The Kawagoe Wander Diary: 4 Amazing Places to Add to Your Travel Itinerary
Kawagoe is a city that is an hour's drive from Tokyo. While it may be famous for its clocktower, matchmaking shrine, and retro streets, this town actually has a lot more to offer. This article introduces a new way to experience the city, from a museum designed by a world-famous Japanese architect to an old-style cafe that oozes charm. If you want to explore Kawagoe in a unique way or just spend a pleasant day strolling its streets, this is the guide to check out.
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Shimano Coffee Taisho-kan
Shimano Coffee Taisho-kan is located on Taisho Roman Yume Street and was established in 1996. Although this coffee shop has only been open for around 20 years, its overall appearance brings one back to the Taisho era of Japan (1912 - 1926), when political liberalism was on the rise and taking inspiration from the West became somewhat of a norm in Japanese architecture. Elements of the store that hark back to this period include the shop name, typography used on the signboards, semicircular arch windows, yellow and black striped awning, mottled wooden door with metal handles, and general architectural style.
Upon opening the door, you will see the wooden interior with dark mottled leather chairs and walls. The warm yellow light adds to the dim yet welcoming atmosphere and the sound of a coffee grinder can be heard, showing off romantic Taisho-style grandeur.
The home-roasted coffee and handmade cheesecakes are the pride of Shimano Coffee Taisho-kan. You will find single-origin and blend coffee, as well as a wide range of cheesecake flavors including the original, coffee, matcha, sweet potato, and black sesame. From 8 am to 12 pm, the coffee shop offers breakfast sets in which you can choose toast or hot-pressed sandwiches as the main dish, served with salad, boiled egg, and a drink.
These are the breakfast sets A and B. Set A comes with thick toast that is grilled to a crispy and solid dark brown color with cream spread on the surface. Orange and strawberry jams are served on the side. Set B consists of a hot sandwich that has layers of cheese, ham, and egg salad. The savory flavors of the different layers blend together beautifully.
Both breakfast sets include iced or hot coffee. The coffee beans are picked by the owner and the coffee brew is extracted from a syphon coffee maker, giving the coffee a rich and mellow taste. Fresh cream can be added for those who are not used to drinking black coffee.
Time seems to move particularly slow here. The owner is sometimes concentrating on making coffee in front of a wall full of coffee cups, and other times you can see him doing the accounting with his head bowed down. Customers are using knives and forks to enjoy breakfast at their seats, with some reading newspapers and others chatting softly. All these scenes blend together to form what will surely become a nostalgic memory.
About a 1 minute walk away from the local landmark Toki no Kane (Bell of Time), Abri Coffee is a popular coffee shop with a retro appearance hidden inside an alley. "Abri" means sanctuary and shelter in French, and the owner chose this word as the store name with the aim of creating a relaxing space where visitors can unwind from the stresses of daily life.
The decor is consistent with dark wood tones, and even the bar seating area shows off wooden patterns. This creates a low-key and calm atmosphere, much like walking into a secret treehouse base in the forest.
Paintings and photos are hung on the wall randomly and large piles of Japanese magazines are disorderly placed, making people feel casual and free, just like they would at home.
The coffee at Abri Coffee has a unique flavor that's full of personality. It is brewed by elaborately roasting raw coffee beans using a custom-made roasting machine.
The shop also offers specials like the “Taste of the Day”, “Taste of the Month”, and “Taste of the Quarter”.
Besides the quality and deliciousness of the coffee, the owner prides himself in offering various types so that visitors can enjoy a cup that best suits their preferences. Apart from the hot-selling single-origin coffee, there are five other types of blended coffee which are named according to the degree of roast: level 1, which tastes like American coffee (light roast); level 2, which has a refreshing taste (light-medium roast); level 3, which is perfectly balanced in every way, from the bitterness and sourness to the concentration and aftertaste (medium roast); level 4, which has a rich taste with no bitterness and sourness (medium-dark roast); and level 5, which has an extremely bitter taste but sweet aftertaste (dark roast).
The recommended drinking method for their coffee is written on the menu and resembles tea tasting. You have to make a sipping sound and let the coffee linger in your mouth for a determined amount of time. The flavor will differ depending on how long - 30 seconds, 1 minute, 3 minutes, and 5 minutes.
The shop also sells cakes and toasts that complement the coffee. Packs of drip coffee bags as well as black tea, caramel tea, rose tea, and jasmine green tea bags make perfect souvenirs and are placed in front of the counter for your perusal. After visiting the old Kurazukuri Street and the Toki no Kane, take a turn around the corner and drop by this coffee store to savor Kawagoe with a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.
Vanitoy Bagel Kawagoe Main Store
The minimalistic and square-shaped appearance of the dark-colored building may not catch your eye at first glance, but it stands out among the traditional Japanese houses on the same street. The well-known bagel store "Vanitoy Bagel" is owned by a bread-loving couple that started selling their self-made bagels from a mobile dining car. Today, it is a well-known local store on Kurazukuri Street in the center of Kawagoe.
Their firm and chewy bagels are boiled and baked from fermented dough. Vanitoy Bagel insists on using fine 100% Hokkaido wheat flour kneaded with sugar beet and sea salt to make their bagels. The bagels retain more moisture than usual and after more than 12 hours of low-temperature fermentation, the texture becomes soft and springy. It is especially recommended for those who don’t like to chew.
The first floor of Vanitoy Bagel is a bagel shop while the second floor is a cafe. A dazzling array of bagels are displayed inside the glass windows, from the basic original flavor to sweet bagels like blueberry cheese, orange, red bean, and pumpkin. There are also savory bagels such as walnut butter cheese and pollock roe. In total, there are more than 20 types of bagels (prices range from 190 to 300 yen), making it hard for people to choose what to eat.
The bagels here are mostly packed in plastic bags to ensure food safety and hygiene while making it convenient to carry around. For those visiting during noon, it is recommended to order an affordable lunch set. In addition to a bagel, it also includes soup, salad, and small snacks. Whether eaten for a regular meal or afternoon tea, pair a bagel with a cup of espresso made from fresh coffee beans to bring out the satisfying natural aroma of the flour.
Other handmade pastries are also sold, such as walnut muffins, bean bread made from Tambo black beans, vanilla bread, plain biscuits, and chocolate biscuits.
Yaoko Kawagoe Museum (Yuji Misu Memorial Hall)
Opened in 2012, this museum is located in a quiet residential area behind Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine. It was designed by the Japanese contemporary architect Toyo Ito, who won the Pritzker Architecture Prize which is basically the Nobel Prize in architecture. It acts as the memorial hall for the late Japanese painter Yuji Misu, whose works earned him the Yasui Prize, one of Japan's most prestigious awards for art.
The exterior of the building is made of concrete, surrounded by flowing water and greenery. The base area is 100 square meters, and the interior is divided into four spaces like a square paddy field: a shop at the entrance, two exhibition halls, and a coffee shop.
Using lighting as a theme, the special shape and materials of the roof let you experience the different lights and shadows of each space when walking around. The two exhibition halls look particularly interesting, with light rays shining in from the unique uneven structure of the roof (which is also used as the logo of the art museum). This echoes how Yuji Misu sought to portray lights and shadows in his paintings, and also intertwines with the oil paintings and lithographs on display in this vibrant space.
Among all the paintings, there is one named “Growing Old” (老いる) depicting an old naked woman who is bent over, which is an artwork of Yuji Misu that won the 19th Yasui Award in 1976. (This is a reproduction and the real prize-winning piece is exhibited at the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art.)
The woman in the painting is actually Yuji Misu’s mother. "When I painted my aged mother, my tears wouldn't stop falling," he once said. Experience for yourself the emotions conveyed by the artwork.
After viewing the exhibitions, spend a pleasant afternoon sitting comfortably in front of a large hillside painting and drinking a cup of tea while listening to the enthusiastic museum staff share anecdotes to tourists who came to marvel at the works of Toyo Ito. Besides the paintings, the museum itself is also a work of art. Come to let your body and mind wander in the world of art and light.
The last stop of the day is Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine, which is famous for its matchmaking powers. Musubi Cafe is located on the first floor of Hikawa Hall in the shrine. The red string logo comes from merging a Japanese knot called roppou-ojime (a hexagonal fastening which symbolizes the six directions of east, west, south, north, plus heaven and earth) with the "&" symbol.
Looking around the store, many places are decorated with o-mamori (charm) tassel knots from the shrine. They change color every season, which is a small detail worth paying attention to when visiting.
If you visit during the annual Enmusubi Fuurin (Wind Chime Festival) (July 6th to September 8th, 2019), you must not miss the special summer dessert - Irodori Fuurin (Colorful Wind Charm). Mousse and jelly with diced fruit are added to round and compact glass balls, creating a dessert that looks like a wind chime. There are a total of 7 flavors with corresponding colors to choose from, namely peach, lychee, mango, grape, passionfruit, muskmelon, and grapefruit yogurt.
There is also a lunch set with dishes made using strictly selected vegetables from contracted farmers, as well as other delicious desserts. The steamed cheesecake is made from 3 kinds of cheese that perfectly blend together, creating a tart treat that lingers in the mouth. The digestive biscuit base is made out of crumbs of varying sizes, and you can experience its distinctive texture when eating it together with the moist yet dense top cake layer.
The hojicha (roasted green tea) chocolate cake is made from locally-grown tea leaves. The rich and fragrant chocolate mousse contains vanilla cream, hojicha, and walnuts. The taste is so smooth and tempting that you can't help but smile after having a bite.
If you don't know what to choose as a souvenir when visiting Kawagoe, there is a variety of unique goods up for sale in a corner of the cafe, such as wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) shaped like engimono (lucky charms) and personalized o-mamori. The products here can be considered as a collective effort of Japanese craftsmen. Even if you don’t make a purchase, it’s still enjoyable just looking at them.
After visiting and praying for your relationship to go well at Kawagoe Shrine, it is recommended to come here to enjoy a sweet “musubi" (relationship) pastry paired with a glass of iced latte or hot flower tea.
Come Experience Kawagoe's Unique Atmosphere!
When visiting Kawagoe, don't miss out on doing all of the activities above. This city has endless charm that's just waiting to be discovered. For more places to visit in this lovely town, check out the article below.
Header image: Yellow Cat / Shutterstock.com
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.