Welcome to A Stroll Through... a series in which we'll be taking a stroll through different towns, cities, villages and neighborhoods around the country to uncover some of Japan's gems. For the first installment of the series, I took a walk through Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture.
Located 30 minutes from Tokyo, this old town has a rich history as a key supplier of commodities to the capital during the Edo Period. The town prospered due to its auspicious trade with Edo (present day Tokyo), with many of its merchants accumulating vast fortunes that allowed them to build opulent warehouses that both protected their wares from fire and theft and served as ostentatious status symbols.
Today many of the old warehouses ('kura') have survived as well-preserved vestiges of the town's trading heyday. Especially in the town's Warehouse District many of these old buildings still stand as shops, restaurants and museums that visitors can enjoy while acquiring a window into past centuries. With this and much more to see and do, Kawagoe appealed to me as the ideal place for the series' first exploration and somewhere I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into.
I started off my day in Kawagoe with a visit to Kitain Temple, the most revered of all the town's religious sites located around 20 minutes' walk from Kawagoeshi Station where I alighted my train. The temple, which is the head institution of the Tendai Sect of Buddhism within the Kanto Region, is notable for housing some of the original buildings of the old Edo Castle after they were moved here to safety following a fire in the capital in 1638. With the Great Kanto Earthquake devastating Tokyo in 1923, the buildings at Kitain now stand as the only surviving buildings of the castle.
Upon arriving at the temple I headed to the old castle buildings and took my time wandering through the old corridors, taking in the many ornate features and general atmosphere of grandeur that persists here. The complex features a series of impressive tatami rooms complete with various regal ornaments and furnishings, and a beautiful Japanese garden that visitors can look upon from various points in the building. The part of the complex that left the biggest impression on me however was the room in which Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shogun of the Edo Period, is believed to have been born.
Unfortunately, photography wasn't allowed inside, so I was unable to capture images of the furniture that hundreds of years ago belonged to the shogun as a baby and remain there to this day. This being said, standing there before where the future leader of the country would have slept all those years ago was a decidedly humbling experience, and certainly left me feeling connected with the country's rich history. An exciting start to my stroll through Kawagoe, I highly recommend this part of the temple for any history buffs visiting the area.
Another of Kitain Temple's famous attractions are its Gohyaku Rakan, approximately 500 statues that depict Buddha's disciples. The statues stand together in a courtyard and all bare unique expressions that seemingly range the entire human emotion spectrum; from happiness to anguish, frustration to amusement, deep concentration to aloofness.
Stone carvings of the 12 zodiac animals also feature hidden among the disciples, and as well as looking for the animal synonymous with my birth year, I was encouraged by the temple employee outside to find a disciple that resembled a family member. After pacing the isles of the courtyard the best I could do was to find a few statues that vaguely resembled a bald uncle or two, but nonetheless the Gohyaku Rakan made for a unique and fun experience I never before thought possible when concerning statues!
Following my scouring of statues it was time to make my way towards the Warehouse District, the area that boasts many of the Edo Period merchant buildings and for which Kawagoe is best known. On my way to the district, I meandered along Taisho-roman Street, a picturesque shopping lane lined with old buildings and also home to a handful of stylish establishments. Among the old buildings I stumbled upon an a-la-mode coffee shop that provided me with a hot drink to aid my resistance toward the icy wind that was whipping around the town.
Appropriately warm and caffeinated, I strolled on from Taisho-roman Street and soon found myself on the main street of Kawagoe's Warehouse District, which was already bustling by mid-morning as visitors jostled along the sidewalk and popped in and out of the many cafes and boutiques lining the thoroughfare.
After making my way a couple of blocks up the main street the mid-morning munchies got the better of me and I succumbed to the tempting wafts of deliciousness coming from the various stalls of street vendors. I stopped at a rustic stall with an old lady at the helm and bought dango, a traditional type of Japanese street food comprised of grilled rice flour dumplings on a stick. I had mine doused in soy sauce to make for the perfect mid-morning snack.
My appetite now whetted, the only logical next stop on my tour of Kawagoe was along its famous Candy Alley, which lies in the northwest corner of the old district. This alley grew up from the town's booming candy trade, which rose to prominence by supplying sweets to Tokyo after the capital was devastated by the 1923 earthquake. Emerging as one of the premier candy centers in the country, the alley was home to more than 70 shops in its heyday during the early Showa Period.
Today the alley has considerably less than 70 shops, but I found it to be nonetheless still well-worth the visit, with establishments selling snacks and toys of an antiquated style that would seemingly be hard to find anywhere else. Also persisting here is a unique kind of nostalgic atmosphere that is contributed to by the dizzying fog of sweet scents that invariably reminds one of childhood, and the calls of shop owners enticing customers to sample their bites. I was particularly tempted by the old senbei (rice cracker) shop along here and I ultimately bought a large cracker on which I nibbled while sauntering up and down the alley, relishing in the old-fashioned ambiance of the place.
Next up it was time to make my way over to Kawagoe City Museum which is located around ten minutes on foot from the old district. The museum boasts a range of exhibits from the ancient to the modern and these include dioramas depicting how the town took shape over the centuries, and a model showing the methods involved in constructing the town's famous warehouse buildings. The museum proved educational and importantly provided a bit of respite from the crowds I'd been competing with up until this point. I left the museum with more of an insight into Kawagoe's history and culture, and while the place wasn't quite life-changing for me personally, I would recommend it for those interested in learning more about the town.
Following my exploration of the museum it was time for Honmaru Goten, which today stands as the only remaining building of Kawagoe Castle. Many years ago the building served as the residence and office complex of the local lord, and today the place is preserved to look the way it did in centuries past, with a multitude of beautiful tatami rooms that once upon a time served as the offices of the local lord's staff. At the back of the complex is a scenic garden that I got numerous opportunities to look out upon.
Within the old buildings was a life-like model depicting how the samurai of bygone eras would gather and attend to business, and as with the Edo Castle buildings at Kitain Temple earlier in the day, this place really allowed me to feel connected with history and gave a window into what life must have been like for the feudal lord and his staff that operated within these walls. With all this history on the brain, my stomach felt empty and with the afternoon drawing on I departed the Honmaru Goten and headed back towards the Warehouse District in search of a meal.
On the same street as Kawagoe's iconic bell tower I came across what turned out to be a gem of a traditional restaurant that would spell a perfect end to a great day exploring this charming town. After waiting outside the apparently rather popular place for a seat to become available, I was eventually ushered inside where I enjoyed a delicious meal of udon noodles and tempura. The meal replenished my energy and left me ready for one final jaunt around the old town before saying goodbye to Kawagoe until next time.