Settling In (With Food and Festivities!)

16 November 2023

In this blog Philippa discusses her experiences of settling into her year abroad in Tokyo, and a day at Kawagoe Festival.

If I had to use three words to describe my first month in Tokyo they would be: exciting, scary, and chaotic! Growing up in the UK, with my travelling experiences limited to Europe and the USA, moving to Tokyo was a big culture shock. From trying new food, to navigating the subway system, to learning a new language, and how to tie a kimono (still working on the last two). Every day has provided new adventures, a lot of confusion, but also small and big achievements.

Tokyo itself has so much vibrancy and there is always something happening – even more than in London! Composed of 23 wards (each of which feels like a city in itself) and with a population of around 37 million, this city truly never stops (apart from after midnight when there is no public transport, but metaphorically at least). If you think Covent Garden in summer is busy, then you haven’t seen anything until you cross the Shibuya Scramble Crossing on a friday night!

Throughout my first month here, one of the most exciting things has been attending the Shinto and Buddhist festivals that run across the city throughout the year. Mid-way through October, I joined the festivities at Kawagoe where the local shrine has continued a 370-year-old Edo style float display


Arriving at Kawagoe station at 11.30am, we were immediately swept into the already forming crowds. As we stepped off the train, I quickly realised that this was not a small local festival as I had expected. The pedestrian street leading from the station was bursting with activity and lined with stand after stand: there were food stalls, displays from local shops, and there were people everywhere! Although the street was only about 200m long, we spent several hours exploring the shops and trying the food. Just when we thought that we couldn’t eat any more, the street opened out into the main crossroads where the festival was to be held, and we were met with (even more) food stalls lined up in every direction and all serving something different. From stir-fry to katsu curry, BBQ squid and okonomiyaki, not to mention candied plumbs and ‘Hello Kitty’ crepes - there was so much to try!

Once finding a free spot of curb, we sat down with our feast and watched the crowds build and the floats start to arrive. As the light began to fade, we took off exploring again and watched as the lanterns were lit on the different floats. In the Edo style, the floats were two tiered with beautifully ornate decoration and parked about 20 metres away from each other all the way down the main road. Gradually crowds started to gather as performances began on each float with drums, ryuteki and dance. Dressed in traditional kimono and masks, the dancers gestured to the audience in fluid and simple movements. Walking through the crowds from float to float, you felt like a part of the community coming together to enjoy a special tradition.

The first few weeks in Tokyo were a chaotic scramble to adjust to a new city, see as much of the city as possible, meet people, and begin studies. Enjoying this festival with new friends from across the world and taking a moment to step back from the fast pace of the previous weeks, I began to feel genuinely settled. I might still be learning the ropes, and I still get lost all the time, but Tokyo feels like a home away from home and I can’t wait to find out what new adventures are in store for the rest of the year!