Visitors become statuesque in Kawagoe

by Chris Bamforth

Tokyo may be big, but it’s not big on history. The city’s most popular historical spot, Asakusa, is centered on Asakusa Kannon temple, and its main hall was built in 1958. Frank Lloyd Wright’s sublime Imperial Hotel survived the onslaughts of the 1923 earthquake and 1945 fire bombing, but didn’t survive the onslaught of postwar urban planning.

Those seeking real history near the capital might find it in the baroque excesses of Nikko. Or they could go to Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture. Situated just 40 km from the center of Tokyo, Kawagoe is fond of referring to itself as “Little Edo,” taking its sobriquet from the old name for Tokyo.

As Edo began to prosper from the beginning of the 17th century, so did its little cousin just up the road. Kawagoe developed as a commercial base supplying goods and materials to the shogun’s burgeoning capital. And like the merchants in the big city, those in Kawagoe took to building the plaster-walled storehouses called kurazukuri, similar to the ones then in vogue in Edo. Heavy-set and mud-colored, kurazukuri may be no one’s idea of elegance, but they are eminently practical — and fireproof. When a great blaze ravaged Kawagoe in 1893, the houses of the common people went up like tinder, but many of the town’s kurazukuri remained intact.

Today, Kawagoe’s collection of several dozen kurazu-kuri, dating, in fact, from after the 1893 conflagration though built in traditional Edo style, lend the town an authentic historical aspect. Traffic trundles by in front of them, and they are used as shops and houses in the old town center, very much part of the living landscape of Kawagoe.

Kawagoe developed around its castle, which was built in 1457, around the same year and by the same man who built the earliest, small castle at Edo, the warrior Ota Dokan. After Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun in 1603 and was busy consolidating his position of power from a vastly bigger Edo Castle, the old slyboots ensured that his trusted cronies held the key domains around the country. And none of these was more strategically important than Kawagoe, which guarded his northern flank.

A model in the Kawagoe City Museum shows how the place looked back in the Edo Period (1603-1867). Kawagoe then was a castle town, but with the complex system of moats and extensive defenses built around its big fortress it was, as in the frequent manner of Edo times, much more impressive as a castle than a town. Part of the castle still exists in Kawagoe, though this offers just a hint of its original dimensions. All that remains is the Honmaru Goten, which was where the lord resided. The character of the Honmaru Goten is one of elegant spaces and commodious halls — life for a Kawagoe lord was not, you suspect, one of self-restraint and frugality.

Predating the old castle by over six centuries is the oldest part of Kawagoe, the Tendai Sect Buddhist temple known as Kitain, founded in A.D. 830. Though Kitain features a handsome little vermilion two-tiered pagoda, the temple is rather more proud of its piece of Edo Castle. To help rebuild Kitain following a fire in 1638, the shogun ordered that several buildings from Edo Castle be transferred here.

Perhaps the most popular part of Kitain for the tourist, though, is the enclosure that holds the 500 Statues of Ra-kan. As the name indicates, these lichen-covered stone sculptures depict rakan, which in early Buddhism were saintlike figures, somewhat like bodhisattvas in later Buddhism. The modestly named 500 Statues (there are actually 540) are meant to represent the full range of human emotion, and it is said that if you enter the enclosure in the dead of night and touch all the statues you will find one that is warm. Mark it, return in the morning and you will discover the statue that most resembles yourself.

One piece of local culture that Kawagoe apparently has simply invented for itself is the sweet potato. It is impossible to be unaware of the purple-red tubers as you walk around Kawagoe’s main tourist drags. Yet two middle-aged sweet-potato vendors I asked told me that when they were young, the vegetables had never been regarded as any kind of local specialty.

Today, though, on the principle that tourists will buy anything you put under their noses if it features local produce, sweet potatoes are used as an ingredient in everything from chips, doughnuts and noodles to confectionery and ice cream. This particular tourist settled for the sweet-potato beer, which was actually a fairly good, full-bodied ale (in contrast to sweet-potato shochu, which is like liquid fertilizer).

A local specialty that is older, by far, than the sweet potato is candy. For centuries, there has been a clutter of confectionery stores in Kashiya Yokocho (“Candy-Store Alley”). And today a couple of dozen stores in this popular tourist haunt sell a spectacular diversity of wares for those with a sweet tooth. Here, though, as elsewhere in Japan, it is very much eye-candy, looking vastly more appealing than it actually tastes.

If candy and sweet potatoes are the comestible symbols of Kawagoe, the structural symbol is the 16-meter-high Bell Tower, originally built in 1624. The sound of the bell, rung four times a day, has been included among the 100 Japanese Soundscapes designated by the Environment Ministry as worthy of preservation — a list that presumably also includes election vans, Tokyo crows and jingoistic rantings from rightwingers as they trawl through the streets in their black trucks. These days, what you actually hear is not the bell itself, but just a recording of it. It may not be the real McCoy, but as it booms out over the old storehouse roofs of Little Edo, the bell still manages to sound somehow thunderously majestic.