JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH MAUREEN DEL ROSARIO FROM KAWAGOE, JAPAN !
Bella, also known as Maui/ Lykishkeane, is a Filipina artists and freelance travel writer based in Japan, who is constantly looking for scenic places to write and shoot with her “Instagram” husband. She lived in Yamagata Prefecture for 3 years and is now currently residing in Saitama.
Kawagoe, a quaint castle town in Saitama Prefecture, lies northwest to the capital city of Japan, Tokyo. “Kawagoe”, which literally translates to “go over the river”, is called so because in the earlier times one would need to cross the river by ship to reach the town.
The main street, Kurazukuri Street, is about 15-30 minutes from Kawagoe or Hon-Kowagoe Station. It has clay-walled warehouse-styled structures which originated in the Edo period, earning it the nickname “Little Edo” or “Koedo”. The 18th of each month is designated as Kimono Day in Kawagoe, hence visitors in kimono get discounts in some shops.
Please tell us something about you and your connection with Japan.
When I was a kid, watching anime, reading manga (Japanese comic books), and listening to Jrock (Japanese rock) was my way of escaping reality. I hated school so much.
Therefore, I longed to move from the Philippines to Japan someday to learn its culture and be closer to the things that helped me survived my dreadful school experience.
Since I’ve been living in Japan for almost 6 years, I considered it as my second home. Plus, I met my husband there, so it’s pretty much engrave in my life.
When do you think is the best time to visit Japan?
ALL THE TIME!
You could witness the beautiful cherry blossoms in spring. Then in summer, you can experience the various summer festivals around the country. During autumn, you could marvel at the tantalizing autumn foliage. And finally, you could have fun doing winter sports in winter! During the months of July and August Kawagoe temperature ranges from 25-26 degrees Celsius, along with heavy rainfall. January is the coldest, the temperature falls down to as much as -1 degrees Celsius.
What is the most convenient transport of your city? Would you recommend renting a car for day trips or using public transport considering Japanese people tend not to speak in English?
Taking the train is the easiest way because train connects almost all the prefectures in Japan. In addition, it’s affordable and (most of the time) punctual. There are three major operators in the city: JR East, Tobu, and Seibu. JR East, has the most number of stations throughout Kawagoe, Tobu has four – Kasumigaseki, Kawagoeshi, Kawagoe, and Shingashi stations while Seibu has two – Hon-Kawagoe, and Minami-Otsuka.
You can also use Koedo Loop Bus, a retro-styled bus which frequent every 20 to 30 minutes and runs around Kawagoe’s historical spots. A one day pass can be bought inside the bus and stops are announced or shown in English on screen. You can also stroll around Kawagoe in the sightseeing rickshaw called Itsuki-ya.
Note: If you are planning to explore more than 1 prefecture or you want to try out the fast and reliable Shinkansen (Bullet Train), I suggest purchasing the JR RAIL PASS because it’ll save you a lot of money. For more info visit this site: https://www.jrailpass.com/prices
Tokyo to Kawagoe : Kawagoe is accessible through two different airports; either through Haneda (60 km away) or Narita (114 km away). Since, Kawagoe is not far from Tokyo (it’s only 30 minutes by train from Ikebukuro on the Tobu Tojo line and about 50 minutes from Shinjuku on the Seibu line to Kawagoe.), there are a lot of English signs at the train station, so it’s quite convenient to explore. It is a lso directly connected through all the three major train lines but just remember that not all staff could speak English. In addition, if you go further to the countryside, expect to zero foreign language.
Which according to you are the top three places to visit in Kawagoe?
Koedo – It’s a traditional Japanese street, where you can eat a lot of yummy Japanese treats and visit a Japanese-style Starbucks! You can also find a classic bell tower in Koedo called Toki no Kane. When there was no clock, the Toki no Kane became a symbol of Kawagoe and showed the time without fail. First built in 1600s, the bell tower has been reconstructed several times over the years, being last built in 1893. Koedo is also the perfect place to buy souvenirs in Kawagoe.
Hikawa Shrine – Located 5 minutes away on foot from the main Kurazukuri Street, this 1500 year old Shinto shrine is very popular among couples and women. Being home to two wedded couples of Japanese gods, it is said that this shrine can bring luck in your love life. Hikawa Shrine is known for its fortune-telling strips called omikuji, in the shape of fish. Moreover, you could also see an insta-worthy tunnel made of Ema—a wooden plaque where you write wishes or prayers. The tunnel leads you into a pair of 600 year-old sacred trees. Locals believe walking around them in the shape of number eight brings good luck.
Then during July to September, it has a festival called Enmusubi Wind Chime where you could see a colorful tunnel of wind chimes. According to Japanese culture, the WIND is like a messenger, thus whenever the wind blows the chimes, it means that your ‘love prayer’ is being sent to the gods of match-making.
Shingashi River – Shingashi is an around 35 km long river that flows through Saitama and Tokyo in Japan. It’s the perfect spot in Kawagoe to witness the picturesque cherry blossoms in spring! Moreover, you can also do that while riding a boat. At the opening of the Koedo Kawagoe Spring Festival, a boat crossing event takes place at the Shingashi River.
You can also visit the Kitain Temple, one of the few structures remaining from the ancient Edo-era (1603-1868). Kita-in, the headquarters of Tendai Buddhists, is a treasure house of cultural properties from the Edo period. Although most of the temple was burnt down in the Great Fire of Edo in 1638, the Kita-in the only place where the original Edo Castle remains. Besides this, there are 538 Buddha statues, called Gohyaku Rakan.
What are the best day trips for nature, culture and history from your city ?
For nature and culture, go to Chichibu, a city in Saitama Prefecture. It’s an hour drive from Kawagoe or a 2 hour train ride. You can go hiking in its mountains or go to an onsen (hot springs) to relax and experience staying in a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan). It is famous for its impressive shrines, Nagatoro River cruises and Chichibu Night festival held annually.
If that’s not enough, you can always go to Tokyo—particularly in Asakusa— to experience various traditional Japanese activities like Ikebana (flower arrangement), playing the shamisen (traditional Japanese string instrument), and many more. Some of these activities are free. For more info visit this site: http://www.tokyo-tradition.jp/2020/eng/
What is the local cuisine of Japan? Any suggestion on popular local places to try them in your city?
Japan has many popular dishes, but one of my favorites is UNAGI, which is also one of the specialties of Kawagoe. It’s grilled freshwater eel coated with sweet and salty sauce. There are a few restaurants in Koedo that serves this mouthwatering delicacy.
Kawagoe has been known as a sweet potato production area for centuries, which has a rich texture and a gentle aroma. Imokoi (a steamed bun made with sweet potato) and Daigakuimo Kawage Iwata (sweet potato cheesecake) are the most famous sweet potato dessert in Kawagoe.
Are there any popular weekend/night/flea markets in the city which tourists must visit? Anything that one must bring home from there?
Like I mentioned before, Koedo is the perfect spot for shopping souvenirs— you can find Japanese sweets, matcha, pottery, chopsticks, and even Ghibli merchandise.
It closes quite early though, but that’s pretty common in Japan. Most shops close around 5-6 pm, while the malls are around 9-10 pm.
Are there any events or festivals in Saitama around which tourists should plan their holiday to feel the local culture?
There are tons of festivals in Japan, from spring to winter. I’m only listing down some of the events I’ve been to and I’m aware of. In addition, during Japanese festivals there are a lot of performances— usually playing traditional Japanese instruments or dances— and food stands, giving visitors to savor varieties of Japanese and (sometimes) foreign food.
Kawagoe’s seasonal events
Spring (Around early April) :
Shingashi River’s Cherry Blossom festivals : Behind the boundaries of the Hikawa shrine, there are about 500 meters of cherry blossom trees alongside the Shingashi River. In the Shingashi River’s Cherry Blossom festival, there is a boat crossing event that lets you enjoy the river while cruising on a Japanese boat.
Kumagaya’s Cherry Blossom Festivals : The Kumagaya Cherry Blossoms along the riverbank of the Arakawa River, is a short train ride away from Tokyo. About ten minutes away from the Kumagaya Station, these 500 cherry trees stretching for two kilometers along with rapeseed flowers which also bloom at the same time, create a spectacular contrast. During the festival, small stalls selling snacks and drinks are setup along the riverbank.
Chichibu’s Shibazakura Festival : Shibazakura, also known as moss phlox, is a flower that grows on the ground with petals resembling cherry blossom flowers. Blooming in white, pink and purple, these flowers can be seen in Hitsujiyama Park in Saitama’s Chichibu area. This almost month long festival, hosts a farmer’s market selling local delicacies.
Enmusubi Wind Chime Festival : Held between July to September, the Enmusubi Wind Chime Festival features colorful wind chimes that adorn the shrine grounds. The shrine lights up in the evening and the corridor is lined with wind chimes.
Kawagoe Million Lights Summer Festival : The Kawagoe Million Lights Summer Festival, a two day summer celebration, is a highlight of the annual calendar of Kawagoe. In this festival, over a thousand festival stalls and a million lights illuminate the town.
Hidaka’s Kinchakuda Red Spider Lily Festival : Held between mid of September to early October, the Kinchakuda red spider lilies festival is the most popular of all the three red spider lily festivals with five million lilies to showcase. Located about 80 minutes from Ikebukuro Station, the flowers in Kinchakuda bloom from the middle of September to early October every year, attracting tourists from all over Japan. The festival hosts performances and food stalls.
Nagatoro Autumn Leaves Festival : This festival is a month long autumn leaf celebration, held annually from November 1st to 30th, in Nagatoro Town in Chichibu Region of Saitama Prefecture. Whitewater river rafting on Nagatoro River and the Hodosan Ropeway can also be enjoyed along with full-day fall foliage experience.
Chichibu Night Festival : It is the festival of Chichibu Shrine in Chichibu, just 90 minutes from central Tokyo. It is held every year from 1st until the 6th of December. The Chichibu Night Festival is considered one of Japan’s top three festivals to feature floats, the others being Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri and the Takayama Matsuri.
Would you suggest any local shows to drama, music or art lovers which exhibit Japanese culture?
If you want to witness traditional Japanese performances, I recommend going to SUIGIAN. It’s a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo that features live Noh drama, Kyogen drama, Nihonbuyo dancing and other traditional performances.
I’ve never been there but it’s in my bucket list.
Are there any do’s and don’t’s which tourists should know before visiting Japan?
- Don’t talk on your phone while in public transport. It’s considered rude.
- Don’t expect people to speak English. Even if you are in major cities like Tokyo or Osaka, many places still don’t speak English. Be prepared to use your Google Translate A LOT.
As a local would you want to give any suggestion/tip to tourists visiting your city?
- Refrain from talking loudly in trains or any public transportation. Even if you see people talking loudly, it’s better not to join in. Since you are a foreigner, some locals—who like their environment peaceful— might vent their anger ONLY to you.
- There aren’t that many trash bin in public places, so be prepared to carry your own rubbish.
- Learn simple phrases like “arigatou” (thank you) or “sumimasen” (sorry/ excuse me). Japanese people appreciate the effort of trying to speak their language.
- Many stores still has a “CASH ONLY” policy. So, just remember to keep some dough with you.
- Don’t just visit Tokyo, Osaka, Mt. Fuji, or Kyoto. Try to explore other cities like Yamagata, Kanazawa, Aomori, etc.
When you go to Japan’s lesser known prefectures, you’ll have a deeper understanding that Japanese culture is so much more than comic books, anime, and ramen.
THINGS TO KNOW
Prefecture : Saitama. It is also called “Just North of Tokyo” and “Greater Tokyo” area. Saitama is blessed with diverse landscape and gives you experience of Japanese culture up close.
Currency : Yen
Kawagoe Discount Pass : At the Ikebukuro Station, railway station located in the Ikebukuro district of Toshima, Tokyo, visit the Tobu Tojo Line ticket office and purchase a convenient ticket issued by Tobu Railways called the KAWAGOE DISCOUNT PASS. The KAWAGOE DISCOUNT PASS (700 yen for adults, 360 yen for children), or the KAWAGOE DISCOUNT PASS Premium (950 yen for adults, 480 yen for children), not only makes it easier to travel from Ikebukuro to Kawagoe, but also gives you special discounts at participating shops and restaurants, while the Premium Pass also allows you to ride the buses in the area for free as well. For more details, check out their official website.
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