Day trips out of Tokyo are usually down south to Kamakura for hiking, out west to Hakone for the hot springs, or — for the ambitious — the shrines and temples of Nikko to the north.
One advantage of not being raised up or surrounded by a moat is you get a closeup view of the gorgeous gardens that surround it. As we slid in our socks over the wooden floors inside the palace I was delighted to witness many simple, Zenlike views. “I feel like I am in Kyoto,” I whispered to Yumi.
While sliding through the palace we heard the enthusiastic cheers from outside of what sounded like a sports team practicing. Asking a groundskeeper where the noise was coming from, he pointed to beyond the garden and said it was a high-school baseball team. Apparently, Kawagoe is famous for its strong team.
Our first stop was Honmaru Goten. Built in 1848 it is the innermost palace within Kawagoe Castle, which was constructed in 1457, but has since been torn down.
“Ah, but perhaps you are not familiar with what really put Kawagoe on the map for high-school sports,” teased the groundskeeper. “Kawagoe High School is famous for the boys’ synchronized swimming team. You know, the one made famous by the film ‘Waterboys.’ “
Indeed, the hit 2001 movie is about a group of high-school boys who start their own team that wins the heart of the school and the city. The story is based on the Kawagoe team, but it is not set in the town itself. However, Yoshiharu Hibiki, a representative of the Kawagoe Style Club, which promotes tourism in Kawagoe, said, “As a historical town we have always attracted older tourists, but since the ‘Waterboys’ movie and TV shows have come out we have seen more younger visitors — especially high-school kids — coming to explore the area.”
Our next stop was Kitain Temple. Built in 830, it eventually became the home of Tenkai Sojo (1536-1643), a counsel to all three of the first Tokugawa shoguns, Ieyasu, Hidetada and Iemitsu. A fire in 1638 damaged the original temple and Iemitsu donated some structures from Edo Castle in Tokyo. The structures were broken down into sections and sent north to Kawagoe.
Now, these are the only remaining parts of the original Edo Castle, which was destroyed by fire in 1873.
Now the nickname of Little Edo was starting to make sense. On the temple grounds you will also find the Senba Toshogu Shrine, dedicated to Shogun Ieyasu, and an enclosure housing 500 statues of rakan disciples of Buddha, each with their own unique expression ranging from frustration to bliss.
Saitama Prefecture’s Kawagoe — a mere 40 km from downtown Tokyo — is often overlooked. So when my cousin Yumi suggested a trip to a place nicknamed Little Edo, my curiosity was piqued and we jumped in the car.
“Um, is this it?” I asked Yumi, trying to hide my disappointment. “Oh yes, it’s not built up on a fortress as you will find in Osaka or Himeji, but give it a chance,” she encouraged.
We giggled as we found statues that reminded us of our other cousins, and looked hard to find ourselves.
Walking through the temple I was reminded once more of Kyoto gardens such as Saiho-ji and Murin-an. Yumi has a green thumb and pointed out a shidare zakura (drooping cherry tree) with its long, flowing branches and maple trees saying that we should return and enjoy the pastel petals in spring and the fiery momiji (maples) in fall. “It’s cheaper than traveling to Kyoto!” she said.
A friend from Kawagoe also says the Shinagashigawa, a river lined with cherry trees, is also a must-see spot.
Personally, I want to come back in the summer to watch the boys in their Speedos synchronize themselves in the pool — ideally while enjoying the locally made Coedo beer — try the shiro (white) one, a rich and fruity wheat beer) and under shade.
We lunched downtown at Kotobukian, famous for its chasoba (tea-buckwheat noodles) made with matcha (powdered green tea) from Uji in Kyoto Prefecture. A side order of sweet potatoes fried up tempura-style complemented the light and crisp local sake, Kawagoe Rakan Junmaiginjo.
We headed out to explore the many shops lining Kurazukuri Street. The dark wooden buildings house shops selling among many things pickles, knives, and a liquor store where you can pick up local brews.
The Kawagoe Matsuri Kaikan is a museum showcasing the dashi mikoshi (festive floats) that are paraded through the streets in October (this year Oct. 18-19). There is also a spring festival, but the dates vary year to year, depending when the cherry blossom is at its peak.
The numerous dango-ya had us reminiscing about our grandmother’s home in Yamagata. She used to sell these grilled rice balls on a stick with a thick sweet soy sauce.
Yumi had one more place she wanted to show me, Kashiya-Yokocho street, which is lined with dagashiya (shops selling old-fashioned candy), most of which play nostalgic Japanese pop from the 1950s. But I was quickly snapped out of my temporary time slip when suddenly a gaggle of high-school girls appeared in short pants and long boots, yapping away in high-pitched voices.
When I finally left the town and its history behind me, my only disappointment was that I had not discovered Kawagoe earlier.
Getting there: The Saikyo Line, the Seibu-Shinjuku Line and the Tobu Line from Ikebukuro Station run frequently to Kawagoe and take between 30 minutes and one hour. The Kawagoe City Tourist Information Center is located near the Tobu Tojo Station. Buses from the station will take you to the major tourist spots. Check www.koedo.or.jp for more info.