Have you ever wondered what it’d feel like to stroll around town in Edo-period Japan (17th-19th century)? Well, wonder no more, because the town of Kawagoe, affectionately known as “Ko-Edo” (which translates to “Little Edo”), has preserved the Edo-period ambiance quite well, with its main street and several houses looking as they did back then.
Getting to Kawagoe
A former castle town that was inhabited mostly by merchants, Kawagoe is a day-trip location that’s not too far from Tokyo. It’s in Saitama Prefecture, and is only 30 minutes away from Ikebukuro on the Tobu Tojo Line (¥470 one-way). Alternatively, from Shinjuku, you can ride to Hon-Kawagoe or Kawagoe Station on the Seibu Shinjuku or JR Saikyo Line, respectively. The rides from Shinjuku take longer at about an hour and cost more at ¥500–¥760 one-way, though. Visiting from Ikebukuro is the more practical option, especially since Tobu Railways has a discount pass for foreigners at ¥700, which covers round-trip travel between Ikebukuro and Kawagoe, and discounts at some shops in Kawagoe.
The main street, Kurazukuri Street, is about 15-30 minutes from Kawagoe or Hon-Kowagoe Station. Kurazukuri refers to a type of architecture for warehouses that is characterized by steep tiles and fire-resistant clay walls, which merchants sorely needed after a great fire destroyed the area in 1893. Kurazukuri Street and some nearby side streets have more than 200 kurazukuri houses, many of which have been converted to shops and restaurants. Some shops sell traditional crafts and handicrafts, which make for nice souvenirs, and some of those shops even have pottery and glass-blowing workshops.
For lunch or dinner, try dining at a ryotei, a traditional, high-class restaurant. You’d be surprised at how some ryotei have relatively inexpensive lunch sets. For high-quality food, less than 2,000 yen is already not bad. You can check out a list of some ryotei in Kawagoe here.
The oldest kurazukuri in town is the Osawa House, built in 1792 and registered as an Important Cultural Property. There’s also the small Yamazaki Art Museum also inside a kurazukuri house. (Note the Kawagoe Kurazukuri Museum is permanently closed.)
And to really feel like you’re in an Edo-era town, why not spend the day wearing a kimono? Kurazukuri Street has a few kimono rentals, and the 18th of each month is designated as Kimono Day in Kawagoe, so visitors in kimono or yukata get discounts in special shops.
Kurazukuri Street’s most famous symbol—also a symbol of Kawagoe—is a bell tower called Toki no Kane, which translates to “Bell of Time.” Standing at 16 meters high, it was used to tell time back in the day, and still now it rings four times a day: at 6:00 am, 12:00 pm, 3:00 pm, and 6:00 pm. It’s been reconstructed four times, the last reconstruction happening after the great fire of 1893.
Beyond Kurazukuri Street
Near Kurazukuri Street is Kashiya Yokocho, an alley that specializes in low-priced sweets and snacks, many of which are reminiscent of the post-war Showa era. You can buy some traditionally crafted sweets there (and even learn how to make them!), as well as sweet potato treats such as ice cream and chips. The city is known for sweet potatoes, which are a popular treat in the fall and winter months.
Another street to visit is Taisho Roman Yume Street. The Roman in its name is actually short for “romantic,” and “yume” means “dream.” Just like the rest of the popular streets, this one is a blast from the past, albeit from a different era—the Taisho Era (1912-1926). It has some shops and Western-style buildings.
But enough about streets. Kawagoe’s also got temples and shrines, and its most famous temple is Kita-in, the headquarters of Tendai Buddhists. Its grounds have several Important Cultural Properties, notable examples being the 540 Rakan (Buddha’s disciples) statues, all with different emotions on their faces, and Semba Toshogu Shrine, which honors Ieyasu Tokugawa. Hikawa Shrine is Kawagoe’s most popular shrine, which enshrines the god of marriages and has a 15-meter torii (Shinto shrine gate).
If you’re interested in Kawagoe’s history, visit Honmaru Goten, the only remnant of Kawagoe Castle. This used to be a hall for receiving feudal lords, and now, dolls recreate scenes of feudal lords discussing important matters.
Events not to be missed
Lastly, Kawagoe’s seasonal events are also worth seeing. In spring, the town holds sakura boat tours as part of the Koedo Kawagoe Spring Festival, and, towards the end of July, it holds the Kawagoe Million Lights Summer Festival, a time when houses bring out several lanterns to hang, lighting up the night as the town celebrates with processions and dances. On the third Saturday and Sunday of October, it celebrates its major festival, the Kawagoe Hikawa Festival, more popularly known as the Kawagoe Festival, when large, elaborate floats are paraded around the town. The floats light up quite beautifully at night. If you can’t attend the Kawagoe Festival, despair not—the Kawagoe Festival on Kurazukuri Street is where the floats are kept when they’re not in use.
For more Edo history, read A Day in Edo Tokyo: Top 5 Edo Period Sightseeing Spots in the Capital.