How in the nine hells did a piece of what was once a massive fortress in central Tokyo make its way to neighboring Saitama Prefecture? Let’s unravel this mystery by starting with a brief historical overview. Today we will be journeying back up to Saitama Prefecture to visit one of my favorite hidden gems in Kawagoe, the Kita-in Temple complex.
Impressive in its own right, this Tendai Sect temple is also home to the remaining intact pieces of the original castle of the famous Tokugawa shogunate. Though some of the inflammable ruins can be seen today, the wooden structures are lost entirely to antiquity. Astute readers will of course pick up on the fact that Kita-in is located nearly an hour away by from train from the former site of this castle, now home to the Imperial Palace.
Kita-in itself is an ancient temple with roots dating back as far as 850 AD. Despite its long history, the temple came into prominence after receiving the support of the legendary first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in the early 1600s. Following his passing, Ieyasu’s remains were transported to Nikko and on the way, a memorial service was held at Kita-in. For this reason, one of Japan’s three most important Toshogu shrines is located nearby the temple.
When Kita-in caught fire in 1638, the third shogun Iemitsu ordered that several parts of Edo Castle be given to help rebuild. This unbelievable feat wasn’t as hard as it sounds thanks in part to the fact that traditional Japanese construction uses no nails. The journey to Saitama, even if by boat, however is another matter as teams of workers toiled for days on end to transport the dismantled buildings to Kawagoe. At that time the relocation seemed like a minor concession from the shogunate’s castle.
Historically these structures stand as the only remaining remnants of the original Edo Castle. Thanks to Kawagoe’s distance from Tokyo, the city was largely spared from the devastating aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake and ravages of World War II. While taking the train up to Kita-in be sure to reflect on this unbelievable accomplishment as it certainly enriches the temple’s impressive legacy!
As if this weren’t enough to illustrate the importance of Kita-in, the city of Kawagoe itself was also an important supplier of goods to the bustling metropolis of Edo (modern day Tokyo) during the reign of the Tokugawas (1603–1686). Situated near the Nakasendo trade route, Kawagoe was conveniently located for near a major artery connecting Edo with the rest of Japan. Collectively, these factors made Kawagoe an important ally for the shogunate.
Getting to Kawagoe & Kita-in
Kawagoe is a bit of a trek from central Tokyo but nothing too crazy. Depending on where you’re coming from, you’ll either be looking to take the Seibu Shinjuku Line or the Tobu Tojo Line. There are also a handful of express trains as well if you don’t mind paying a little more for a faster commute. Regardless, be sure to check Hyperdia or a similar service for the best connections.
Once you’re in Kawagoe you’re going to want to make your way past Hon-Kawagoe Station towards Kita-in. The temple grounds are located about 10–15 minutes on foot from here. Though there are some buses that go around Kawagoe, they might be a little challenging to navigate for first timers. The last thing you want to do is get on a bus headed in the wrong direction!
You’re going to want to make your way to the unassuming spot pictured above. Once there, you’re going to need to make a left turn and then head straight until you reach a playground. Kita-in is located immediately to the right after crossing over a small bridge. It can feel like you’re going the wrong way so follow this map to avoid getting lost.
Exploring the Expansive Kita-in Grounds
The Kita-in grounds are pretty spacious and actually have much to offer. While the temple itself is located immediately to your left after crossing the aforementioned bridge, I suggest you instead make your way first to Kawagoe’s Toshogu shrine (picture above). This spiritual monument to the founder of the Tokugawa dynasty is located at the rear end of the complex. In case you can’t find it, here’s a map.
While closed to the public, there are several gates which allow you to catch a few glimpses of the ornate shrine. There is also a dirt path winding around the outer walls and those who choose to take this route will certainly have a better vantage point. Though Kawagoe’s Toshogu shrine dims somewhat in comparison to the main shrine located in Nikko, I personally like the fact that Kawagoe’s is a little more obscure and unknown to the hordes of tourists. Go ahead, call me a hipster if you must!
After getting your fill of the shrine, head back towards the main Kita-in structure. Directly in front of the complex you’ll see a twin headed dragon temizuya (water ablution pavilion). Today, the pavilions are typically associated only with shrines; however, at one time Buddhism and Shinto were quite fluid resulting in much cross pollination. Just past the temizuya sits a two storied pagoda that you should be sure to check out.
Kita-in temple has two entrances. The first and most obvious route is up the stairs but you will not be able to access the historical remains of Edo Castle from here. Therefore, we’ll be looking for the other entrance which can be found between the set of stairs and the pagoda. This all sounds a little confusing and complicated on paper but it’s easy enough to navigate when you’re actually there.
After finding the entrance to the temple, please be sure to remove your shoes and store them in one of the boxes on the right. I don’t want any of my readers committing any cultural faux pas on my watch! Anyway, entering the historical interior will cost you a couple hundred yen. In exchange, you’ll be given a ticket as well as a surprisingly in-depth English pamphlet. Be sure to hold onto your ticket as you will need it to access the next section.
Immediately upon entering you’ll be greeted with a series of panels that highlight the historical contributions of Kawagoe to the Edo period (1603–1868). Part of the reason Kawagoe was so well connected to the Tokugawas was that it was a critical supplier of goods to the capital and these do a great job of highlighting this significance. If you’re into learning more about the historical context, I highly suggest checking these out!
After viewing the panels you’ll discover a series of reconstructed rooms consisting of the original buildings moved from Edo Castle to Kita-in. Unbelievable! Chief among these structures is one marked by a set of armor and a floral ceiling. Supposedly this is the birthplace of the third shogun Iemitsu who gave the executive order to move parts of the castle to Kita-in in the first place. Additional rooms feature what is believed to be Iemitsu’s study, kitchen, toilet and bathroom.
Readers should note that while inside any of these rooms (especially Iemitsu’s), photography is forbidden. Please don’t ruin it for everyone by whipping out your camera or smartphone! If you absolutely must take some evidence of your travels, there are some stunning gardens situated just out back of Kita-in where you can take that memorable shot.
After exploring the remnants of Edo Castle, make your way across the bridge that connects these quarters with the main temple building. There you will find a set of seats that are perfect for enjoying the gardens on a warm spring or summer day. Anyhow, the main temple structure itself has some impressive interior ornamentation but nothing veteran temple goers will be that surprised by.
Once you have thoroughly inspected every nook and cranny of Kita-in’s temple and the remaining Edo Castle buildings, head out back towards the common courtyard. Before you leave the grounds, there’s one more spot you need to check out! Make you way toward the homely looking food stand immediately to the right of the pagoda. Keep your eyes out for a little pathway and a ticket booth (you still have your ticket right?).
Known in Japanese as “rakan,” here you’ll find 500 statues of Buddha’s early disciples that were able to achieve perfect enlightenment. Though there are other areas throughout the country that sport similar sights, what makes the Kita-in set of 500 rakan special is the fact that they were carved with joyful rather than stern impressions. Indeed every single one of them has its own personality with some smiling, while others are laughing, thinking, or even drinking!
What’s more, there are two sets of legend about the Kawagoe 500 rakan that you should keep in mind. The first of these takes into account the Chinese zodiac. It is said you will be blessed with great luck if you can find the statue holding the animal that coincides with your birth year. Don’t know which animal you are? Don’t worry, the man at the gate is inviting, friendly, and overly eager to speak in English. He will tell you all you need to know (and then some)!
While the first myth about the rakan at Kita-in is pretty docile, the second is rather spooky. Local folktales claim there is a rakan somewhere among the set that closely resembles the likeness of every visitor. To find the right rakan, you’ll need to come during the dark of night and touch each of the statutes. As legend goes, the rakan that is warm to touch is the one most like yourself, even though you may not have realized this during the day. Unfortunately, the 4:00 PM closing time remains in place to protect the Kawagoe rakan means this folklore isn’t something you’ll be able to put to the test.
Attractions Near Kita-in
Kita-in is not an adventure that should be done as a one-off as Kawagoe has a lot to offer! Most travelers will have the better experiences if they plan on making a day trip excursion. That said, two areas that I highly recommend suggest visitors check out the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine and the Kurazukuri Warehouse District (be sure to check out “Kashiya Yokocho” meaning penny candy lane).
I’ll also be putting together a full fledge area guide for Kawagoe in the near future so stay tuned. Lastly, if anyone would like me to personally escort them on a tour of Kita-in and the Kawagoe area, I’m always up for another visit so just contact via email or on social media.