Step into Kawagoe and step into the past, back when Tokyo wasn't all high-rise buildings and neon lights – back when it was still called Edo.
A picturesque old merchant town within 30 minutes train ride of Tokyo, Kawagoe is a great way to swap the frenzy of the capital for a peaceful stroll through traditional Japan. The architecture is charming, the food is homemade and the local people are chatty – just as Tokyo might have been back when it was still called Edo.
You’ll find little shops selling sweets, tea leaves and other souvenirs lining the stone-paved streets. Shop buildings are as interesting as what they’re selling, with traditional tiled roofs and clay walls in the kurazukuri architectural style. There are museums and temples to visit, including Kitain temple which houses the only surviving buildings of the original Edo castle (where the Imperial Palace now stands).
Take a turn off the main street onto Kashiya Yokocho, an alley where you can buy dagashi, Japan’s version of penny candy. The 22 traditional candy shops are a whimsical delight – see how much you can buy with only a hundred yen. You’ll also want to try the local fugashi (a kind of baked gluten sweet covered in sugar). Kawagoe’s is the longest in Japan at 95 cm.
The Toki No Kane clock tower, erected during the Edo period and since rebuilt multiple times, is a key feature of Kawagoe’s historical landscape. The beautiful tower rings four times a day at 6 AM, 12 PM, 3 PM and 6 PM. In 1996, the bell was designated as one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan by the government, a list which also includes Japanese cranes in Hokkaido and the bamboo forest at Arashiyama, Kyoto.
Kawagoe is also famous for sweet potato, available in a range of irreverent forms.
There’s sweet potato snacks, sweet potato cake and ice cream dessert, and sweet potato coffee and beer to wash it down – somehow pretty tasty even if it feels weird to be drinking a potato.
Held on the third Saturday and Sunday of October, the Kawagoe Festival draws huge crowds to see the parade of giant floats through the town streets. The climactic nighttime Hikkawase is a riot of music, dancing and general yelling; you won’t be able to move for the volume of people but it’s all part of the fun.