Exploring Japan: Walk back in time in ‘Little Edo’ Kawagoe

Exploring Japan: Walk back in time in ‘Little Edo’ Kawagoe

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

Streets lined with traditional clay-walled warehouses, a three-tiered bell tower, a majestic castle and numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples make Kawagoe a highlight of eastern Japan. The historic town can be reached in only a couple of hours by car or train from any of the U.S. military installations in Kanto Plain, making it an ideal destination for a day trip.

When a two-hour-drive from our home in Yokosuka brought us to Kawagoe, I found the town very tourist-friendly, with its main attractions centrally located and close together. A free parking lot caters to visitors and tourist information centers are located everywhere, providing a variety of invaluable background on the town, including several free sightseeing maps. The classical-looking Koedo Kawagoe Loop Bus also enables tourists to access most of the sights quickly and easily.

Kawagoe is not a large town and it can be toured on foot within a day or two. But the loop bus takes visitors to all of the main attractions, with guides available in Japanese, English and Chinese, so you can learn some basic information before visiting them. A one-day pass costs 500 yen ($4), and riders can catch the bus every 15 to 30 minutes at any stop near the main attractions. So, if you are a first-timer to the town, the bus is a convenient option.

Kawagoe Castle, a must-visit attraction  

Kawagoe Castle and City Museum are a five-minute walk from the free parking lot. On our visit, a light snow had fallen the previous night, capping the trees and buildings in white and contrasting the reddish-pink plum blossoms in full bloom all over the town.

Although the castle is considered a symbol of the Kawagoe feudal domain, most of the castle’s structure, such as the donjon, walls and moats, were demolished when the feudal era ended in the late 19th century. Only the main part of the castle (the honmaru) is preserved and open for public access. The 170-year-old grey roof and the majestic building allowed us to glimpse into history. 

We took off our shoes at the entrance and entered the building, looking around the various rooms, including the grand hall with gorgeous pictures on the walls and the drawing room with its low ceiling, which was designed to help prevent sword attacks. Tiny stations where samurai warriors would have hid or stood by on alert while the Lord met guests give an idea of the look of a typical castle. 

When we entered the chief councilor’s office, a curator approached us and explained the history of the castle and town. Kawagoe was strategically important for Edo (old Tokyo), due to its location 25 miles north of the feudal capital and its function as a citadel to guard against enemy attacks. Shoguns installed some of the most loyal men as lords of Kawagoe Castle throughout the Edo Period (1603-1867). Thus, Kawagoe inherited many aspects of the Edo culture and architecture, leading it to be known as Koedo (literally, “Little Edo”) after the old name of Tokyo. Kawagoe boasts the third largest number of cultural assets in the Kanto Plains after Kamakura (Kanagawa Prefecture) and Nikko (Tochigi Prefecture). An estimated, 6.2 million tourists domestically and internationally visit the city every year, according to the curator.

The nearby City Museum features a variety of exhibits that chronicle the history of the castle town, including miniature models of Kawagoe as well as reproductions of local elementary school classrooms and a dagashiya (cheap sweets shop) from the 1970s. The reproductions took me back to my childhood, making me feel like a 10-year old boy.

Traditional streets take you back to feudal Japan

After seeing the castle and museum, we strolled the main street, lined with clay-walled warehouse-style buildings with black plaster walls and tiled roofs.

Although Kawagoe experienced several fires in its history, many of the original wooden buildings are in their original condition from the Edo Period. 

To my surprise, these structures are not only preserved as historic assets, but they are actively used as shops and restaurants. We could take a close look at the insides and outsides of historic buildings while shopping or enjoying dumplings and traditional sweets at different shops.

We saw countless tourists strolling the streets. Following others, we took plenty of photos against the backdrop of classical buildings.

“Toki no Kane” (Bell of Time), a 53-foot wooden bell tower composed of three tiers, is a famous landmark. Since it was originally built in 1639, the tower has been a symbol of Kawagoe. Although the tower was repeatedly burned down by fires, it was rebuilt each time. The current tower is the fourth generation, rebuilt in 1893. 

Although we missed hearing it, the bell rings four times a day, at 6 and 12 a.m. and 3 and 6 p.m. 

“It really adds a special, nostalgic effects to the classical look of the street,” said a staffer at a souvenir shop near the tower.

Again, we took numerous photos in front of the tower. We found a couple of Shinto shrines located behind it. One is good for eyes and other helps you to succeed in work. We went to both and prayed for the best.

Local products highlight  Little Edo

Kashiya Yokocho (Penny Candy Lane) is located one block off the main street. The lane is home to a number of small sweet shops selling cheap candies, rice cakes, various toys and crafts. We stopped to enjoy some sweet dumplings and coffee, and saw some women in kimonos strolling the lane.  

No visit to Kawagoe would be complete without stopping at the local eateries to try some of the delicacies. There are many shops in town specializing in unagi (eel) and udon (thick white noodles made from wheat flour, salt and water). 

We dropped by Okanoya Shokudo, one of the oldest and most popular udon shops, for lunch. This 85-year-old eatery offered us homemade udon noodles with sweet potato tempura for 950 yen ($8). The noodles were smooth and soft, complementing the rich sweet potato tempura. Besides the noodles, we sampled a chicken and egg bowl for 760 yen. The local chicken and eggs were delicious – fresh and full of flavor.

Kawagoe is famous for sweet potatoes, and a variety of traditional Japanese sweets are made from them. Some great local spirits are also available. Both Coedo Beer (craft beer) and Kagamiyama (rice wine) are very popular.

Most of these local products can be purchased at Agresh Kawagoe, a shop located next to the tourist parking lot.

Kitain Temple – a religious port of Kawagoeites

Boasting more than 1,200 years of history, Kitain Temple is the head temple of the Tendai Sect of Buddhism in the Kanto region. Among its magnificent temple buildings and traditional Buddhist garden are Gohyaku Rakan, 540 stone statues of the disciples of Buddha, each with its own facial expression. It is said that you can find one that looks like you.

If you have sweet tooth, be sure to drop by Kuradukuri Honpo, a popular shop near the Kitain Temple. When we chose some sweet potato treats, a staffer served us local tea and let us enjoy our sweets at the shop.

At the end of our trip, we soaked in a hot bath at a natural onsen spa near Kawagoe station. The naturally heated spring, rich in sodium and chloride, was relaxing after a long day of walking. The spa contains various bathing pools and tubs as well as some dining facilities. We enjoyed a good soak and a light meal before we left for home.

According to the Kawagoe tourist bureau, the best months to visit the town are April for cherry blossoms and late October for autumn leaves and an annual festival. 

Visit this castle town and enjoy a taste of the history of Little Edo.


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