As my smartphone clock flashes from 11:59 a.m. to 12 p.m., I watch the visitors to Kawagoe, in Saitama Prefecture wipe the sweat from their foreheads and direct their attention toward a more primitive form of time keeping — the Toki no Kane (Bell of Time) tower in the middle of the town square.
At the top of the three-story wooden tower, a hammer, propelled by a mechanical pulley, slowly begins its ascent. Onlookers let out oohs and aahs as it swings and the deep tones of the bell reverberate around the streets. Standing in one of those avenues lined with traditional Japanese kura warehouse buildings, for a moment it feels like time has slowed to a halt as the echo of each chime whisks the imagination further back into the town’s long history.
Less than an hour outside of the Tokyo metropolitan area, Kawagoe is a pocket of well-preserved traditional culture. Also known as ‘Koedo,’ or ‘Little Edo,’ its history has been protected through the years with the maintenance of its Edo Period (1603-1868) buildings, including town houses, storehouses and several national Important Cultural Properties. Even the chime of the Toki no Kane clock tower has been designated by the Environment Ministry as one of the symbolic 100 Soundscapes of Japan.
It is this kind of dedication to keeping segments of history alive — from the Edo Period through the Meiji and Taisho eras — that makes Kawagoe a special place. However, though the town’s tourist industry is booming — it saw 6,579,000 visitors last year — for non-Japanese visitors it still appears to be a minor destination, one of those places that people stumble upon, perhaps seeing a brief mention in a guide book or having heard a recommendation from a friend.
Theodore, a French exchange student at Rikkyo University on his third visit to Kawagoe this year, tells me that he returned to take pictures of the wind chimes evening illuminations at Hikawa Shrine.
“Kyoto’s Kinkakuji (Shrine) is a beautiful place, but I can’t help but think of it as reconstructed and bizarre,” he says, explaining why he thinks this town is so historically attractive. “Kawagoe, though, (gives the impression of) a certain authenticity and spirit.”
During the Edo Period, Kawagoe was an important domain of the Tokugawa shogunate, acting as the first line of Edo (current-day Tokyo) defense in the north. Visitors can still see the Honmaru Goten keep of Kawagoe Castle, which was reconstructed on top of the remains of its original site. Here, the main hall is kept as it would have appeared to the feudal lords who once were asked to wait there before being received by the domain master.
To take a couple steps even further back in this town’s history, I wander to the Kitain Temple. Originally built in 830 by the monk Ennin, the temple later developed ties to the Tokugawa shogunate through the priest Tenkai, who became the head monk in 1599. Here, there’s also an enclosure housing 540 stone rakan statues, 18th-19th century Buddhist saint-like figures said to represent all the human emotions with their unique poses and expressions. It’s another popular Kawagoe attraction that offers plenty of photo opportunities.
But it is Kawagoe’s Kurazukuri warehouse district, where Toki no Kane stands, that interests most visitors. The Edo Period kura warehouses, constructed in timber, stone and clay, were made to last. When the Great Kawagoe Fire of 1893 swept through the region, they were some of the few buildings to survive. In their time, they wouldn’t have been accessible to the public. They were expensive to build, the equivalent of around ¥1 million to ¥3 million today, and only the wealthiest of merchants could afford them. Now, they house small stores and restaurants catering to streams of visitors keen to see traditional architecture.
Osawa House is the oldest of the kura buildings. Built in 1792 by a wealthy kimono merchant, it is now a designated Important Cultural Property. Today, it houses a shop on the first floor, selling local sweet potato treats and folk crafts.
Over time, another business took root in Kawagoe, one that still endures today: Kashiya Yokocho, or Penny Candy Lane. This narrow stone-paved alley is lined with shops selling sweets harking back to the Meiji Era (1867-1912), such as fugashi (wheat-gluten snacks), senbei rice crackers, dango dumplings and hard candy. Here I spot a group of three students giggling as they try out different items. Isaac, an exchange student from New Mexico studying at Toyo University says, “I like the smalltown vibe they are trying to keep going here. It’s like an accessible old times.”
Those old times include the Taisho Era (1912-1926), which brought with it unusual Western-style architecture, such as the Saitama Resona Bank building, a 1918 turreted construction known for its white exterior and green copper dome. Taisho-Roman Street is also just a short walk away, with stores housed in architecture that evokes the romantic early 1900s.
The nostalgic fanciful air continues at the nearby Kamigaseki Country Club, which claims a piece of Kawagoe’s modern history as being the first golf course in Saitama, having opened on Oct. 6, 1929. Renovated by British golf-course architect Charles H. Alison in December 1930, the club now faces new changes as its East Course has been chosen to serve as the golf venue for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But even though the golf course will become a new piece of history, Hiroshi Imaizumi, its general manager, promises that they will preserve Alison’s original design.
It’s almost a shame that so few international travelers make it to Kawagoe, especially as it offers plenty of English information and leaflets for tourists. If more did, they may find that its humble, historical charm will entice them to return. After all, this is a place where history repeats itself in the best way possible.
Getting there: Hon Kawagoe is a 50-min. train ride from Seibu-Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, on the Seibu-Shinjuku Line, which costs ¥1,500 for a round trip. There is an English website with tourist information at www.koedo.or.jp/foreign/english.
Kawagoe’s festival of giant proportions
For those thinking of visiting Kawagoe this year, you may want to head there during the Kawagoe Matsuri.
Taking place on Oct. 17 and 18, this festival’s main feature is a re-enactment of the Edo Period (1603-1868) Tenka Matsuri, a lively parade that brought together 10 huge traditional floats, each representing a neighborhood of Edo (current-day Tokyo). The floats are so large — two-tiered and over 6 meters tall — that they have to be wheeled through the parade, and each one is decked in elaborate decorations and lanterns, and topped with a life-size doll dressed in traditional costume. Musicians and performers, also in traditional wear, ride the floats as they entertain the crowd.
Originating in the mid-1600s as a local festival, the Tenka Matsuri became a grand spectacle in 1844, when the float style was standardized into the enormous ones you see today. More than 360 years old, the event has been designated as a national Important Intangible Cultural Property.
It’s worth seeing in action, but if you can’t make the festival, the Kawagoe Matsuri Museum is a good alternative. Inside you’ll find two floats on display, various other exhibits, festival videos and photos of all 10 floats. There are also scheduled traditional performances by locals.
The Kawagoe Matsuri takes place on Oct. 17 and 18. For more information, visit bit.ly/kawagoefes.html. The Kawagoe Matsuri Museum is at 2-1-10 Motomachi, Kawagoe; open 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. until the end of September, and until 5:30 p.m. from October to March. Closed on the second and fourth Wed. of each month, except on holidays, when it closes the day after instead. Entry is ¥300. For more infornation, visit bit.ly/matsurimuseum.