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Japan 2014 — Day 12: Kawagoe & Tokyo — Ikebukuro

I live in a coun­try whose entire pop­u­la­tion is equal to that of Tokyo. So even though I love Tokyo, a change of pace and scenery from con­crete and crowds is always wel­come. This is where our half-day trip to Kawagoe, a city loc­ated 30 minutes from Ikebukuro by a lim­ited express train, comes in.

Breakfast is always import­ant, though, so before we head off we stop by Doutour. Sandwiches aren’t really on D and my list of foods to eat — he doesn’t like them unless they’re toasted and I’d sworn off eat­ing sand­wiches ever since I came back from my 5-week stint in the UK in early 2012). But I’d seen this sand­wich (top left) out­side their store, and decided it looked good enough for me to break that sand­wich drought, and D gen­er­ously indulged me by order­ing a hot dog (still not a sand­wich!).

This was a cheese, ham and tomato sand­wich, and it was served hot! Sandwiches always taste bet­ter with hot melted cheese. Really, any­thing tastes bet­ter with hot melted cheese (lasagne = yum!)!

Kawagoe

We catch the train to Kawagoeshi Station. The old castle town, which is what we were inter­ested in see­ing, is loc­ated a far way from the train sta­tion. There’s a tour­ist bus that loops around and stops at the tour­ist spots around the area as well, but we to take the 10 – 15 minute walk there. On the way, we spot anoth­er build­ing that houses a fest­iv­al float (above, bot­tom, right) on a semi-res­id­en­tial street.

The old castle town part of Kawagoe pre­serves streets with the build­ings from the Edo peri­od. If you could ignore the cars going up and down the main street, it’s like walk­ing into a whole dif­fer­ent world. And so dif­fer­ent from vis­it­ing a temple or a castle, because these build­ings house func­tion­al shops.

Some of the build­ings in the vicin­ity are recon­struc­ted from what appears to be tra­di­tion­al tech­niques. These wood used to con­struct these build­ings don’t have the aged col­our of the his­tor­ic­al build­ings.

Kawagoe is fam­ous for its sweet pota­toes, so try­ing sweet potato fla­voured soft serve was a must. We couldn’t decide wheth­er to get sweet potato or purple sweet potato, a sen­ti­ment the store own­ers obvi­ously empath­ise with as they offer a ‘mix’ sweet potato soft serve that has both. I don’t know how they man­age to dis­trib­ute the col­ours in the swirl, but isn’t it pretty? I love that fla­voured foods in Japan actu­ally taste like what they claim to be.

Walking down the street, a lady gives us samples of a honey lem­on drink. She’s from this store selling fruit-fla­voured honeys (above, left). D and I aren’t the biggest fans of honey, but these fruit-fla­voured honeys tasted more fruit than honey, and when turned into a drink, tasted deli­cious. We tried the yuzu honey and the grape honey, and left with a bottle of the grape honey (a smal­ler bottle because we had to watch the weight of our lug­gage).

Further down the road, there’s a store selling knives, and anoth­er selling dogs carved from char­coal.

Having covered the main street, we’re keen to find the Candy Alley. Street sig­nage isn’t help­ful, so we relied on our map to find the side street we thought was cor­rect. The street is rather res­id­en­tial, but with one or two his­tor­ic­al build­ings selling souven­irs. Each his­tor­ic­al build­ing in Kawagoe is des­ig­nated by a plaque (above, bot­tom, left).

At the end of the side street, we stumbled upon this chamele­on perched on a Y1 coin, which reminded me that this was the eel res­taur­ant, Unakko, that we wanted to have lunch at. So, the search for Candy Alley was put on hold, for some eel good­ness.

This is a fam­ily run res­taur­ant. Their spe­cialty is a eel with sweet potato and rice (above, bot­tom, left). It seemed like the sweet potato was cut into 1x1cm cubes and cooked with the rice, because the rice is infused with a pleas­ant sweet potato fla­vour. I order this spe­cialty, while D orders the eel on nor­mal rice. Both meals are served in a beau­ti­fully lacquered box. The amount of rice, how­ever, was rather shal­low con­sid­er­ing each meal was around Y2200.

Further down the road from Unakko is Candy Alley, a street lined with shops selling sweet potato snacks and vari­ous oth­er candy. There was also a gen­tle­man mak­ing pulled sug­ar art lol­li­pops. There was a group of primary school kids tour­ing Kawagoe while we were there, and one of the kids had bought a rab­bit lol­li­pop, so we had the pleas­ure of see­ing the gen­tle­man turn a lump of sug­ar into a rab­bit. Of course he made it look effort­less!

D really likes his red bean ice cream, so we get one. Unfortunately, it’s icy and not creamy.

Returning from the Candy Alley, we vis­it the Bell Tower. We didn’t get to hear it ring, but we did walk around the (small) grounds sur­round­ing it. There’s a small shrine, but then there’s also a child’s swing­set…

In nooks between or beside build­ings, there was an art install­a­tion, and anoth­er wooden seat­ing area with an undu­lat­ing roof.

Ikebukuro

Initially, we planned to skip Ikebukuro (hav­ing been last time) and go from Kawagoe to Sugamo (where­as Harajuku is known as the place for the young, Sugamo is the equi­val­ent for the eld­erly). But, we decide to have a look around.

Not before we go through the train sta­tion and a long depart­ment store base­ment to see if the Loft sold D’s cof­fee equip­ment though! On the way we pass a bakery selling pastries in the form of the Suica pen­guin mas­cot (above, left), and the KitKat Chocolatory (above, right). The KitKat Chocolatory sells a couple of fla­vours exclus­ive to the store, and I pick up the straw­berry and maple to join my expand­ing col­lec­tion.

Now the real reas­on we stopped at Ikebukuro was because I was keen on find­ing a branch of the Lupicia tea store that stocked my lychee oolong (I’d been to 3 – 4 branches by now!). Luckily, the branch in Sunshine City did stock it! On the way, we pass a Crocs store with three smil­ing Crocs greet­ing us.

By now, it was begin­ning to rain again, so we can­celled our plans to vis­it Sugamo. The ori­gin­al plan was to see the night­time illu­min­a­tions at Rikugien Koen after Sugamo, but that didn’t seem like much fun in the rain. So we decide to stay put in Ikebukuro, head­ing to Tokyu Hands. If I lived in Japan, all my money would go to the hobby sec­tion there! I end up buy­ing a kit to make my own takoy­aki stand (above, top). I also see very cute com­plete toy sets fea­tur­ing Rilakkuma and Hello Kitty. The sets are sold in parts, and you don’t know which part you’ve bought, even if it’s some­thing you already have, until you open the box post-pur­chase — that stops me from pur­chas­ing them.

We stop for dessert at our second fam­ily res­taur­ant, Denny’s. D and I both had our eyes on the chocol­ate sundae (above, bot­tom, left), and we order the chocol­ate pan­cakes (above, bot­tom, right) as well for some vari­ety. The chocol­ate sundae was everything amaz­ing with its chocol­ate ice cream, pud­ding and brownie. Unfortunately the pan­cakes weren’t fluffy at all, and were super tough/​bready. Thankfully, the crispy balls and the ice cream went some way to sal­vage it.

And we head back to Ikebukuro Station — there’s a walled smoking area oppos­ite the sta­tion for smokers (it’s illeg­al to smoke out­side these areas in some parts of Tokyo). The Christmas tree atop the Ikebukuro Shopping Park entrance is one of the very few Christmas dec­or­a­tions we saw in Ikebukuro.

Ueno

Dinner is Sukiya — D and I have a pref­er­ence for Sukiya over Yoshinoya even though they gen­er­ally serve the same food. Aside from the overly gen­er­ous heap­ing of spring onion, the meat was super tasty! D orders a curry rice as well, but it doesn’t com­pare to that from Coco Ichibanya Curry House.