Posted on: November 7, 2009
Kawagoe City's Charms
Kawagoe City, Tokyo's near neighbor, feels a world away
With its trend-setting urbanites and stunning skyscrapers, Tokyo might be Japan’s finest example of ingenuity and prowess. But a 30-minute drive northwest to Kawagoe City, near the center of the Saitama Prefecture, reveals a very different side of Japan, where tradition, in all its glory, seems to trump modernity.
A Time and Place for Everything
Kawagoe’s Bell tower // © 2009 Lux Tonnerre
A day trip to Kawagoe, or Little Edo as it is affectionally called, is a must-do excursion for anyone curious about Saitama’s storied history and architecture. At the heart of the town, about 30 unique kurazukuri buildings — fireproof clay-walled merchant houses — line the city’s streets, a fine example of both perseverance and necessity. In the wake of the Great Fire of 1893, which enveloped much of the city’s commercial and residential properties, Kawagoe’s successful merchants rebuilt their businesses using this more reliable method of construction, which could take up to three years to complete. Each owner tried to outdo the next, building larger, more elaborate storefronts with decorative “devil tiles” adorning their rooftops, and its not uncommon to find the merchant’s direct descendants inside the shops, preserving the family businesses for years to come.
Kawagoe’s emblematic symbol is its Bell Tower, which doubles as a sort of metronome for the town’s residents. With its resonating sound, the bell, now automated, wakes them up at 6 a.m., informs all within ear shot to break for lunch at noon and punctuates the end of the day for both schoolchildren (at 3 p.m.) and adults (at 6 p.m.). The 52-foot tall structure was first introduced in 1624 to not only announce the time but also warn townspeople of impending fires spotted from its lookout point. Ironically, the tower itself has fallen prey to several major fires over the centuries, and the one that overlooks the city today is Kawagoe’s fourth.
Perhaps the most efficient way to experience the city is to have clients start chronologically at Kawagoe’s best-known Buddhist temple, Kitain Temple (its roots date back to 830 A.D.), and have them gradually work their way to into the more modernized city center.
Entrance fees at Kitain range from approximately $2-$4 per person and, with Shinto shrines on site as well as several buildings relocated from Edo Castle, there is plenty to keep visitors busy.
The 500 Statues of Buddha’s Disciples is one of the stand-out features of the temple grounds, where clients could easily spend an hour studying and comparing the varied expressions found on each stone figure. Technically, there are 538 unique statues in this collection — which was started by a monk in the late 18th century to console the survivors of a devastating famine — and I couldn’t help wanting to photograph just about every one of them. Some appeared to be deeply confounded or meditative, while others looked as if they were in the midst of an uncontrollable, guttural chuckle. Local legend has it that every visitor can find his or her likeness in one of the statues, particularly when following an age-old ritual.
“Some say that, to find your statue, you must pay a visit after nightfall and rub the heads of the Rakan [disciple of Buddha] statues as you walk around,” said my guide, a member of Japan Federation of Certified Guides, Narumi Ikezawa. “When one of the statues feels warm to your touch, place a coin in front of him. Come back the next morning to find the coin, and your Rakan will be looking back at you.”
The Sweet Spot
A highlight during this year’s visit to Kawagoe was browsing the 20 or so shops down the stone-paved streets of Confectionery Alley, where I found everything from azuki bean candies to Pokemon figurines, rice crackers, origami and even sweet potato ice cream. (Kawagoe was once a top producer of sweet potatoes, and many of the town’s restaurants showcase the vegetable in imaginative ways.) Prices there seemed lower than average, and I was able to stuff my backpack with an assortment of amusing, and slightly kitschy, souvenirs for less than $15.
The aroma of fresh dango — Japanese rice dumplings topped with a savory glaze — cooking lured me into one of the more interesting Confectionery Alley shops and, for a mere 75 cents, I decided to buy one. The dumplings were some of the best I’ve ever tasted and, since it came skewered in four large segments, dango was an ideal snack to share while walking.
“Japan used to have candy shops like these all over, but not anymore,” said Ikezawa. “That and the many other charming aspects of Kawagoe are what make this place popular with travelers, even among discerning Japanese tourists, who long for the good old days.”
Koedo Kawagoe Tourist Association
When to Go: In early January, the grounds of Kitain Temple will be flooded with craftsman selling hand-crafted Daruma dolls — red paper mache dolls with white eyes, which are said to bring good luck to its owner. At the beginning of the New Year, locals will make a resolution and simultaneously paint one of the dolls eyes. If the challenge is successfully met, the other eye can be filled in. Traditional Japanese festival foods will also be on display including glazed fruits, okonomiyaki (pancakes) and Yakisoba (fried noodles).
The doll festival is one of the largest celebrations in town, second only to the Kawagoe Festival of floats in October.
Japan Federation of Certified Guides