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Kawagoe: reflection of old Tokyo

Updated on August 12, 2017
Streets of Kawagoe
Streets of Kawagoe | Source

Dubbed “Little Edo” (小江戸, Koedo) after the old name for Tokyo, Kawagoe (川越) is a quaint city situated just northwest of Tokyo metropolis, in the neighbouring prefecture of Saitama (埼玉). An ideal spot for a day trip outside Tokyo, this tranquil suburb is about half an hour’s journey away from the capital, and is itself a serene contrast to the capital’s concrete jungles and congested walkways.

Honmaru Goten, the only surviving segment of the Kawagoe Castle
Honmaru Goten, the only surviving segment of the Kawagoe Castle | Source

A brief history

Kawagoe’s rows of clay-walled warehouse-styled buildings, found in the city’s main street, is reminiscent of typical settlements of the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), hence earning the city its nickname of “Little Edo.” It is strategically located to the northwest of Tokyo (Edo), serving as a vital gateway to the capital during the Edo Period, both for commercial and military purposes. The city was a major supplier of commodities to Edo, and was in fact home to the renowned Kawagoe Castle, the administrative centre of the old Kawagoe Domain where the Tokugawa shoguns instated some of their most loyal subordinates as lords of the castle.

With the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the establishment of the Meiji government in 1868, many buildings in the city were demolished, although some were retained in their original state or relocated. The city served as the capital of the newly-created Kawagoe Prefecture (1871) and Iruma Prefecture (1871 – 1873) before it was absorbed into Saitama Prefecture in 1873.

Kawagoe’s close ties with Edo meant that the city also absorbed much of the capital’s cultural elements, which are reflected not only in its buildings, but also in its local delicacies. While ancient Edo has since then undergone extensive transformation to become what is now modern Tokyo, Kawagoe still retains much of the old capital’s cultural aspects, which remain well-preserved to this day.

How to get there

Getting to Kawagoe is really easy, as there are three stations situated within the city itself. The first option is to take the private Tobu Tojo Line from Ikebukuro station (池袋) and alight at either Kawagoe (川越) or Kawagoe-shi (川越市). Trains along this line are frequent, and they cost ¥450 per way for a half-hour journey. Alternatively, one can also take the JR trains to Kawagoe, boarding the JR Saikyo Line at either Shibuya (渋谷) or Shinjuku (新宿) station. The JR Saikyo Line then continues as an extension into the JR Kawagoe Line, which makes a stop at Kawagoe station. This option costs ¥570 per way for an hour’s ride.

Alighting at either Kawagoe or Kawagoe-shi station would suffice, as there are local buses that operate with special passes for tourists, allowing unlimited bus rides in the city for a whole day. Nonetheless, there is also the other option of alighting at Hon-Kawagoe station (本川越), which is slightly closer to the city’s main attractions compared to the other two stations. The private Seibu-Shinjuku Line runs from Seibu-Shinjuku station (西武新宿) to Hon-Kawagoe station, with the 45-minute journey costing ¥890 per way.

Kita-in Temple main hall
Kita-in Temple main hall | Source
Statues of the Gohyaku Rakan (500 Disciples of Buddha)
Statues of the Gohyaku Rakan (500 Disciples of Buddha) | Source

Where to go / What to see

1. Kita-in Temple (喜多院)

This temple serves as one of the most important temples for the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto region. Its original structure, which consisted of three complexes, was built in 830 under the direction of the monk Ennin (円仁) (794 – 864). The temple shot to such prominence in the 17th century, so much so that the first three Tokugawa shoguns frequently patronized it and even transferred part of Edo Castle to the temple site as part of rebuilding efforts when a fire ravaged most of the temple’s original buildings in 1638. The buildings that stand today are the only surviving structures of the original Edo Castle after its destruction in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and they contain the rooms, kitchen, bathroom, toilet and study that the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光) (1604 – 1651) used, as well as a room that was believed to be where Iemitsu was born.

Another highlight of the temple is the Gohyaku Rakan (五百羅漢) or the “500 Disciples of Buddha,” situated next to the entrance. Gohyaku Rakan is a small courtyard housing 540 stone statues of Buddha’s disciples posing in different positions and facial expressions, such that no two are alike. Visitors can pose with the different statues for photos, and they can also engage in an interesting task of spotting 12 statues that depict the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.

For a complete tour of the Kita-in Temple, one should also visit the Naka-in (中院) or “Middle Temple,” which was one of the original three complexes of the temple. It is situated just a short five-minute walk away, and exists as a separate institution today.

Replicas of feudal lords engaged in war strategy discussions in Honmaru Goten
Replicas of feudal lords engaged in war strategy discussions in Honmaru Goten | Source

2. Honmaru Goten (本丸御殿)

Honmaru Goten, or “the palace in the innermost circle of defense,” is what remains of the original Kawagoe Castle that was dismantled since 1870. Construction of the original Kawagoe Castle began in 1457, and extensive works to expand it was initiated in 1639 under the Tokugawa Shogunate. For most of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600 – 1868), Kawagoe functioned as an important city to Edo for purposes of both trade and defense, and as such the castle played a vital role as the headquarters for some of the Tokugawa shoguns’ most loyal men, who were appointed lords of the castle and domain.

Honmaru Goten was added to the castle in 1848, but most of it was dismantled along with the original castle. The structure that stands today is only a small segment of the original structure, and is effectively the oldest building in the entire city. The rooms, hallways and gardens have been refurbished and redecorated, and some of the rooms feature dolls of feudal lords of old engaged in war strategy meetings.

Warehouse-styled buildings of the Edo Period lining Kurazukuri Street
Warehouse-styled buildings of the Edo Period lining Kurazukuri Street | Source
Bell of Time
Bell of Time | Source
Elaborate effigies mounted on floats being paraded in the streets during the Kawagoe Festival
Elaborate effigies mounted on floats being paraded in the streets during the Kawagoe Festival | Source

3. Kurazukuri Street (蔵造りの町並み, Kurazukuri no Machinami)

The very reason why Kawagoe is known as “Little Edo” lies on both sides of this street. Kurazukuri Street is so named due to the fact that both sides of this street are lined with traditional clay-walled warehouse-styled buildings built in a style known as kurazukuri, which was common during the Edo Period. Such buildings are, however, also found in several other parts of the city. Their history can be traced back to 1893, when kurazukuri-styled buildings were popularized after a devastating fire consumed a large portion of the old Kawagoe. Today, these quaint buildings along Kurazukuri Street house not warehouses, but a large variety of fascinating shops and restaurants.

4. Candy Lane (菓子屋横丁, Kashiya Yokochō)

For candy lovers and fans of all things sweet, this is the place to be. Candy Lane, or more appropriately known by its Japanese name Kashiya Yokocho, is a famous alley lined with traditional Japanese candy shops, located just adjacent to Kurazukuri Street. Shops here offer various kinds of traditional Japanese sweets and pastries at highly reasonable prices. Established during the Meiji Period, this alley was the main supplier of candy for the region after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake rendered candy scarce, and at one point during the early years of the Showa Period (1926 – 1989), there existed over 70 shops throughout the alley. Although this number has since then dropped to a mere 22, Kashiya Yokocho still retains the nostalgic environment of Japan’s pre-War era.

5. Bell of Time (時の鐘, Toki no Kane)

Situated adjacent to Kurazukuri Street as well, this bell tower stands proudly in the heart of Kawagoe’s traditional zone, telling time to the city’s residents for over 350 years. The original tower was completed in 1644 under the direction of the daimyo Sakai Tadakatsu (酒井忠勝) (1587 – 1662), but the present structure that stands today traces back to 1894 after a fire consumed the original tower. The three-storey tower measures 16 metres in height, and is considered to be a symbolic structure and a treasured heritage of the city.

6. Kawagoe Festival (川越祭り, Kawagoe Matsuri)

The pinnacle of excitement for the city is, no doubt, on the third Saturday and Sunday of October, when the annual Kawagoe Festival is held with much pomp and splendour. This festival, which dates all the way back to 1648, features elaborately crafted floats being paraded along the city’s main streets, with each float bearing a unique doll and intricate designs telling a story of its own. The highlight of the festival is the hikkawase (曳っ交わせ), a competition whereby floats compete with each other in using traditional musical instruments to perform Japanese orchestras known as hayashi (囃子).

7. Museums

There are several museums located in various parts of Kawagoe, each focusing on a different aspect of the city’s history and culture. The Kawagoe City Museum showcases the city’s history and evolution since ancient times, and features artifacts and replicas related to the city’s past. The nearby Kawagoe City Art Museum exhibits a collection of artworks which are either by artists from the city, or are related to the city. Those who have an interest for Kawagoe’s kurazukuri buildings can visit the Museum of Kurazukuri, whereas for those who wish to see the Kawagoe Festival but are unable to make it at the appropriate time, there is the Kawagoe Festival Museum that displays the historical and cultural aspects of this unique festival. Additionally, there is also the Hattori Museum of Folklore, a small museum showcasing interesting facts and stories about some of the city’s common folklores.

Sweets being sold in shops along Kashiya Yokocho
Sweets being sold in shops along Kashiya Yokocho | Source
Unagi (eel) served with rice
Unagi (eel) served with rice | Source

What to eat/buy

Besides the candies and pastries of Kashiya Yokocho (Candy Lane), Kawagoe is also home to many traditional Edo-style snacks and foodstuffs that can be bought anywhere in the city, especially in Kurazukuri Street. What is so special about these delicacies is that they are meticulously made based on original recipes passed down over the generations, some of which are also refined to perfection through careful research by expert chefs. Many of the ingredients used are grown or obtained within the region itself, giving these delicacies a distinctly “Little Edo” flavour.

Other popular local specialties include sweet potatoes and unagi (eel). In the past, sweet potatoes were somewhat a popular snack and a staple food for the common people of Kawagoe. As such, many special recipes revolving around this tuber plant have sprouted out over the generations, some of which can only be found in the city itself. Unagi dishes in Kawagoe are also unique due to the fact that they are commonly cooked with special soy sauce recipes that have been preserved and passed down since the Edo Period.

Kurazukuri Street and its surrounding areas are also popular for their handicraft shops. Kawagoe’s handicrafts are very popular among both locals and tourists, as they reflect the city’s nostalgic past and proud heritage. It is also common to find souvenirs inspired by elements of the Kawagoe Festival, which are especially popular around the time of the festival each year.

What do you think about Kawagoe?

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© 2013 James


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