Located near the center of Saitama Prefecture and a 30-minute drive northwest from Tokyo, Kawagoe City reveals a very different side of Japan, where tradition and all its glory seems to trump modernity.
A day trip to Kawagoe, or Little Edo as it is affectionately called, is a must-do excursion for anyone curious about Saitama's storied history and architecture. At the heart of the town, about 30 unique kurazukuri buildings—fireproof clay-walled merchant houses—line the city's streets, a fine example of both perseverance and necessity. In the wake of the Great Fire of 1893, which enveloped much of the city's commercial and residential properties, Kawagoe's successful merchants rebuilt their businesses using this more reliable method of construction, which could take up to three years to complete. Each owner tried to outdo the next, building larger, more elaborate storefronts with decorative "devil tiles" adorning their rooftops, and it's not uncommon to find the merchant's direct descendants inside the shops, preserving the family businesses for years to come.
Kawagoe's emblematic symbol is its Bell Tower, which doubles as a sort of metronome for the town's residents. With its resonating sound, the bell, now automated, wakes them up at 6 am, informs all within earshot to break for lunch at noon and punctuates the end of the day for both schoolchildren (at 3 pm) and adults (at 6 pm). The 52-ft-/16-m-tall structure was first introduced in 1624 to not only announce the time but also to warn townspeople of impending fires spotted from its lookout point. Ironically, the tower itself has fallen prey to several major fires over the centuries, and the one that overlooks the city today is Kawagoe's fourth.
Perhaps the most efficient way to experience the city is to start chronologically at Kawagoe's best-known Buddhist temple, Kita-in (its roots date back to AD 830), and then gradually work into the more modernized city center.
With Shinto shrines on-site as well as several buildings relocated from Edo Castle, there is plenty to keep visitors busy at Kita-in.
The 500 Statues of Buddha's Disciples is one of the stand-out features of the temple grounds, where visitors could easily spend an hour studying and comparing the varied expressions found on each stone figure. Technically, there are 540 unique statues in this collection—which was started by a monk in the late 18th century to console the survivors of a devastating famine. Some appear to be deeply confounded or meditative, while others look as if they are in the midst of an uncontrollable, guttural chuckle. Local legend has it that every visitor can find his or her likeness in one of the statues.
A highlight of a visit to Kawagoe is browsing the 20 or so shops down the stone-paved streets of Confectionery Alley, where shoppers will find everything from azuki bean candies to Pokemon figurines, rice crackers, origami and even sweet potato ice cream. (Kawagoe was once a top producer of sweet potatoes, and many of the town's restaurants showcase the vegetable in imaginative ways.) Prices there seem lower than average.
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