As the last weekend of August drew closer, I was determined to finish my summer break with zero regrets of what I could’ve done. I’d spent around eleven months wishing I’d been able to do more last year, and there was no way I wanted to repeat that feeling.
I have well and truly caught the travel bug and I decided that my last few days of holiday were going to be spent crossing off a couple of entries on my list of day trips. First was Sarushima, an abandoned military island which I wrote about a few weeks ago. I visited there on a Friday, and after a day to get myself organised, I was back out on the Sunday to visit Kawagoe.
Kawagoe is a city a little north of Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture, and it takes about 1 hour and 25 minutes to get there from Yokohama. After seeing a YouTube video about it over a year ago, I knew I wanted to go. Considering there’s a direct express train for 890 yen* – which leaves from Yokohama Station – I didn’t have many excuses not to.
All I needed to do was wait for a good time and some good weather, and both decided to present themselves at the same time. No rain was forecast for the whole day and I was already trying to make sure I woke up at my regular work time so I could acclimatise before going back. Because of that, I arrived in Kawagoe mid-morning and had most of the day to look around.
Probably the most famous part of Kawagoe are their traditional style buildings, intended to look like a mini replica of Edo: Tokyo’s past iteration. Because of this, the district is known as Koedo (小江戸) The ko, or 小 literally means small so its name is often translated as ‘Little Edo’ in the style of ‘Little Italy’ in places like America. It comprises of two main parts: the Kurazukuri district with its old warehouses and the Toki no Kane Bell Tower. These places were the first ones I decided to check out.
Literally as soon as I arrived, I ended up being approached by a TV crew asking for an interview. They were interested in having a foreign perspective of the city and I didn’t feel like I was able to give a good enough answer considering I hadn’t experienced much yet. Even aside from that, I had in the piercings I’m not allowed to wear for work and my company has a no television appearance rule, so I was worried it would somehow get back to Yokohama. If that rule wasn’t a thing I would have potentially been on Japanese TV twice by now, because I was approached at the Emperor’s first public address as well. I politely declined and moved on, and I felt a bit bad for the crew because they did ask really nicely, unlike the crew in Tokyo who seemed kind of pushy.
I wandered past all the old buildings, and much like Kyoto’s Ninenzaka, they’ve been converted into functional shops and restaurants but they still retain their former charm. Unlike Ninenzaka, it’s less crowded and a bit less touristy. Sure, you can still find tourists, but the majority are Japanese due to it being less known overseas than Kyoto.
Everything was photogenic and I had my camera out the whole time. There were a few people dressed in kimono which really added to the atmosphere. Even the signs advertising the Olympics were made out of wood. The golf events will be held in Kasumigaseki Country Club (which is about 30 minutes away from the centre of Kawagoe), so it makes sense that they’d be promoting that.
Next, I headed to the Toki no Kane tower. “Toki no Kane” literally means ‘the bell of time’ in Japanese, and it’s the main landmark of the city. It’s so iconic due to its design, and it was commissioned by Sakai Tadakatsu, who was the local feudal lord around 400 years ago. It was built due to Sakai’s meticulous attitude towards timekeeping, so that everyone in the area could avoid being late. It still functions as a bell tower now, ringing at four times a day.
Near to the Bell Tower I saw a shop selling wagashi and other food items. Due to it being summer, everything was wide open, and clouds billowed out from a steaming basket close to the entrance. It smelled delicious, and I saw the sign advertising manju with sweet potato and anko inside. Within a split second I decided to get one. I like to try out local specialties when I’m in a new place, and most places have their own meibutsu (名物) which are famous things from the region. In terms of Kawagoe, sweet potato (さつま芋, or satsuma imo in Japanese) is what food this city is known for.
Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of products on offer, but I chose to start with the manju. It was warm from the steamer, so I waited a little while before biting into it, my teeth slipping through the smooth mochi outer layer and anko paste, before reaching the slightly tougher sweet potato. It was enjoyable but heavy enough to not want to eat two in a row, especially if I was pacing myself to try more things later. I bet they’d be perfect on a late autumn day when the air is just about turning cold.
Right near the tower is a Starbucks, and so as to not detract from the other buildings in the area, the exterior has been designed to fit in with a traditional Japanese aesthetic. I seem to be looking out for cool branches of the coffee brand, and so far I’ve seen a few. There’s a contemporary minimalist style one in Dazaifu, a 19th century Western style one in Kobe, and one in Kyoto with tatami flooring. After the Kyoto Ninenzaka branch, this is the second one I’ve seen that looks Japanese, and I knew I needed to go inside. While the interior is more modern and not as consistently traditional as the one in Kyoto, it still looks good with big glass windows and greenery outside.
I bought myself an iced tea to cool off from the already warm morning sun because I was saving my big bottle of sports drink for later. Japanese summer is hot and humid as hell, so even though I was carrying round about two litres of drink a day – fortunately not all at once – I was still struggling to keep hydrated. As a result, I felt justified in buying as many drinks as I wanted.
Speaking of drinks, I found myself in one of the liquor stores along the main street of Koedo, browsing a selection of one of Kawagoe’s specialties: craft beer. The Coedo brand has been operating since 1996 and they have quite a few different varieties of beer ranging from pale ale to pilsner. The one that caught my eye was a bottle of sweet potato amber ale called Beniaka (紅赤, or crimson red). As I mentioned before, sweet potato products are Kawagoe’s meibutsu so I definitely wanted to try some. It was probably a little heavy to carry all day, especially considering the one litre of Pocari Sweat already in my bag, so I vowed to come back for it later.
A short walk away from the centre of Koedo is Kashiya Yokocho, my next destination.
Kashiya Yokocho (菓子屋横丁) is translated as Candy Alley, due to it’s history of making confectionery. This location actually took over both manufacturing and distribution from Tokyo while the capital recovered from the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, and today some sweet shops remain. Like the rest of the area, this side street has maintained it’s traditional look, and there are several small stores where you can buy various items.
A jewellery stall caught my eye, selling earrings fashioned to imitate furin: glass-domed wind chimes that are common during the summer months. I fell in instant love, because furin make up part of my mental image of the season, alongside fireworks, cicadas, and kakigori. I needed to own a pair, especially because I think they were handmade by the lady who owned the shop. They’d be rare to find again, and seeing as there were different designs and patterns, they’d also be pretty unique. There was no way I’d want to carry round something so delicate all day (even more so considering my big rucksack) so like the beer, I decided to come back for them too.
There were also a lot of stores selling snacks and omiyage but I didn’t really fancy any of them at the time. On top of that, I was trying to reduce the amount of souvenirs I needed to buy, so I wasn’t planning on telling my co-workers where I’d been. Pretending like I’d just hung out in Yokohama all summer seemed like the most cost-effective thing to do.
I got to the end of the alley and looped back down the main road to walk to the next place on my itinerary. A short while away is Kawagoe-jo, a castle dating back 600 years.
Despite the map calling Kawagoe-jo ‘castle ruins’ I was surprised at quite how much was left intact. After all, when I visited Fukuoka Castle Ruins, all that was left was some walls and out-buildings. Here there was a whole building and it may have been missing a few wings, but it was still substantial enough to wander round for a while.
Like every castle that’s not been converted into a museum, you take your shoes off at the entrance and there’s a desk just inside where you can buy your tickets. I wasn’t sure where to buy mine, because often there’s a booth outside, but I asked someone close by where to go. Once you’re inside the castle, it’s very easy to spot though.
Kawagoe Honmaru Goten is all that remains of the former palace, and while the castle complex was originally founded in the mid 1400s, this was built in 1848 (which probably explains why it was the only part to survive). The city was an important centre for trade so Kawagoe-jo played a key role in the defense of northern Edo. However, the feudal era ended not long after the Honmaru Goten was built, with the advent of the Meiji Restoration.
Regardless, it’s now the only daimyo (feudal lord’s) residence that still exists in eastern Japan, the others being lost along with the feudal system.
I enjoyed walking through the corridors, my feet being able to feel the pattern of the wood through my socks. A side effect of living in Japan for two years is that taking my shoes off feels very ‘homely’ wherever I am. There’s something comforting about not wearing shoes, something which I didn’t used to appreciate. The sun streamed through the windows, warming the floorboards.
One of the rooms had a map of the former castle buildings, outlining the remaining ones in red. It was interesting to imagine what it might have looked like in its complete state. There was also a display showing stamps which depicted every castle in Japan, and I spent several minutes trying to spot each one I’d already visited. Fortunately I could read the kanji, because I try to remember the names of places I’ve been. It’s a great way of studying them, as there’s more of a connection in my head.
I followed the route round the castle, tatami matted rooms with beautifully painted walls on one side and windows overlooking traditional zen gardens on the other. Eventually I did have to leave, though.
After I left the castle it was past lunchtime and all I’d eaten since my practically non-existent breakfast was the manju. Luckily I’d come prepared, and I’d packed a small picnic for myself, including an onigiri, peach jelly, fruit and a bottle of tea. There was a bench opposite and I sat down in the sun, facing the shrine next door as I ate. It was a pretty damn good picnic spot – right between Kawagoe-jo and Miyoshino Jinja – and as I write this I realise I’m developing a habit of eating outside castles. Between the picnic I’d brought to Odawara Castle the September before, the baby castella at Osaka Castle, and the ice cream at Karatsu Castle, it doesn’t feel like the coincidence it really is. You could even count the kakigori at Nijo Castle in Kyoto. But who can blame me? Food tastes better when you have a good view to enjoy it with.
I took my time eating and appreciating my surroundings, and after I was somewhat satiated, I wandered round the grounds, taking photos of the shrine building. It was a pretty small one compared to most shrines I’ve seen but it looked amazing with its red paint in the sunlight.
A little further down the path was a children’s park and I couldn’t quite resist it. There was no one there so the swings were completely vacant. And I bloody love swings.
Obviously my legs are a little too long for a kids’ play area (being around twenty years older than its intended demographic), but I could still rock myself back and forth and chill out before I headed to my next destination. After all, my camera’s memory card was almost full and I could sit on the swing as I cleared out some unneeded pictures.
Next was a 10-15 minute walk to the main temple in Kawagoe: Kita-in.
As soon as I’d arrived, it was mid afternoon and the sun was unbearable. Rather than pushing myself, I chose to sit down in a shaded area to have a drink first, wiping my arms and legs with a cooling sheet. The cicadas screamed overhead as I sat quietly checking my phone.
I swear, I wouldn’t have been able to experience so much this summer if I wasn’t armed with my heat survival kit. I had cooling body wipes, sun cream, salt tablets, insect bite cream, a handheld fan and a one litre bottle of Pocari Sweat. After the heatwave the year before, I was taking no chances.
Once I’d recovered a little, it was time to explore. First stop was the main building, and I took the opportunity to send a quick prayer with a five yen coin. I may not be religious, but I’m open to the idea of it and there’s no harm in trying, is there?
Afterwards, I explored the sub buildings. My personal favourite was in the middle of a moat, accessible by a cute little red bridge. Some areas were off limits but I could peep through the fence and look from a distance. One of those places did allow entry with an extra fee, which is one of Kita-in’s main attractions: The 500 Statues of Rakan.
These statues depict Buddha’s disciples and each one is unique with a different facial expression. Nowadays, just over 300 of the original 536 statues remain but that’s still a lot to be in the same place.
Not having all afternoon to look around, I opted to catch a glimpse through the wall instead of actually entering. I think it’d be worth it to pay the extra amount because visibility wasn’t great, but due to the time constraints I took what I could get. After all, I still had to revisit a couple of stops from earlier.
First up was Kashiya Yokocho.
Once I’d arrived back, I wanted to make the most of things before my train home. I returned to the little earring shop, and chose out a pair which matched my eyes. They’re a pale blue marbled with a touch of bronze meaning that in sunlight, they also match my hair colour. That way, I don’t really have to worry about pairing them with my outfit, and they go really well with my gold and tortoiseshell glasses. I’m so glad I found these because they’re so reminiscent of Japanese summer, but in a subtle and understated way.
I also wanted to fit in some more local specialties, so I bought a purple potato ice cream that had an imo kenpi stuck into it like a flake. Imo kenpi are hard sticks of sweet potato, fried and glazed, and I was actually gifted a bag of them on my first day working in Japan. They quickly became a favourite snack and I had to stop myself from devouring the whole bag at once, because they’re not exactly good for you. In fact, I’ve stopped buying them so I don’t over-indulge, and this was a perfect opportunity to treat myself.
The heat meant that the ice cream melted really quickly, so it was a race against time to finish it before it dripped down my hands. That was a shame because I wanted to slow down and appreciate it. Even though the concept of purple potato ice cream seems weird at first, it tastes really good. But maybe I’m biased because I love all things sweet potato, including yoghurt, KitKats, and daigaku imo.
After that, I headed back through Koedo, picked up my bottle of Beniaka beer and caught the bus back to the station. It had been a long day with a lot of walking, so I was glad that there were seats on the train and I didn’t have to change lines until Yokohama. I remember thinking that I may have been tired, but it was the best way I could have spent my final day of the summer vacation. I’d had some good food, seen some beautiful places, and even visited an entirely new prefecture. On my way back home, I even came across a small festival parade in my local neighbourhood, so the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Maaan, I can’t believe I wrote so much when this was literally four months ago! I loved reminiscing though and I’m really hungry for more sweet potato. Would you try the food and drink mentioned in this post?
Also, if you have any clue of which YouTuber I was mistaken for, please send your suggestions because months later I’m still not sure!
*one way price only