Kawagoe: A walk through history

By Vicki L Beyer

I’ve often felt that the best form of time travel is walking. The city of Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture, an easy day trip from Tokyo, is a great place for such time travel. In a day of wandering Kawagoe, you can go back in time more than 1,000 years and then walk forward in time through the various ages that have played a role in Kawagoe’s long history.

Kawagoe is perhaps best known for its role as a supply town for Tokyo and its predecessor, Edo, up to about 100 years ago. In addition, it has an early history as a religious center, and a political/military history closely tied to the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The religious history

Begin your visit at Kitain, a Tendai Buddhist temple founded nearly 1,200 years ago. When the temple was destroyed by fire in 1638, Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa Shogun, arranged for one of Edo Castle's buildings to be moved to Kawagoe to serve as the temple. This building included the room in which Iemitsu himself was born and is now the only building left from the original Edo Castle. The layout of the rooms and their integration with the surrounding gardens, as well as their art and décor, take visitors back to the shogun's days.

The temple grounds contain other gems as well: a beautiful red and white stupa and a collection of statues known as the 500 rakan (erhats), the disciples of Buddha who assembled the earliest Buddhist scriptures. Admission to the enclosure containing the rakan statues is included in the ticket to visit the temple rooms and garden (400 yen). There are actually 540 statues in this particular collection, many very unique and “human.” There is a legend that if you were to visit after dark and mark the statue that feels warm to the touch, upon returning in daylight, you would find that the face of the marked statue would bear a resemblance to your own. Alas, night-time visits are no longer possible.

On a rise south of the temple sits another relic of the Edo Period: a Toshogu Shrine. You may know that Toshogu is the shrine in Nikko that contains the spirit of Ieyasu (1543-1616), the first Tokugawa Shogun. Ieyasu had died at Sumpu Castle, near Shizuoka, and in 1617, when his remains were moved to Nikko, the procession halted here at Kitain to rest. A Toshogu Shrine was erected to commemorate that occasion.

The political/military history

Kawagoe was once a castle town, guarded by a fortification dating back to 1457 that sat on a rise northeast of the town, overlooking the Shingashi River. Its heyday was the Edo Period (1603-1868), when Kawagoe rose to commercial importance and the castle was needed to safeguard commerce and control the movement of people. The castle keep and most of its fortifications are now gone. Instead, the site is now a large park, with just two remnants of its castle days: an old shrine and one of the Edo era palace buildings.

The shrine, known as Miyoshino-jinja, is dedicated to Tenjin, the god of learning. Once the guardian shrine of the castle, it is now a popular spot for students to pray for academic success. Honmaru Goten, the last remnant of the palace that sat inside the castle precincts, was built in 1848. It served as a reception center, where important visitors were received and transients were processed. Today visitors can wander the halls and view exhibitions on the history of the castle and its role in the region.

At the north end of the park is the Kawagoe City Museum and the Kawagoe City Art Museum. The displays at the Kawagoe City Museum, explaining Kawagoe’s trade history and the special methods used to build Kawagoe’s famous Kurazukuri (fire-proof warehouses), are worthwhile.

Walking from the castle park to the Kurazukuri district, about 300 meters west of the museums you will find a display of the castle’s protective moat called “Nakanomonbori-ato.” The explanation of how the dry moat served to deter would-be attackers provides a quick lesson in the workings of Japanese castle defenses.

The commercial history

By the Edo era, Kawagoe was an important supply town, collecting and shipping various items that came in from more remote areas. In order to serve as a supply town, fire retardant warehouse facilities were essential. It is these warehouses, known as kurazukuri, that are Kawagoe’s principal claim to fame. Interestingly, the extant kurazukuri date from the Meiji Period. There is little here left over from the Edo Period, except perhaps the atmosphere.

Coming from the castle, you begin to see Meiji era buildings, such as a distinctive burnished green, copper-clad storefront building, as you near the kurazukuri district. Soon you find yourself at the top (north) end of a long street of traditional warehouses. Ignore the modern vehicles on the road and you can feel yourself going back in time 100 years.

But resist, for the moment, the temptation to explore this street. Go a little further along to Kashiya-yokocho, Candy Lane. This is a small warren of narrow streets where traditional candies are made and sold, along with various other items. Sometimes there are street performers here, too. Eventually, wandering these little lanes will bring you back to the main row of warehouses.

There are a number of museums along here to explore, including the Kawagoe Matsuri Kaikan, which explains the history and paraphernalia of Kawagoe's annual festival (held the third weekend of October) and the Karazukuri Shiryokan, a museum dedicated to the karazukuri themselves, explaining how they are constructed and how they work.

Each karazukuri is a unique building, in design, function and history. Many are now establishments catering to the tourist trade, offering various kinds of sweets and souvenirs. Since this part of Saitama is known for its green tea, there are many tea shops, too. There are also a number of antique shops, where one can browse for hours. The friendly proprietors are often happy to expound on the history of the items in their shops.

As you proceed south, watch for a road leading off to the left dominated by a tall, dark tower. This is Kawagoe's famous "toki no kane" clock tower. The bell atop this tower, which was building in 1894, is rung at 6 a.m., 12 noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Continue walking south and you find yourself moving from early Meiji Japanese-style construction to Western-style buildings that are also a hallmark of the Meiji era. If you turn left at the stoplight and take the next right, architecturally you will have moved from the Meiji era to the Taisho era as you enter "Taisho Roman Street." Here, too, are interesting shops to browse through. Keep walking south and the buildings shift from Taisho to Showa. As a time traveler, you are moving closer to the present day, which is where you find yourself at your journey's end, Kawagoe Station and the modern Heisei buildings surrounding it.

Getting there from Tokyo

• The JR Saikyo line runs to Kawagoe Station from Ebisu, Shibuya, Shinjuku or Ikebukuro stations • The Tobu Tojo line runs to Kawagoe Station from Ikebukuro • The Seibu Shinjuku line runs to Hon-Kawagoe Station from Seibu Shinjuku or Takadanobaba stations

Tourist information counters at both train stations provide English language maps and other helpful information.

Getting around

• The Co-Edo Loop Bus is a hop-on/hop-off shuttle bus that runs in a counter clockwise loop to the major sights of Kawagoe, approximately once every 20 minutes. Your 500 yen ticket allows you unlimited rides on the date of purchase, as well as discounts at a number of restaurants, museums and other attractions around the town. Pick up a brochure/timetable from the tourist information counter at either Kawagoe or Hon-Kawagoe.

• The city of Kawagoe has 10 bicycle sharing ports around, mostly near the train stations and the major sightseeing attractions, making it easy to cover the longest distances quickly and then revert to walking to more leisurely enjoy the sights. Use a major credit card to check out up to 5 bicycles for 200 yen each for the first 40 minutes and an additional 200 yen for each subsequent 30-minute period.The ports are unstaffed and instructions are in Japanese only.

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A place I would love to visit ..

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Nice article. I was there long time ago. May be it's time to visit again.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

A look on Google Streetview shows a town indistinguisahable from any other in Japan. OK, somewhere within it must be the "museum street", but do not be fooled into thinking that the whole place is frozen in time. You will have much the same experience at the fascinating Tokyo Museum of Architecture..

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

Was there last December, really enjoyed it. Very nice little shops everywhere. Bought a very nice sesame grounder in wood, my goma dare is now fantastic....

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There is an excellent beer company headquartered there there called, strangely enough, Coedo. I liked the Beniaka made with sweet potatoes; also available at Tokyu Honten, maybe.

There is no place on Earth "frozen in time," but there really is a certain amount of "blast from the past" that can be found in Kawagoe. In fact this article details a lot of it. And the nice thing is that the journalist actually went there in person rather than relying on a superficial "Google Street View" and coming from an ah-so arrogant ignorance. "Fooled into thinking"? You are the fool my friend.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Nice article! I should probably keep this a secret but there is also a great antique market held at Narita-san Betsu-in on the 28 of every month.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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