June 30, 2016

Kawagoe’s Old Warehouses

Found less than an hour north of central Tokyo in Saitama, Kawagoe is home to a number of historic warehouses from the Edo period (1603-1868).

The historic warehouses of Kawagoe's Kurazukuri District in Saitama Prefecture

Located about 45 minutes from central Tokyo in the neighboring prefecture of Saitama, the quaint city of Kawagoe is easy for the average tourist to miss. After all, there is little reason to visit a region that could be considered a dormitory for those commuting to and from Tokyo. However, unlike the majority of Saitama prefecture, Kawagoe’s history is well-preserved. Known as “Little Edo” for its resemblance to medieval Tokyo (which was then called Edo), the central areas of the city contain buildings dating back hundreds of years. A visit to Kawagoe much like stepping into a historical time machine.

In an age gone by, the city of Kawagoe was once a major supplier of goods to the bustling metropolis of Edo which was actually one of the biggest cities on the planet at that time. As a result of the abundant trade and commerce between the two cities during the Edo period (1603–1868), Kawagoe grew to adopt many of the characteristics of Edo’s culture and architecture. The city was so important that the shogunate strategically stationed some of their most loyal men to protect Kawagoe and to oversee the region.

Getting to Saitama Prefecture & Kawagoe

A yellow train at Hon-Kawagoe Station in Saitama Prefecture

There are several ways to get to Kawagoe from central Tokyo with the Seibu Shinjuku Line connecting to the closest station, Hon-Kawagoe as pictured above. Personally, I find it much easier to take the rapid train on the Tobu Tojo Line to Kawagoeshi from Ikebukuro as it will get you there in only 30 minutes (though you will have to walk slightly further). From there it’s a mere 10 minute walk to the central area of Kawagoe.

The roads are pretty straightforward but refer to this map if you’re looking for directions. Kawagoe’s shops and attractions closes in the late afternoon around 5:00 PM so make sure to get an early start if you’re looking to get everything done.

Kawagoe’s Historic Warehouse District

Another shot of the historic warehouses of Kawagoe’s Kurazukuri District

By far the biggest allure of Kawagoe is the Kurazukuri (or “warehouse”) District of the city. Many of the buildings lining the main street are the original clay-walled warehouse style buildings from the latter half of the Edo period (1603–1868). Whereas traditional Japanese buildings are constructed of wood, kurazukuri buildings are assembled from layers of clay which are resistant to fires, a major scourge of Japan throughout its history. Today, many local shops and restaurants take up residence in the old warehouses.

In the center of the Kurazukuri District you will find the Kawagoe Toki-no-Kane (or bell tower) which is a symbol of the city. During the Edo period (1603–1868), the bell stood vigil over the city allowing its inhabitants to keep track of the time. The original bell tower was constructed in the early 1600’s and was damaged by fire on several occasions. The current structure was created in 1894 following the Great Fire of Kawagoe.

Visitors to the Kurazukuri District should be sure to check out the Museum of Kurazukuri to observe how these fire retardant engineering marvels were constructed. The museum is built inside one of the actual warehouse buildings; rumor has it that a tobacco wholesaler once stored his goods there. The museum can be found here along the main street.

Pig Out on Kawagoe’s Kashiya Yokocho

A sweet potato at Kawagoe’s Kashiya Yokocho

At the far end of the Kurazukuri street visitors to Kawagoe will find the Kashiya Yokocho (or Candy Alley) that sells all sorts of Japanese sweets and other delectables. The street began selling candy in the early Meiji period (1868–1912) and saw a boom in growth following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

Supposedly, more than 70 shops once crammed into this tiny little alley but their number has decreased over the years. Nevertheless, Kashiya Yokocho is a glimpse into the Japan of over 100 years ago. The simple, nostalgic scent of the area was chosen as one of the “100 Scent Sceneries” by the Ministry of the Environment.

It is said Kashiya Yokocho’s early beginnings prospered during the early Meiji period (1868–1912) when a chap named Suzuki Tozaemon originally started to make candy in front of the temple Yoju-in . In 1923, after Tokyo was damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake, this area became the main producer and supplier of candy.

During the early Showa period (1926–1989) there were more than 70 candy shops in this area. However, the effects of war eventually led to changing lifestyles and consequently the number of shops decreased. Nevertheless the spirit of giving smiles via scrumptious goodies lives on today in Kashiya Yokocho.

There’s Still More to Kawagoe

Furin wind charms at Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine in Saitama Prefecture

Kawagoe has a lot of other things besides the Kurazukuri District that you should check out while there. In the coming weeks I plan to do an article on each of these as they deserve their own space but I highly suggest you make a day drip out of Kawagoe and visit the following while there.

  • Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine
    For well-over 1,500 years, the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine has been making successful relationships between individuals for some time now. The shrine is dedicated to the god of marriage and it is one of the only wedding locations other than Harajuku’s Meiji Jingu. The shrine has a number of cool things to do other than getting hitched (such as checking out its massive 15 meter-tall torii gate) so it’s definitely worth the visit if you have time. It’s a little removed from the Kurazukuri District so plan on walking a good ten minutes.
  • Kita-in Temple Grounds
    Kita-in is a Buddhist temple that had very close ties with the Tokugawa shogunate. After the temple burned down in the early Edo period (1603–1868), the third shogun had part of Edo castle MOVED all the way from central Tokyo to Kawagoe to replace it. Kita-in’s grounds are also home to a pagoda, 500 Buddhist statues that have spawned an eerie myth, and one of the Toshogu Shrines dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu and his family. The temple grounds are located a little off the path from the station to the Kurazukuri District so it’s worth taking a minor detour to explore the area.

Until next time travelers…