This was my second visit to Japan. On the previous visit in 2008 the four of us spent 12 days divided between Tokyo and Kyoto, and with day trips; so on this holiday my itinerary was a little more free-flow. JF had suggested Kawagoe to me and it sounded appealing, so off the three of us (one of JF’s friends, as well) set on my first full day in Japan.
Kawagoe is an Edo village with castle remnants from the Tokugawa Shogunate; clay-walled shops and houses called Kurazukuri; and the feeling of old Japan, especially the girls in rented kimonos taking selfies. At least at the time of our visit it appeared Kawagoe had not yet been, “discovered,” so my snaps are void of tour groups unconsciously following a cherry blossom flag up and down the streets.
From the Kawagoe train station there is an historic bus that runs a loop, dropping passengers at various interesting sights. We boarded and bounced merrily along, understanding very little of the white-gloved driver’s narrative as we passed into the old city. The three of us alit at the castle; though it was closed on our visit (a random Friday), the buildings and the landscaping created some of the prettiest photos of my holiday. I should mention now that Japan’s Tourism Bureau pulled out all the stops for me, weather-wise, including Cherry Blossoms at near Peak Bloom! And, the Imperial Palace Gardens being opened to visitors! But these stories are later to come.
I write that we all loved Kawagoe. JF and her friend (and their husbands) had visited a couple of months prior on a wet and cold day and even then, knew a return visit was in order; so when I finalized my travel plans Kawagoe was added to the itinerary. Uncrowded temples, quiet cemeteries, unique stores (except for the brand-new Starbucks); and eye-popping scenery and architecture with nearly every step. We sampled Yuzu honey and “Baumkuchen,” a flat cake with layers like the rings of a tree, and bought several of each to bring home.
As the best tips always go, a friend of a friend of my JF suggested we queue for lunch at, “The Noodle House behind the Soy Sauce Museum.”
So we did, after we learned about and sampled soy sauces, naturally. We arrived 15 minutes before opening and scored the last available table. Three bowls of thick and slurpy Udon noodles in a silky broth with melty, caramelized pork belly soon arrived at our table. We were happy. Who wouldn’t be?
After lunch JF and her friend headed to a glass-blowing workshop while I and my camera wandered more of Kawagoe, especially the Buddhist shrines with Ema, the wooden plaques for worshippers to write prayers or wishes, and Buddha statues still covered with shawls against the chill; and in the Buddhist cemetery, memorial Tohbas (long wooden sticks with notches to represent a pagoda for the common person) for the departed, so different from the cemeteries I wander here in Central Europe.
The three of us regrouped later for Tokoyaki from the street vendor in a park (fish balls on a stick), beneath the plum blossoms before returning to Tokyo.
Though JF lives in a high-rise, the neighborhood is still very much a mix of modern and traditional, with little restaurants of all cuisines tucked in narrow lanes that locals know about and tourists usually don’t bother to seek out. Since dinner was now up for consideration JF suggested the, “little Nepalese place around the corner.” And why not? JF’s husband caught up with us and we all took seats along the counter to watch the chefs (Nepalese and Indian) prepare the dishes, all of which could be ordered tapas-style, in smaller portions meant for sharing. The proprietors have a Coriander farm and as such also had a “Coriander Menu.” We ordered only the Coriander Beer (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it) and a couple of plates of Momo (Nepalese dumplings filled with spiced ground lamb) before just letting the chefs suggest their favorites to us. We watched everything being prepared right in front of us, from the pickled cabbage with crisp pappadum to the lamb cutlet and kiln-baked chicken with basil to the “Takari,” a large plate with numerous little dishes, from seasoned greens to dal and more pickled vegetables.
Everything was delicious, and we walked the longer way back to the apartment, finalizing our day trip to Nagano in the morning…