Where can we go on a short 2-day trip away from Tokyo? Gunma? Too far. Kamakura? Checked. Atami? Checked. Kawagoe? Sounds good! And look! It’s only half an hour away! Half an hour? Ha! I kept grumbling in the never-ending 2-hour ride from Yokohama to Kawagoe (shorter if you don’t miss the express from Ikebukuro, of course). We left late and we arrived… later!
Welcome to “Little Edo”, or “Koedo”, a sign you’ll see all over town, and if you don’t see it, you know you’ve gone too far and you’ll bump into one of the many huge Elementary schools, which made us wonder whats, hows and whys. Kawagoe used to be connected to the city of Edo, but it later merged with Saitama and actually became the first city in this prefecture. You wouldn’t travel to Kawagoe to see its castle, but once you’re there, it’s quite interesting to visit its scarce remnants: a small segment of the moat and Honmaru Goten, the primary hall section, with an interior garden whose beauty invited us to sit down, legs hanging on the edge out of the tatami.
In order to access the old area from the JR station you have two main options: one is to get on the tourist loop bus which will take you to all the sights you want to see and some you don’t even knew about. Being a small town (for Japan), you could easily walk there, walk everywhere, but you should assume the risks: you need to pass through a shopping street. If you are at all like me, basically a repressed shopaholic overwhelmed by the too wide range of shopping malls in this country, then it will be hard to resist the temptation of being geographically forced to walk down this road with shops to the right and shops to the left… we never made it on time to our destination. Yes, there are more shops in other areas, more interesting, more modern, more famous… but here, they are just so handy (and we bought some cute stuff). Extremely quiet once it got dark, we had the privilege to visit Renkei-ji shrine on our own…with no one between the guardian foxes, the stars and ourselves!
Kita-in temple is well worth a morning visit, awaiting visitors with its colorful Buddhist drapes, spacious with little corners to discover. Apparently there’s a large collection of Buddha statues that we simply missed mesmerized by the red semi-circular bridge that inspired a photo session. Let me know if we overlooked anything worthwhile! Be warned: I had the worst, most bitter amazake in the history of amazake, served by a very old woman, so wrinkled that I never dared to complain.
But let’s not forget that our main motivation was to experience the Edo Period. You’ll be transported back to the 18th and 19th centuries at Kurazukuri Street, lined with traditional warehouses. Why only warehouses? That’s because all the actual houses were burnt in a fire and it was these fire-resistent “kura” that survived. We were reminded of the time by the strikes of Toki no Kane, a Bell Tower that reigns over the area from its 3 stories or 16 meters of height. A picture perfect alley.
One of the highlights of this city has to do… with food! As in any Japanese city, in Kawagoe you will find its specialty local product sold in all shapes and sizes. You can play it safe with the sweet potato chips, be adventurous with the sweet potato ice cream, tell your friends that you’ve tried the sweet potato coffee (accompany that with a sneer), or go wild with the sweet potato beer. And the winner is, sweet potato! Careful when you stick out your tongue afterwards (which I’m sure you do all the time) as it might have tinted a purplish shade.
You’ll find all these plus many more types of Japanese candy and snacks in the dozen or so shops that make up Kashiya Yokocho (Penny Lane Candy), most of them decorated with cheerful hard-candy mobiles. I love senbei, oh yes I do, and I was so excited to try natto-cheese crackers and to see some of the biggest senbei rice crackers ever. Get a little basket and go candy fishing among the cheap and colorful tanks as varied as jelly beans, plum candies, or kombu seaweed.
Kawagoe Festival Museum
On the way back to the station we stumbled upon the Kawagoe Festival Museum where some of the mikoshi (floats) from the famous lively fall festival are exhibited together with some costumes and photographs. What? You’d like to participate in the festival instead of passively staring at its floats? No problem, check this out. http://kawagoe-kyoukai-en.blogspot.com/
Kawagoe was definitely worth a 2-day visit. And on the way back, we did catch the express!!