just don’t sleep too long on the train.
Various names for the Keyaki Hiroba Plaza:
- Keyaki Hiroba Plaza / けやきひろばプラザ
- Saitama Forest Pavilion 森のパビリオン
- Shintoshin Forest Pavilion 森のパビリオン 新都心
- Saitama Sky Forest / Forest in the Sky 埼玉県空の森
- Saitama Plaza 埼玉県プラザ
- Saitama New Urban Center さいたま新都心
- Keyaki Hiroba / Keyaki Square けやき広場
- Saitama sky forest plaza
- 琦玉空中森林广场 / 埼玉県空中森林广场 (Chinese)
- 日本埼玉广场 (Chinese)