Lost in Kawagoe


I find myself back on this blog whenever I’m looking to procrastinate other writing (read: I am drowning in college application essays). There are so many unfinished posts that haven’t made their way to this blog yet, but they will hopefully begin to surface after first semester ends and I have a bit more free time.

This is a draft I wrote a week or two after returning from a study abroad program in Japan that I had the opportunity to pilot this past summer. I was feeling nostalgic, so I hope you’ll excuse the slightly melodramatic tone 🙂 

It wasn’t until I went to Japan that I met my directionally challenged match. 

We were already off to a rocky start when my host sister realized the bus was taking us the wrong direction. The bustling crowds and modern scene found near the station vanished from sight as the vehicle carried us further down increasingly narrow roads and into the heart of Kawagoe, where kurazukuri, traditional clay-walled warehouses with tiled roofs, and other relics of the Edo period line the streets. 

We soon got off at the next stop, and I imagine the sun snickered at my wise choice of full-length jeans and a long-sleeve top that sweltering June afternoon. 

My host sister’s spontaneous plan for an after-school detour found us lost and standing in the middle of the quaint town with little clue as to where we were going. It was the blind leading the blind—except one of us was equipped with the ever-reliable guidance of Google Maps. I lugged my backpack on stiff shoulders and trailed closely behind my host sister, whose head was bent as she peered down at her phone for directions. At the end of a circuitous journey featuring several a few wrong turns, strolls through random neighborhoods, and close encounters with cars as we hugged the sides of roads clearly not meant for pedestrians, we had finally reached the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine.

Enshrouded in verdant forest, the shrine’s entrance initially eluded our unobservant eyes. When we finally ventured past the modest facade, a tunnel of ema, small wooden plaques inscribed with prayers and wishes, beckoned us inside. 

The tranquil sanctuary is famed for its matchmaking powers, but the motive behind our excursion was neither romantic nor spiritual. We were solely interested in the shrine’s unique fish-shaped containers that held omikuji, fortune-telling strips of paper. After digging through my wallet for 300 yen, I eagerly pulled out the omikuji from inside and viewed my fortune: shō-kichi, which meant slightly good luck. Nothing to celebrate by normal standards, but it was a welcome improvement from the bad luck I’d received during my last visit to a shrine. 

Having achieved our goal of procuring the novel souvenirs, we were ready to put an end to our short-lived adventure and decided to go home. That is, after getting lost on our way back to the bus stop. 

More than trips to signature attractions like the Tokyo Skytree or Harajuku, memories of the unplanned, seemingly mundane after-school outings with my host sister are the ones I cherish and long for the most now that I’ve returned to America. 

Just over a week has passed since I came back home, and I linger in a semi-functional daze. Everyone I know greets me with the same inquiry. 

“How was Japan?”

It is the simplest of questions, but the most difficult for me to answer. Anything I say sounds cruelly reductive to my own ears.

How was Japan? 

It was the boisterous city and serene shrines, the salty sweetness of mitarashi dango and the pungent sliminess of nattō.

It was the humidity that drenched my clothes and the beads of sweat that sprouted from my scalp, the astoundingly punctual trains and the lurching buses that knocked me off my feet.

It was my host mother’s strong Kyushu dialect and my host father’s careful English, the discomfort of standing out as a foreigner but the warmth of their acceptance.

It was wandering through meandering streets with my host sister and our mutual poor sense of direction.

“How was Japan?” 



Article links: 

About Hikawa Shrine: https://matcha-jp.com/en/3235 

Kurazukuri article: https://www.koedo.or.jp/foreign/english/attractions/ 


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