A former castle town that was inhabited mostly by merchants, Kawagoe of Saitama Prefecture is a day-trip location that is not too far from Tokyo. Its main street, lined with Kurazukuri (clay-walled warehouse-styled) buildings, retains an ambience reminiscent of an old town from the Edo Period (1603-1867) and allows us to imagine the streets from past centuries. In the old days, Kawagoe was an important commercial town supplying resources to Edo (present-day Tokyo). Thanks to the thriving trade, many merchants grew wealthy enough to build not only their warehouses but also their stores in the Kurazukuri style, more so than it was usual in other towns. In the past, Japanese cities consisted almost exclusively of wooden buildings, which made them vulnerable to fires. Kurazukuri construction was used both to make a structure fireproof and to secure it against intruders. They were very expensive to build, as their construction involved making thick walls consisting of several layers. Thanks to the prosperous trade with Edo, the merchants of Kawagoe flourished, and many showed their wealth by building as good-looking a structure as they could afford. Thereby, Kawagoe became known as “Little Edo”. With its many sights, traditional shops, and popular seasonal events, the area truly comes alive on the weekend, making it a great day trip from the heart of Tokyo.
Kurazukuri Warehouse District (Kurazukuri no Machinami)
The Warehouse District, Kurazukuri, is the main attraction of Kawagoe. It has more than 200 kurazukuri houses (characterized by steep tiles and fire-resistant clay walls), many of which have been converted to shops and restaurants. Some shops sell traditional crafts and handicrafts, which make for nice souvenirs, and some of those shops even have pottery and glass-blowing workshops. There are numerous shops selling ‘okaki’ (Japanese rice cakes) and manjyu (Japanese sticky buns). It is highly recommended that you indulge your taste buds as you stroll along the street.
Activities: Strolling, Photo stop, Shopping Fee: None Time required: 45 minutes-1 hour
The Bell Tower (Toki no Kane)
Just a short distance from the main street stands the Bell Tower (Toki no Kane), a landmark and symbol of Kawagoe. Standing at 16 meters high, this bell tower has marked the time for centuries and continues to ring four times daily (6:00, 12:00, 15:00 and 18:00). The tower was rebuilt in 1894 after the Great Kawagoe Fire of 1893 had destroyed the previous structure. Pass beneath the bell tower to view ‘Yakushi Shrine’, a shrine where the gods are said to assist with health concerns– particularly with eye problems.
Activities: Photo stop Fee: None Time required: 15 minutes
Candy Alley (Kashiya Yokocho)
Adjacent to the Warehouse District is a little shopping street called Kashiya Yokocho, an alley that specializes in traditional Japanese sweets and snacks, many of which are made the old-fashioned way. You can buy some traditionally crafted sweets there (and even learn how to make them). Among the treats sold are various candies, rice crackers, karinto (sugar-coated, deep-fried cookies), ice cream, and cakes made of red bean paste and sweet potatoes. The city is especially known for sweet potatoes, which are a popular treat in the fall and winter months. (Image via Flickr)
Activities: Strolling, Shopping Fee: None Time required: 45 minutes-1 hour
Another street to visit is Taisho-Roman Yume Street. The Roman in its name is short for “romantic,” and “yume” means “dream.” Taisho-Roman Street has paved streets and old retro Western buildings from the late Meiji and Taisho eras (1912-1926). Luckily there are also no overhead power lines, which makes it great for photographs and film shoots. This street has been used for shooting many of the Japanese period films set in these eras. (Image via Matcha JP)
Activities: Strolling, Shopping Fee: None Time required: 45 minutes
Kawagoe's Kitain is the head temple of the Tendai sect in the Kanto Region. Among its halls are the only remaining palace buildings of the former Edo Castle. Built 1,200 years ago, Kitain Temple was once part of a massive temple complex and is believed to have special healing powers. The most striking aspect of the temple is its 540 stone statues of Buddha, each by a different artist, with its face and its unique posture. No two statues appear to be exactly the same, and according to popular belief, for each visitor to the temple, there is one statue that resembles him or herself. (Image via Kawagoe.com)
Activities: Temple visit Fee: None Time required: 45 minutes
Honmaru Goten (Kawagoe Castle)
Kawagoe Castle's Honmaru Goten is the last surviving building of Kawagoe Castle. It was the castle's innermost palace and served as the lord's residence and personal offices. It played an important role in the early Edo period as a satellite fortress for the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate. Throughout the Edo Period, 21 lords, all closely allied with the Tokugawa Shogunate, resided at Kawagoe Castle. Enter the building to get a sense of what the life of a feudal lord was like back then. Visitors are also able to sit with three models of a feudal lord and his vassals and imagine what it must have been like to hold a discussion in that room. (Image via Live Japan)
Activities: Castle visit, Photo stop Fee: JPY 100 Time required: 30-45 minutes
Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine is known to bring good luck in relationships (enmusubi) and happiness in the family. Believed to have been established around 1,500 years ago, it enshrines two couples of husband and wife deities, as well as Onamuchino-mikoto, another god of relationships from the famous Izumo Taisha Shrine. During the summer, Hikawa Shrine is filled with the cooling chimes of over 2,000 colourful Edo-style fuurin hung all around the shrine grounds. The chorus of tinkles is said to be the sound of numerous wishes being carried away by the wind. The summer tradition of Kawagoe is quite photogenic, displaying translucent beauty during the day and mystical glimmers at nighttime. (Image via The Best Japan)
Activities: Shrine visit, Photo stop Fee: JPY 100 Time required: 30-45 minutes
35 minutes drive away from Kawagoe is Hyakuana, the hundred caves of Yoshimi. These caves are horizontal graves that were created during the Kofun era (late 6th century to late 7th century). In the year 1923, they were designated as national remains. 219 caves have been identified so far.
This public recreation ground is considered one of the most popular parks in the Saitama area. Measuring about 67.9 ha, Omiya Park is locally known for its Japanese Red Pine forest and cherry blossoms. It is host to many different activity areas such as sports facilities, a zoo, the History and Folk Museum, a tea house and a Japanese garden.