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Japan Northward Golden Route: Saitama + Gunma (Day 2)

24 days ago / travel / japan / saitama / gunma

Taking on the old town of Kawagoe in a kimono!

Continuing the Northward Golden Route journey with JR East! (Day 1's here if you missed it...)

Day 2 is my favourite day of the trip!

From Omiya station, we took the JR Kawagoe Line with the JR EAST-NAGANO NIIGATA PASS and alighted at Kawagoe station.

Kawagoe (川越) is a city in Saitama that is known locally as "Little Edo" (小江戸 Koedo) after the old name for Tokyo, due to its many Kurazukuri (clay-walled warehouse-styled) buildings and ambience reminiscent of the Edo Period (1603-1867).

To me, it feels like a more "authentic" and rustic version of Kyoto, that is far, far less commercialised and without the hoards of tourists.

The highlight for me was dressing up in the kimono and exploring the old town on a hand-pulled rickshaw.

Here's how it went!

Arriving at KIMONO RENTAL SHOP SARAH and choosing our kimono fabrics.

Then we got our hair done.

Choosing flowers for my hair...

If you remember, I had previously worn a kimono in Osaka so I can only compare this experience to that but comparing the two, I kinda prefer my Kawagoe experience because they had prettier fabrics for me to choose from and I like how the pictures turned out. Somehow strolling through the town in a kimono makes me feel like I have travelled back in time to traditional Japan?

Me...

And my very strong and knowledgeable rickshaw shafu who provided us with a very entertaining history lesson as he took us around the town.

We explored shrines (this is the Hikawa Shrine which is well-known for relationships and matchmaking)...

And little streets where old storehouse merchant houses stand beside new, modern buildings.

The super old school スカラ座 cinema which still screens movies today

I also spotted several hipster-ish coffeehouses, flower shops and dessert parlours that I wish we had more time for. I highly recommend you allocate an entire day to the Warehouse District if you can - there's just so much to see, do and EAT!

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A food map of the various popular snacks you can get at Kurazukuri Streets, painstakingly put together for us by the tourism office. You're welcome.

I also tried shoyu (or soy sauce) ice cream for the first time and while I was expecting it to taste a lil funky, I was very surprised at how tasty it was! It's a bit like burnt caramel mixed into smooth, creamy Japanese-quality soft serve... think salted caramel but better! I will definitely have it again (and again...)

You might have realised that I have taken quite a few shots at/ of this wooden Toki no Kane or Time Bell Tower. This wooden clock is often featured in historical dramas and was first built some 400 years ago! It still chimes four times a day, at 6am, 12pm, 3pm, and 7pm.

I love how time seem to have stopped centuries ago here. A little trivia, there was a Great Fire of Kawagoe in 1893, hence fireproof warehouses built from clay and tile began to spring up all over the city after that. Kurazukuri Street today still retains the look of the 19th century with warehouses transformed to house artisan shops, cafes, museums and more.

Next up, lunch at Ryotei Yamaya!

This is a luxury Japanese restaurant found in an Edo-period house surrounded by lush gardens.

Here's another history lesson: There was once a very wealthy merchant named Kawagoe Yokota who was so rich that they say that the price of rice varied every time he set foot in Edo or Osaka. He then built this gorgeous guest house within a garden of 3,300 sqm that has welcomed Kawagoe Lord Matsudaira and a variety of distinguished guests. Between the years of 1868 to 1869, the first Yamaya owner, Hambei, bought over the lavish mansion and hence we have Ryotei Yamaya. The current owner is the 5th generation descendant of Hambei. If you think about it, this is a building with 150 years of heritage that has survived the war.

We enjoyed an authentic kaiseki (Japanese multi-platter meal) lunch where dishes are specially made to match the seasons and the view surrounding the restaurant. Because we were there in winter, the garden was a little barren but I liked the melodramatic feel of it and I can't imagine how pretty this place will be when the flowers bloom in spring! Or when the maple trees become a brilliant shade of crimson in fall.

Ryotei Yamaya // 〒350-0054 11-2 Saiwai-cho, Kawagoe City, Saitama Prefecture // Website

Do note that kaiseki-style meals require advance reservations or you could enjoy the more causal Kagome Bento (1500 yen) or Tsubasa Bento (3000 yen) lunch boxes. Reservations are not needed for these, but it is advised that you arrive early as there is a limited number of lunch boxes daily.

After lunch, it's time for a traditional foot bath at retail store and foot spa cafe Tsubaki No Kura set in a small tranquil garden laced with Japanese parasols.

Yes, the very aunty non-kimono-esque woman in the background with her tights showing is yours truly.

Honestly, this is something I will never do in Singapore (or any other part of the world actually) because you know, my issues with hygiene lol. But BECAUSE THIS IS JAPAN, and I trust Japanese standards wholeheartedly, I happily stuck my feet into the warm, outdoor bath and it is really quite the experience.

This small cafe seats only 8 people and you can enjoy a drink whilst at it. I went for the matcha latte which was SO GOOD (Japanese milk!) but you should try their original ginger ale made from kochi ginger or the famous local Coedo beer.

Prices start from 400 yen for beverages, 680 yen for alcohol and 350 yen for snacks - go for the famous Kawagoe sweet potato! By the way, Kawagoe is known for its extremely high-quality sweet potatoes called Kawagoe-imo. This is why you will find many sweet potato snacks in the town, such as sweet potato ice cream, deep fried sweet potato chips and even sweet potato gyoza. Scroll up to my food map for more info!

Then it's farewell Saitama, and hello Gunma!

Last look at the demure kimono-clad me.

We rented our kimonos from KIMONO RENTAL SHOP SARAH. Details below.

きものや沙羅 // 埼玉県川越市連雀町8-4 // Tel: 049-227-6898 // Website

After changing out of our kimonos, we then took the Asama 617 Shinkansen with the JR EAST PASS from Omiya to Takasaki Station in Gunma and our first stop at this prefecture is Shibukawa.

Our accommodation for the night was at ryokan Ikaho Onsen Fukuichi which has a history dating back to 1576!

I've stayed in several ryokans and they each have their own unique characteristics. For Ikaho, apart from the sheer size of the room (see my IG stories highlight to know what I mean!), what impressed me most was their dinner. It was served Japanese kaiseki style, in your own private dining room attended by a personal steward and there were about ten courses in total. There was sashimi, tempura and the main highlight was the sukiyki which featured Jyoshu beef and various mountain herbs and vegetables which are all sourced locally from the Gunma prefecture. There's also a wide range of sake to choose from - sake brewing is actually quite big in Gunma as the prefecture is blessed with good-tasting cold water.

Retiring for the night, but not before a good onsen soak. There are two types of onsen here, Kogane no Yu (Golden Water) in which the iron contained in the water has oxidised to form a distinctive brownish-red colour and Shirogane no Yu (Silver Water) that was only discovered in recent years.

(Fun fact! In the Edo Era, Ikaho was known as the onsen that can help women conceive. It is documented that the waters here have purification abilities that can treat infertility.)

Ikaho Onsen is located halfway up Mt. Harunasan with the famous stone steps that were built in 1576 right at its doorstep. We arrived after sunset to a gorgeous illumination of the steps which unfortunately, my camera couldn't capture.

Guess there are some things that are just best witnessed with the human eye.

(By the way, I keep mentioning the Edo period in this blog post. If you're wondering, it is also known as the Tokugawa period, and covers the years during which Japanese society was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and the country's 300 regional daimyō (lords). You can obviously read more on Wikipedia but basically, think samurai. In the Edo period, the samurai were the most important social class. In fact, back in the warlike ages, Ikaho Onsen actually helped to heal a lot of samurai warriors.)

Ikaho Onsen Fukuichi // 8, Ikahomachi Ikaho, Shibukawa-Shi, Gumma, 377-0102, Japan // Website

About the Northward Golden Route

The Northward Golden Route is a new train route that connects three areas of Saitama, Gunma, and Niigata Prefectures along with the outskirts of Tokyo. Through the route, you can enjoy experiences that you can't usually get in Tokyo such as unique cuisines, magnificent nature sites, onsen hot springs and SNOW!

You can explore the Northward Golden Route with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and you can purchase it for ¥17,000 at the East Japan Rail website or the Japan Rail Cafe in Singapore. If you prefer to get it when you land in Japan, you can purchase it at Narita or Haneda Airport, as well as Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shinjuku, Nagano, Niigata and many other JR East stations for ¥18,000.

The JR EAST PASS is a flexible pass that is valid for up to 14 days as long as you take the trains only on any 5 days during the period (so you can take your time to explore these areas) and allows unlimited train rides including Shinkansen (bullet trains) between Tokyo and Joetsu and Shinetsu area. Specifically, the pass covers unlimited rides using reserved seats (you can reserve up to 3 days in advance at the JR East ticket reservation page) on the ordinary cars of the limited express trains (including shinkansen), express trains and local trains on JR EAST train lines, all the Izu Kyuko lines, al the Tokyo Monorail lines, all the Hokuetsu Express lines and the Echigo TOKImeki Railway line (between Naoetsu and Arai) within the “Unlimited-ride area”. In addition, the pass also allows unlimited rides using reserved seats on the ordinary cars of the limited express trains such as the Tobu Direct Limited Express “Nikko”, “Kinugawa”, and “SPACIA Kinugawa” trains.

More details at: http://www.jp-rail-sg.com/northward-golden-route/