Tokyo Stories and Tips

In Kawagoe

Kawagoe Photo, Kawagoe, Japan

I was last in Kawagoe five years ago. We'd come down on a National Holiday after a night of drinking in Tokyo, and stumbled, in the slow, desultory way that hungover people do, around all the sights. "Boring," we both agreed. "Nothing to see but a few old buildings."

Sober, I liked it a whole lot better.

Just forty-minutes north of Tokyo's Ikebukero or Shinjuku stations, Kawagoe makes for a sedate daytrip from the capital, with a historical centre of centuries-old wooden buildings that provide its nickname of Little Edo.

I had missed the big October festival - when hordes of people parade parade with wooden floats along the main streets of the town - by a fortnight, and the only crowds were in Candy Lane. The whole place whiffed of aniseed, schoolchildren still in their uniforms - black for the boys, navy blue for the girls - were snapping up baguette-sized sweet bread, on offer at just 300 yen. The rest of the town passed in snapshots: a trio of middle-aged women tottering about in kimonos, a black-suited businessman slurping noodles in front of a temple bell, a man practising his golf swing in an alley, his umbrella standing in for a club.

In opposition to its bigger, flashier, full-tilt at the twenty-first century neighbours, Kawagoe is a city that makes a deliberate stab at nostalgia. Traditional Architecture Zones, sweet-potato beer, and runner-pulled rickshaw rides. "Welcome to Kawagoe. A City Where History Lives," said the sign at Kita-in Temple. Even the sightseeing bus looked as if it had been manufactured by British Leyland. But, this being Japan, traffic still ran both ways up Chuo-dori, right in front of the historic Edo warehouses, and every tour guide carried a megaphone as well as their flag.

This being Japan, the staid is also never far from the surreal. A few hundred metres past Honmaru Goten, the oldest building in Kawagoe, a front garden had been turned into a shrine to Christmas, painted snowmen hung alongside red paper lanterns, and a stepladder in the corner, next to the tree, had its top three rungs wrapped in tinsel. Around the next corner was a house with Junk Style Collection stencilled on its windowboxes and metal watering cans hanging from the door, and, nearer Candy Lane, an outdoor Garden Restaurant served meals from a VW Campervan, with seats laid out on wooden decking.

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