Day trip from Tokyo: Kawagoe, the little Edo

Still relatively undiscovered by Western tourists but steeped in the atmosphere of ancient Japan, Kawagoe is a charming town in the Saitama Prefecture, just around 30 minutes from Tokyo (from Ikebukuro Station).
Exploring the “Little Edo,” as Kawagoe is affectionately known, can be done in just half a day, making it a perfect day-trip from Tokyo. It provides a refreshing escape from the hyper-futuristic Japan of the metropolis, allowing you to leap back in time as you stroll among well-preserved merchant houses from the Edo period.

In the Edo period, Kawagoe played a crucial role in trade with the new capital, attracting numerous merchants to settle in the area. Fortunately, significant conservation efforts have been made to protect this region, preserving its ancient charm and offering visitors the chance to wander through a old-time atmosphere.

What to see in Kawagoe

The allure of historic Japan, with its wooden houses, shop entrances adorned with kanji curtains, sliding doors, and paper walls— I am il vove with it all. A leisurely walk through Kawagoe, amidst wooden houses and lush gardens, is a truly delightful experience. While most attractions are concentrated within approximately 1-2 km from the stations, I recommend reaching them on foot through the city rather than taking the bus, as traditional houses might surprise you even among modern residences. Kawagoe’s charm lies in strolling through the atmosphere of the Edo period, making walking the best way to explore.

For a unique Tokyo excursion away from the typical tourist spots, Kawagoe is an excellent choice. You can dedicate just half a day to it, perhaps after exploring the main attractions of Tokyo.

Merchant District – Kurazukuri no Machinami

The main reason to visit Kawagoe is undoubtedly Kurazukuri no Machinami, the merchant street, with its wooden houses and splendid local product and sophisticated souvenir shops. Part of the area becomes pedestrianized on weekends, while the main street is closed to traffic only on special occasions like matsuri (festivals). During these events, with traditional music and performances, the magic of Kawagoe comes alive even more.

Not only in the central area but also in the side streets, you can easily come across well-preserved buildings with wooden details and charming Japanese gardens. One of the most magical spots in Kawagoe is undoubtedly the Clock Tower, entirely made of wood and reconstructed in 1894 after a fire. I suggest being near the tower at 6:00 AM, 12:00 PM, 3:00 PM, or 6:00 PM to hear the bell chime.

While strolling through Kawagoe’s streets, you’ll encounter several Buddhist and Shinto temples, souvenir shops, grocery stores, and typical sweet shops. Yes, you read that right: sweets. Sweet shops are scattered throughout Kawagoe, but the real hub is Candy Alley, a street lined with shops where you can purchase various traditional sweets, candies, red bean paste biscuits, fried cookies, ice cream, red bean cakes, and sweet potatoes. Despite its name, Candy Alley offers not only sweets but also various street foods with sweet potatoes or rice cakes.

Hikawa Shrine

This Shinto shrine, dedicated to five kami, is popular for bringing good fortune in love and its photogenic points. The ancient Shinto shrine, with around 1500 years of history, offers various purification activities to seek the benevolence and protection of the kami: walking around two sacred trees to gain strength, sliding a paper doll silhouette into the water for healing, or buying lucky charms with a red string design to find a soulmate. Hikawa Shrine is also famous for its ema corridor, wooden plaques with wishes, hung in a very picturesque tunnel. Besides this corridor, there are other corridors arranged differently according to the seasons, featuring wind chimes in summer, creating a magical atmosphere.

Another uniqueness of this shrine is that omikuji, fortune-telling strips, are literally drawn using a fishing rod and line! The omikuji at Hikawa Jinja are fish-shaped, and the fortune-revealing slip is inserted into the tail!

If you visit Kawagoe during the cherry blossom season, right behind this shrine flows the small Shingashi River, lined with numerous cherry blossoms. Towards the end of the blossom period, as petals start to fall, they create a magnificent pink carpet on the slowly flowing water. This is the most crowded point of the river, as it is one of the narrowest, and the sight is wonderful. Continuing to walk east, you’ll still be accompanied by cherry blossoms.

Kawagoe Castle

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to visit this area of the city yet, despite being there about 5 times. However, I’m so fond of the other mentioned spots that I keep returning to the same places!

Honmaru Goten is the only remaining structure of Kawagoe Castle and was reopened to the public in 2011 after renovations. It’s located just a short walk from Hikawa Jinja, and I promise to stop there and update the article sometime soon!

Kitain Temple

The Kitain complex is quite extensive, and it’s very pleasant to stroll through the buildings and the park, which is also full of cherry blossoms in spring. Originally part of Kawagoe Castle, some buildings were moved to their current location after a fire. It is said that Iemitsu Tokugawa, the third Shogun of Japan, was born in this temple. In the inner area, requiring a ticket, there should be a beautiful zen garden and 540 Buddha statues.

I have only seen the outer area, once during cherry blossom season and once during the Daruma Market held in early January, where many Daruma dolls are sold as a New Year’s wish.

What to Eat in Kawagoe

Grilled onigiri, sweets filled with red beans, sweet potatoes in various forms—Kawagoe is a paradise for street food lovers, with many shops selling tempting small takeout snacks that will continuously entice you with their aromas. There are also many excellent restaurants at very reasonable prices, especially for lunch. Many specialize in eel, but there are also establishments offering classic Japanese cuisine. In particular, I want to mention Kawagoe Kou Sushi, a historic restaurant that offers various lunch sets with sushi, tempura, and soba, including a vegan version with vegan sushi, tempura, and soba without dashi. We’ve been there twice, not only for the excellent food but also for the atmosphere with low tables on tatami mats or the counter by the window overlooking the small Shiawase Jinja, the shrine of happiness.

There are also many charming cafes, such as a wooden Starbucks and the Tsubakya Tea Room, where you can sip tea with your feet immersed in warm spring water!

Getting to Kawagoe

There are three stations in Kawagoe: Kawagoe, Hon Kawagoe, and Kawagoe Shi. Once in the city, you can easily explore it on foot, reaching anywhere with walks of no more than half an hour. Alternatively, there is a Loop Bus, but personally, I haven’t considered it.

Hon-Kawagoe is the station a bit closer to the tourist area, served by the Seibu Line from Shinjuku, but this option involves a few transfers and takes at least an hour and costs at least 710 JPY.

In my opinion, the best solution is to take the Tobu Line from Ikebukuro, which arrives at Kawagoe-Shi in a little over half an hour for 470 JPY. From there, with a 15-20 minute walk, you’ll reach Kurazukuri.

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