October 20, 2017

The Kawagoe Festival

Saitama Prefecture's Kawagoe Festival is an epic celebration that honors the town's historical legacy as a merchant supplier to Japan's capital.

Kawagoe locals pull a huge float for Saitama Prefecture's Kawagoe Festival

Anyone who follows me on social media knows I’m a big, big, big fan of Kawagoe. From the historical pieces of Edo Castle to Kawagoe’s phenomenal craft beer, there’s a lot to love about this town. That said, given all of Kawagoe’s offerings, nothing quite compares to the magic of its annual festival. The Kawagoe Festival is held every year on the third Saturday and Sunday of October. The festival is definitely one of the country’s liveliest and has been registered as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property.

One of the major features that sets the Kawagoe Festival apart from all others is its multiple two-story floats. These colossal creations are hauled around the traditional areas of the city, including Kawagoe’s famous preserved warehouse district. As can be seen above, large teams of local residents work in unison to lug the floats up and down the town’s narrow streets. Some floats are so tall that they need to designate a crew member to hoist the overhead power lines while the floats pass underneath!

An old drawing Saitama Prefecture’s town of Kawagoe would have looked like a hundred years ago

The Kawagoe’s Festival’s spectacular floats are said to have roots dating back to the early years of the Edo Period (1603–1868). Due to its location, Kawagoe was a very important producer of goods for the shogun’s capital in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and became quite wealthy as a result. Eventually, the residents of Kawagoe started to flaunt their riches by creating flashy floats for the local festival. Segments of the township would compete to outdo one another with the goal of producing the most impressive float.

No doubt, the historical link with Edo influenced the Kawagoe Festival over the years as well. More specifically, the celebration began to embrace new traditions borrowed from the capital’s legendary festival. The final result was the overwhelming displays of ostentation that characterize the Kawagoe Festival we know today. Without fail, the town has kept the legacy alive and continues to do so to this day.

A large crowd watches Saitama Prefecture’s Kawagoe Festival take place

In addition to its iconic floats, perhaps one of the most impressive highlights of the Kawagoe Festival is the practice known as “hikkawase.” As can be seen in the background of the above shot, whenever the floats pass each other in the street, those aboard engage in a musical duel of sorts. The official Kawagoe Festival website describes hikkawase as follows:

As they face each other, the several festival floats compete with each other in a hayashi performance (a traditional Japanese orchestra comprised of flutes, drums, handbells and dancing), cheered on by the excited voices of festival-goers holding aloft paper lanterns.
Saitama Prefecture’s Kawagoe Festival reaches its peak as locals revel alongside massive floats

The excitement of the Kawagoe Festival reaches its climax only after the sun goes down. Yes, that’s right folks! This wild celebration continues well into the night. While the hikkawase displays during the day are cordial, things get downright aggressive at night. Expect those lugging the floats to erupt into jubilant cheers following these musical skirmishes.

Before moving on, note that the Kawagoe Festival is an extremely popular event with Japanese living in the Greater Tokyo region and never fails to draw a crowd. Even in the cold and rain, expect to encounter hordes of revelers. While I implore you to consider checking out this special event, you might reconsider if you’re the type who is averse to crowds.

Getting to Saitama Prefecture’s Kawagoe

A train arrives at Kawagoe-shi Station in Saitama Prefecture for the Kawagoe Festival

Kawagoe is located only about 50 minutes north of central Tokyo. There are two primary stations that serve the traditional areas of Kawagoe. Which one is better for you will depend entirely on where you’re coming from. Put both Kawagoeshi and Hon-Kawagoe into Hyperdia and see which route is quicker for you.

Once you’re in the Kawagoe area, you’ll want to start by making your way to the warehouse district. Most of the festival is located in and around this central street. It’s a straight shot from the stations but here’s a Google Map just in case you need something to follow.

If you’d rather not rely on technology, you can alliteratively just follow the trail of food stalls while keeping your eyes peeled for the giant floats. After all, the floats are not an easy miss. Remember, too, that the festival is an all-day event so take your time, sample some good grub, and enjoy!

The Kawagoe Festival Museum

The entrance to the Kawagoe Festival Museum in Saitama Prefecture

In addition to the celebration itself, one thing you might consider checking out is the Kawagoe Festival Museum. You’ll find this informative little attraction nestled among other charming stores in the Warehouse district.

If you’re interested in taking a look, know that the museum has some cool exhibits and historical information chronicling the festival. Here’s a link to a Google Map to help you find it.

What About Some Other Celebrations

Participants dress as Bakeneko Festival which happens at the same time as Saitama Prefecture’s Kawagoe Festival

Oh no! If the Kawagoe Festival had one downside, it would be that the festival falls on the same exact weekend as many other awesome events. In order to squeeze it all in, you’re going to need to prepare for a very aggressive day or make some hard choices! The following festivals are just a few of the annual celebrations falling on this same weekend.

  • Bakeneko Festival
    The peculiar, “only-in-Tokyo” scene that’s is pictured above illustrates the yearly Bakeneko Festival (meaning supernatural cat). This state of strangeness takes place on a main street in the Kagurazaka area and is open to all participants regardless of race, gender sex or creed. In fact, the only requirement for participation is that you MUST be dressed as a cat! The Bakeneko Festival is slated to run from about 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. The main highlight, the parade, kicks off at around 2:00 PM though. In years past, I’ve hit up this weird event in the morning and then taken the train from nearby Takadanobaba directly on up to Hon-Kawagoe Station.
  • Shitamachi Festival
    The Shitamachi Festival takes place in one of my favorite areas of Tokyo. Known as Yanaka, this rustic neighborhood survived much of World War II intact and retains its historic lower city vibe. The honored traditions of the Shitamachi Festival are celebrated inside the grounds of Nezu Shrine but there are all sorts of other happenings all throughout the Yanaka area. Truth be told, I would not skip the Kawagoe Festival for this one though. If you’re interested, I’d suggest instead that you hit up the Shitamachi Festival on another day. This way you don’t miss out on the amazing and unforgettable festival floats in Kawagoe.

Until next time adventurers…