A short train ride northwest from the bustle and bright lights of Tokyo is the atmospheric Edo period town of Koedo Kawagoe, affectionately known as “Little Edo”. It’s renowned for its old clay warehouses and kurazukuru merchant homes, giving visitors the sense that they are stepping back in time hundreds of years.
During the Edo period (1603–1868), Kawagoe prospered as an important trade town, supplying goods to Tokyo. The Tokugawa shogun installed many of his most trusted men as lords of Kawagoe Castle which presided over the settlement creating cultural links between Kawagoe and Tokyo.
The Kawagoe City Museum is a good destination to start a walking tour of the city as it provides an introduction to the history and culture of this ancient city. Its exhibits include excavated relics and preserved artifacts as well as models explaining the process of building kurazukuri merchant houses and a geographical representation of the former castle town.
Adjacent to the Kawagoe City Museum is the City Art Museum which exhibits works by artists who are either from or have a special relationship to the city. Most of the permanent collection are contemporary artworks, but there are special exhibitions held throughout the year where different styles are showcased.
Just across the street is Honmaru Goten, the only building to have survived from the former Kawagoe Castle. The castle was originally built in the mid-15th century and was fought over throughout the 16th century by the Hōjō clan and two branches of the Uesugi clan. Hōjō Ujitsuna seized Kawagoe Castle in 1537 and despite attempts by the Uesugi clan to regain control of the region, they ultimately failed. Kawagoe became a satellite fortress for defending Edo Castle and the Hōjō clan’s central castle at Odawara.
In the late 16th century, Tokugawa Ieyasu took it over. Throughout the Edo period, the most trusted and loyal subjects of the Tokugawa Shogunate resided at Kawagoe Castle. The Honmaru Goten was added in 1848 as their residence and offices, with its name translated as “the palace in the inner-most circle of defense”. It was renovated and open for public in 2011, with spacious gardens and tatami rooms recreating how it would have once looked, complete with models of a feudal lord and his vassal.
A ten-minute walk from Honmaru Goten is the Kitain Temple which serves as the head temple of the Tendai Sect in the Kanto region. It includes the only remaining palace buildings of the former Edo Castle which were relocated here by Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1638, with the remainder of the castle being burned down during the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923.
Kitain was originally built as part of a three-temple complex in 830AD and flourished under the influence of priest Tenkai during the 17th century when it was patronized by the first three Tokugawa Shoguns. A highlight of any visit is seeing the 540 stone Gohyaku Rakan statues which are situated in a small courtyard and depict the disciples of Buddha.
Just a short walk north from Kitain Temple is the Warehouse District where some of the city’s most charismatic architecture can be found. While many old Japanese cities were made exclusively of wood, the karazukuri clay buildings and warehouses of Kawagoe were designed to be fireproof. They were, however, relatively expensive to build, with many merchants designing them in a lavish show of their burgeoning wealth.
Today many of these Edo period structures remain, housing Japanese restaurants and shops that make wandering the streets an atmospheric experience. If you want a glimpse into how the buildings may have once looked, then you can visit the Museum of Kurazukuri which is situated inside what used to be a tobacco wholesaler’s shop and exhibits the traditional machines once used here.
Just a short walk from the main street of Kurazukuri is the landmark Bell Tower which was rebuilt after the Great Kawagoe Fire of 1893 and chimes four times a day (6 am, 12 pm, 3 pm and 6 pm).
Also nearby is the famous Kashiya Yokocho or “Candy Alley” which is lined with Taisho-style architecture and stalls selling traditional Japanese sweets and cakes.
The area developed following the Great Earthquake of 1923 when Tokyo experienced a shortage in the supply of sweets, with shops in Kawagoe flourishing to meet demand.