In the fast-paced, neon-light streaked city of Tokyo, it is hard to imagine what life in Japan was like in the past. However, just 40 mins away by train, Kawagoe City in the Saitama Prefecture gives visitors a rare peep into Japan’s rich culture and remarkable history. As you venture deeper into the heart of the city, it becomes apparent why the city is known as little Edo – a reference to Tokyo’s ancient name. Streets lined with architectural features dating back to the Taisho and early Showa eras come into view. It is here that our exploration of life in a former castle town begins.
Read on to learn about the best things to do in Kawagoe!
1. Kurazukuri District Street
Kurazukuri, or Warehouse District Street, is the most iconic street in Kawagoe. Gabled buildings pitched with charcoal-tiled roofs line both sides of this short road. These well-preserved warehouses mostly date between 1868 and 1912, with the oldest being the Ōsawa Residence, which was built in 1792. Once a store for daily commodities such as rice and salt, they are today mostly shops, galleries, and even residential apartments. The buildings were able to survive over a century in part due to the former landlords’ resistance to railway construction during the Meiji Era. As a result, they were spared destruction by the Allies during World War II.
For a truly memorable experience, try walking down the streets of Kurazukuri in traditional Japanese garb. There are a number of boutiques offering ladies the chance to wear a real Kimono, obi an all. Just be prepared to receive requests for a photo!
Kawagoe Walking Tour
Duration: 4 hour
2. Toki no Kane
Just off the main street, the 16 m (52 ft.) high Toki no Kane towers over the row of low-rise structures. The bell tower is a landmark of Kawagoe. Erected originally in the 1600s, it has been rebuilt 4 times due to destruction by various natural and man-made disasters. Tori No Kane’s haunting chimes, unchanged in the centuries past, echo four times a day: 6am, 12pm, 3pm, and 6pm. While there, you should also pass beneath the tower to visit Yakushi Jinja, a small but lovely shrine that welcomes those praying for recovery, especially from eye-related problems.
Toki no Kane
Address: Japan, Saitama Prefecture, Kawagoe, Saiwaicho, 15番地7
3. Tsubaki No Kura
Photo is only for illustrative purposes
Another must-see along the Warehouse District is Tsubaki No Kura, a store-house turned retail space that sells local foodstuffs, souvenirs, textiles, prayer objects, and a whole range of Japanese knick-knacks. The colorful two-story shop is decorated with tinkling wind chimes, banners with folk motifs, miniature tori gates, and other easily recognizable symbols of Japan. At 9 m (30 ft.), it is one of the tallest warehouses on the street.
A set of curtains over the back entrance takes you through to a tranquil little courtyard, where parasols line a zen stone garden. Here, you can enjoy a relaxing foot bath and sample a local Koedo Beer or ginger ale. Alternatively, try a sweet potato snack, a Kawagoe specialty, over a cup of hot tea.
Tsubaki No Kura
Address: 3-2 Saiwaichō, Kawagoe-shi, Saitama Prefecture, Japan
Opening Hours: 10am - 7pm on weekdays, and until 8 pm on weekends
Website: Tsubaki No Kura
4. Kawagoe Matsuri Kaika (Festival Museum)
Further along the main street, the Kawagoe Matsuri Kaikan, or Festival Museum, is where you can get a glimpse of the sacred and lively festival that honors the city’s deities. The 360 year old festival is an elaborate affair. Spectacular floats parade gigantic dolls around the historic centre, while crowds holding lanterns throng the streets alongside the procession. As visitors can see at the museum, some of these exquisitely-carved floats can reach up to a height of three stories! The locals believe that the higher the float, the likelier they are to reach the almighty gods above.
The festival culminates in a Hikkawase, whereby several floats square off in a traditional Japanese orchestra performance. If you are unable to make it for the actual event, held on the 3rd Saturday and Sunday of October, the museum offers a good insight to the extravagance and excitement of the festivities.
Kawagoe Matsuri Kaika (Festival Museum)
Address: 2-1-10-Moto Machi, Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, Japan
Opening Hours: 9.30am - 5.30pm
5. Kashiya Yokocho (Penny Candy Lane)
Adjacent to the main pedestrian strip is Kashiya Yokocho, a delightful lane with two rows of old-fashioned candy and gift shops. In the early Showa period, a sugar shortage in Tokyo following the Great Earthquake of 1923 led to a surge in business for the sweet-makers. Some 70 stores used to exist along the lane, although now a mere 14 remain as a nostalgic reminder of the past.
Even so, at the present Kashiya Yokocho, you can tuck into a piping hot Kurazukuri Monaka Misegura (a warehouse-shaped wafer filled with smooth red bean jam), dive into luscious ice cream, churned from locally grown sweet potatoes, or stock up on rice crackers and cherry blossom candies for the ride home!
The shops at Kashiya Yokocho are typically open between 10:00am and 5:00pm, but most are closed on Mondays and Wednesdays.
6. Ichinoya Restaurant
After a morning of walking, it is almost time for lunch. A classic delicacy in Kawagoe is Unagi, or broiled eel. Its connection to the region can be traced back to the Edo period, when the consumption of meat was forbidden. As a consequence, people in land-locked Kawagoe caught carp, loach, and eels from the Irumagawa and Arakawa rivers for protein.
One of the more popular restaurants in Kawagoe is Ichinoya. Ichinoya’s interior is set in quintessential Japanese style, complete with traditional sliding doors and tatami mats. The place serves a Kabayaki version of Unagi, where the eel is soaked in their secret sweet sauce before being boiled over charcoal. The meal is complemented with hot green tea, miso soup, and refreshing pickles. Do go early to avoid the long lunch queue.
Address: 1-18-10 Matsuecho, Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, Japan
Opening Hours: 11am - 10pm
Website: Ichinoya Restaurant (in Japanese)
7. Honmaru Goten
Editor's Note: There's no photo available at the time of writing
Honmaru Goten, Kawagoe’s Castle, is a 10 min walk away from the Warehouse District. It served as the stronghold of several lords of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who were tasked with protecting the important trade city of Kawagoe. Presently, it is a museum that exhibits life in this fortified residence.
The majestic structure that visitors see today is in fact only the innermost palace. Added in 1848, it covers approximately a third of the original castle grounds. Nevertheless, it is enough to evoke a sense of awe when one passes from the courtyard to the dark foyer of the castle. Thick wooden beams cut across the ceilings and across the floorboards to form the skeleton of the building. From the entrance, you can wander around the tatami-lined rooms where there are artifacts and information panels on display. A meticulously-tended garden waits at the end of the corridor, where you can sit and enjoy the meditative arrangement of stones and shrubs.
Address: 2-13-1 Kuruwamachi, Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, Japan
Opening Hours: 9am - 5pm, last entry 4.30pm. Close on Mondays
Website: Honmaru Goten
8. Kitain Temple
Another legacy of the Tokugawa Shogunate is the Kitain Temple, 15 mins away from the main tour route. Although the Buddhist temple dates all the way back to 830 AD, it rose in prominence only in the 16th-century following the patronage of the Tokugawa Shoguns. Such was Tenzai, the head monk’s influence that when Kitain was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1638, the Shogun had parts of his Edo Castle taken apart, and the materials ferried to Kawagoe for the rebuilding of the temple.
The grounds of Kitain are enchanting, with a pagoda rising above a lush grove of trees. However, the real allure of this reverent place is the 500 Rakan statues near the entrance. The cheeky stone figures of Buddhist monks are frozen in every action imaginable. They are meditating, laughing, sipping sake, and even picking their noses, such that no two figures are quite the same.
Address: 1-20-1 Kosenbamachi, Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, Japan
Website: Kitain Temple
9. Hikawa Shrine
Two streets away from the Kurazukuris, the 1,500 year old Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine is another hallowed site that deserves a visit. The five deities enshrined in Hikawa all belong to the same family, of which two pairs are bonded by marriage. Because of this, people who pray at the shrine tend to be those seeking love, blissful marriages, or a harmonious family.
To enter the serene sanctuary, visitors have to pass beneath a soaring Torii gate, which scales to a height of 15 m (nearly 49 ft). Once inside, you can inscribe your desires on an ema (wooden plaque), circumambulate the two ancient trees that are regarded as manifestations of the married deities, or purchase a matchmaking charm. Even if you are not one of the earnest seekers of love, treading the tranquil grounds and passing beneath the tunnel of emas, where the wind creates a melodic clattering, can be a calming experience.
Address: 2-11-3 Miyashitamachi, Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, Japan
Opening Hours: 8am - 6pm
Website: Hikawa Shrine (in Japanese)
Half-day Kawagoe Walking Tour
Duration: 4 hours
A blast from the past
Away from modern Tokyo, history blossoms in the heart of Kawagoe city. The best way to explore Kawagoe is on the Koedo bus, a charming vintage vehicle that loops around the sights listed here and more. Whichever way it is that you choose to get around, you can be assured of an exciting foray into Japan’s unique history and culture at Kawagoe.
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