Friday, 14 December 2012


Not all of Japan was flattened in World War II. In Saitama Prefecture, Tokyo's neighbour to the north, the city of Kawagoe came through relatively unscathed, and to this day offers glimpses into the region's Edo-period heritage (1603-1868 CE).

A satellite town of Tokyo and local centre today, Kawagoe was immensely important to the Tokugawa shoguns. It was one of the first waypoints on the road north out of Tokyo, including for journeys to and from Nikko. A more personal connection of theirs was to the Kita-in Temple, founded in 830 CE.

Kita-in also contains the last survivng remants of Edo Castle: specifically the birth-room of the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, his living and working quarters, and his bathroom. Also present are those of his nursemaid Kasuga no Tsubone, who gained such fearsome political power that she had an entire four rooms to herself (that is, more perhaps than the entire households of modern Tokyo).

Iemitsu had all this moved here in 1638 to help restore Kita-in after its fire; and with the destruction of Edo Castle both in the great 1923 earthquake and the war, these sections are all that remain of it today.

Consider the remarkable English therein.

Alongside Kita-in are the Gohyaku Rakan or "500 Disciples of Buddha", though there are in fact 538. These were made from 1782 to 1825, and each is unique. A wide range of ages, professions and emotional states is represented across them.

Nearby stands Kawagoe Castle, or what is left of it. Part of the moat is still evident, and the castle's main hall is part original and part under reconstruction. After centuries as a pivotal stronghold defending Edo, both in Japan's warring states period and under the Tokugawas, the castle was mostly pulled down after the Meiji Restoration and abolition of the feudal domain system.

Enough of it remains to qualify as one of Japan's finest 100 castles (and see here for another, quite different one).

But Kawagoe's fame comes from more than its history. It is a major sweet potato producer, and on the Kashiya Yokocho ("confectionary lane") a load of traditional shops sell limitless varieties of sweet potato candies, senbei, dango, and Japanese sweets which have endured the generations.

There are also giant dogs, chimpanzees, pandas and hippopotamus in the area for no apparent reason.

In the same zone are also some kurazukuri, or old storehouses. These fire-resistant buildings were introduced to store household tools, especially after the fire of 1893, but developed into residences and shops in their own right.

And of course, the toki no kane ("bell of time"): Kawagoe's symbol, originating from 1644. The current iteration is its fourth, rebuilt after that 1893 fire. Since then it has rung four times a day, though at some point this became automated. Here it is shown upon its 3pm resonance; not shown is the more recent custom of visitors crowding round for such things with iPhones extended.

Kawagoe is an easy day trip for anyone in the Tokyo area, only half an hour from Ikebukuro by train and served by three stations and multiple lines. The visit exhibited here came too late for the Kawagoe Festival, held on the third weekend of every October, where enormous floats with Japanese orchestras and humanoid figures on top parade through the streets then duel each other with music. In the meantime, keep an eye out on any exploration: the giant warehouses where the floats are kept through the year are hard to miss.

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