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!)!
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.
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.
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.