Remains of the day

The old-world charm of Kawagoe' kura-lined streets
Photos by Mary King

Mary King makes the short hop from modern Tokyo to "Little Edo."

The tourist pamphlet I'd picked up boasts that Kawagoe's charm lies in the fact that visitors can step back centuries in time and experience the culture of old Edo, and Tokyo of the early Meiji era, through the town's array of cultural properties and historic sites. In its heyday in the Edo period, this old castle town thrived as a last resting place for those journeying to the shogunate. Nowadays it offers a tantalizing glimpse of what Edo would have been like before the devastation of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the firebombing of World War II.

Kura crazy
"Japan has many towns called 'Little Kyoto,' but there is only one that has been called 'Little Edo' since the Edo Era. That is Kawagoe," I read on the train ride out to Saitama Prefecture. The town's main attraction and claim to fame is its traditional storehouses, or kura, that line parts of Motomachi, Saiwacho and Nakacho. Permission from the shogunate in 1720 sparked a construction boom of fireproof houses that are characterized by half-meter-thick walls built of wattle and daub (dozozukuri). After a fire consumed the town in 1893, many more were built in the style favored by Edo merchants.

As many as 200 once lined the town, but today only a dozen or so of these splendid structures can be seen. Most now serve as craft shops or restaurants and are fascinating examples of period architecture. Tiny windows have heavy shutters with interlocking edges, male and female, that can be sealed shut in the event of a fire. Steep tile roofs are crowned by immense, fire-deflecting onigawara (devil tiles).

Just a little further beyond the Hattori Folklore Museum, where you can see a small collection of Edo-era medical instruments, enamelware, ceramics, wooden geta (sandals) and suchlike, a road leads down to the Toki no Kane (literally, "bell of time"). The 16-meter-high belfry tower is both a symbol of Kawagoe and a rare historical monument. The first belfry was built in 1624, but the present tower was rebuilt after a fire in 1893. The "bell" is now electronic and sounds four times a day (at 6am, noon, 3pm and 6pm). What remains of Kawagoe Castle, built in 1457 by Ota Doshin and his son Dokan - the same men who built Edo Castle - is now a park open to the public. Honmaru Goten, the residence of the lord, is the only extant part of the castle, which now serves as a museum. Nearby is Hikawa shrine, believed to date back to 514 and once regarded as the religious guardian of the town. This is the site of the annual Kawagoe Festival, where you can see replicas of the spectacular floats of Tokyo's Kanda Matsuri ram into each other at night.

A young visitor at the Kitain Temple

By the time I made my way down Kashiyayokocho, the lane was packed with sweet-toothed Japanese, young and old alike. It has long been celebrated for its shops selling traditional sweets, such as those filled with menthol and anko (bean jam), as well as a whole range of senbei (rice crackers), handmade natto (fermented beans), and of course sweet potato in all its manifestations - ice cream and candies, salty crackers, or as the local brew, Satsumaimo larger. Puritan devotees of the golden nectar might turn their noses up at this rather sweetish, brownish concoction, but it has a refreshing natural taste of homemade beer and is just perfect for washing down imo crackers. Edo-era toys are also on sale, and if you're lucky you may even get the chance to view a street performance showing you how to amuse yourself with a tamasudare... "Isn't that what you use to make futomaki (sushi rolls)?" I asked one of the candy sellers as I watched the costumed performer sing and dance while contorting the wooden-slatted mat into the shape of a fan, then a bridge, a tower, and a star. The woman laughed at my observations, but I wasn't the only one baffled by this Edo-Era toy-one young Japanese man thought it was a rack for soba (buckwheat noodles).

Fresh senbei for sale on the streets of Kashiyayokocho

With sweet potato ice cream in hand, I headed off for the small Yamazaki Art Museum. Housed in several Edo-era kura, the museum displays outstanding paintings by Gaho Hashimoto - who with his colleague Kano Hogai laid the cornerstone of modern Japanese painting. Extravagantly designed sweetmeats of the same caliber as those produced by Kameya, a prosperous purveyor of confectionery to daimyo Matsudaira Izunokami, are also on show.

Edo revisited
A stroll around Kitain, a temple of the Tendai sect founded in 830, cannot fail to inspire. Its gardens exude serenity, and the grounds showcase several buildings moved here from Edo Castle (now the Imperial Palace in Tokyo). After a fire razed Kitain in 1638, Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun, ordered the buildings to be moved from Edo Castle to the temple grounds. Today they are protected as national treasures, and house the temple's museum of paintings and antiques. They are also all that remain of the buildings of Edo Castle. One of the most ornate chambers, with a decorative floral ceiling, is thought to be where Iemitsu was born. Other rooms belonged to the powerful Kasuga no Tsubone, Iemitsu's nursemaid, who later took charge of the large women's quarters at the castle. In the grounds of Kitain you can also see the intriguing courtyard of the Gohyaku Rakan (500 enlightened Buddha disciples). There are, in fact, 540 statues. Although not so big, they are bound to impress and raise a few laughs with their variety of postures and expressions. They were carved between 1782 and 1825, and it is said that if you feel among the statues in the dead of night you will find that one is warm. Mark it, come back during the day, and you will see the statue most resembling yourself. Whether it's the search for your Buddha self, a sweet taste of traditional Japan or a look at old Edo that brings you to Kawagoe, you'll find it still has plenty of charm.

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A street performer demonstrates how to play with a tamasudare

Getting there
It takes 50 minutes from Shinjuku stn to Hon-Kawagoe stn by the Seibu-Shinjuku express line. From JR Ikebukuro stn to Kawagoe-shi stn it takes 45 minutes on the Tobu-Tojo express line. Take the Tobu bus to Fudanotsuji. For tourist information, call 0492-46-2027.

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