What do you think of when you hear the name Japan? A few first images that might come to mind are kimono, rickshaws, temples and bonsai. However, finding all those things in one place can be quite challenging. That is—unless you’re in Saitama.
Saitama Prefecture is Tokyo’s neighbor. The region encompasses a host of interesting towns, including “Little Edo,” a town that feels like you’ve stepped back in time. There, you can try traditional Japanese cuisine, explore unusual streets and really make the most of a Japanese trip, all in one day.
So let’s take a look at some of the fun experiences and adventures that await in Saitama.
What is “Little Edo?”
“Little Edo” (ko-edo in Japanese) is the nickname given to Kawagoe, a city located just an hour by train from Tokyo.
Tokyo used to be called Edo, and during its heyday (the Edo period, 1603-1868), it was the capital where the shogunate held its government. During that time, both Edo and Kawagoe had traditional kura tsukuri, or storehouses. Unfortunately, large fires were prevalent during that time and burned down many wooden storehouse buildings. After the fire of 1893, they noticed that many of the kura had survived.
Noting this, wealthy merchants in Kawagoe began competing with each other to build strong Kura tsukuri throughout the town. This created the beginnings of the picturesque townscape you see today, in a style that was once mostly associated with Edo.
To make the most of Kawagoe, it’s best to hone in on the traditional activities. Though it seems like a small city, there’s a lot to do! Here are just a few things that can make you feel like an Edo citizen of times gone by.
Explore the city in a kimono
One of the best ways to experience Kawagoe is to explore traditional dress. After all, if you’re going to walk in a former Edoite’s shoes, why not go all in with a kimono, too?
While it may initially seem out of place to wear something steeped in a foreign culture’s tradition, many locals will smile and wave when they see you appreciating this traditional style.
There are many shops to rent a kimono, such as Coedo Vivian. The staff will help you choose a style to match your look and prepare your kimono and hair in what feels like record-breaking time. The “clip-clop” of your traditional shoes on the streets of Kawagoe will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
And when stepping back in history, you should explore the city by a traditional rickshaw. The word “rickshaw” actually comes from the Japanese word jinrikisha (human-powered car). You’ll find them and their runners all around Kawagoe, ready to carry you to all the best spots (for a fee, of course).
The runners know the streets well and where to take you for the best photos or find something interesting about the town.
The local cuisine
Wherever you go in Japan, you’re bound to find some gourmet specialty unique to that area. In Kawagoe, the delicacies are satsumaimo (sweet potato) and unagi (freshwater eel).
There are plenty of places to try out both of those dishes, but one of the most popular spots for satsuma-imo is Koedo Osatsuan, where you can get handmade sweet potato chips with a selection of different dips. These make a great street food snack, but watch out not to drop any because the local pigeons know just how tasty they are, too!
While there are many excellent restaurants to try the local unagi, a delicious spot for a sit-down meal is Ogatou. Here you can get the traditional sauce unagi on rice or plain grilled eel without sauce. Of course, unagi is usually eaten for special occasions, but visiting Little Edo for the first time seems like a special enough occasion, right?
Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine
To gain a real understanding of the history and importance of Kawagoe, a visit to Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine is a must. This is the shrine that holds the famous Kawagoe Festival every year, a lively traditional festival with floats, parades and a whole lot of energy.
The shrine has been around for about 1,500 years, but at that time, it was simply a place of worship without the buildings you see today. Slowly over time, the buildings were created, and in 1990 the largest wooden torii (Shinto archway) in Japan was built to mark the start of a new emperor’s reign.
One of the key characteristics of this shrine is its fortune slips. You can “catch” a small red fish with a fortune slip inside with a fishing rod. The gods will steer your hook to the right place, so drop it in and see what you catch.
Make your own bonsai
If you want a more immersive experience, you might want to look further afield to Omiya Bonsai Village, which is filled with gardens and the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum. At the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, you can explore a range of expertly crafted bonsai and learn about the different styles and how to fully appreciate them.
A key takeaway from the museum is that you should view each bonsai looking up from below. By bending down and looking up at the tree, you can feel as if you are looking up at a powerful natural scene, no matter where you are. Several bonsai gardens near the museum also offer a memorable bonsai-making experience.
At the Toju-en bonsai nursery, you can even see where the tiny trees start life. An expert bonsai artisan will guide you on how to pot and trim your new friend, teaching you the bonsai basics and how to care for it.
You can take the bonsai home to nurture and live with if you live in Japan. But if you have to return overseas, as part of the experience, you’ll receive tools and information to use your new knowledge back home.
While Tokyo embodies the city hustle and bustle, Saitama reflects Japanese tradition. Just looking at these two areas in Saitama should give you some idea of the culture and tradition waiting to be explored on Tokyo’s doorstep.https://en.chocotabi-saitama.jp/access/ and start planning your trip today!