Koedo Kawagoe, a City with a Living Japanese History and Culture
Kawagoe is a city located in the south-western part of Saitama prefecture, a neighboring prefecture of Tokyo. It has good access from Tokyo and it is a popular sightseeing spot with more than 6 million tourists per year. During the Edo period (1603-1868) it prospered as a castle town and the area called Koedo Kawagoe (Koedo means “Little Edo” where “Edo” is the old name of Tokyo) is charming with its many streets full of historical landmarks and its downtown atmosphere. We introduce the attractions of Kawagoe city below. Photo: flickr.com
What Kind of City is Kawagoe?
The city is located in the south-western part of Saitama prefecture and it has a population of approximately 350,000 people. It’s a commuter town about 30 km from the Tokyo metropolitan area and besides being a distribution, trading and manufacturing sector it is well-known also as a sightseeing spot because of its rich history and culture.
The History of Kawagoe
In the Edo period Kawagoe was regarded as an important place for the northern defense point of Edo city and it was also became a distribution base of Edo as powerful daimyo (feudal lords) were placed there and land improvements were made. As a result, the newest culture of Edo was brought into Kawagoe and people started the call it “Little Edo” as a city of merchants.
It still prospered as a commercial city during the Meiji period (1868-1912) but in 1893 a great fire broke out destroying one-third of the city. For reconstructing the city, the merchants of Kawagoe built storehouse style buildings with the walls covered in mud attaching great importance to their fire-resistant quality called “dozou-zukuri”. This was what lead to the creation of “kura-zukuri” the kind of architectural style making up the charming atmosphere of the city.
As for its present days, Kawagoe is the first in Saitama prefecture that received a city status and it keeps developing as a core city near the Tokyo metropolitan area.
Streets of Old Storehouse Style Buildings (kura-zukuri)
This is the very view that represents Kawagoe the most. When rebuilding the city after the destruction by the great fire the rebuilders intentionally didn’t continue the brick house style architecture that was the most common that time. They implemented the unique fire resistant style (dozou-zukuri) instead and this resulted in having this large number of kura-zukuri (old storehouse style) structures in this area. Kura-zukuri buildings possess a special stateliness as an accumulation of history and they are full of the highlights of the old good Japanese design. In December 1999 they were designated as a “Reservation Area of the Important Traditional Architecture” and in 2007 they were selected as one of “The 100 Most Beautiful Historical Sights of Japan”.
Historical Sites of the City
The zone of the kura-zukuri style houses we introduced above is just one example. There are many other sites in Kawagoe with historical buildings where you can strongly feel the atmosphere of old times.
Kawagoe city is making efforts in its city planning for preserving traditional buildings by promoting revitalization while highlighting its history. Thanks to these efforts we can visit these valuable buildings even now.
Yamazaki Art Museum, https://www.flickr.com
Tanakaya (a dango-dumplings shop), https://www.flickr.com
Kameya (Japanese style confectionery shop), https://www.flickr.com
Sweet Potatoes, the Special Product of the Area
Kawagoe is a famous growing area of sweet potatoes. Their cultivation is said to have first prospered during the Edo period. The sweet potatoes grown in the city and its adjacent areas presently are called Kawagoe-imo (“imo” means potato) and the city is one of the most major growing areas in Japan. During the Edo period, the baked sweet potato was a big hit as a confection to be enjoyed by the common people. Given this trend, the neighboring villages grew them more and more for the Edo market, but Kawagoe-imo was considered a high-quality top-of-the-range product. In the book “Shokoku meibutsu banzuke” ( “List of the special products of various places”) that is said to be written around 1830 Kawagoe was listed as a famous sweet potatoes growing area and this also helped to fix the reputation of Kawagoe associated with sweets potatoes.
As written above, Kawagoe has many sweets and foods connected with sweet potatoes. Depending on the type of the product, there are some kinds you can eat while walking so we recommend you to enjoy the tastes of different shops during sightseeing.
This is the main event of the year in Kawagoe. Its official name is Kawagoe Hikawa Festival and it’s held on the 3rd Saturday and Sunday of October every year. A large number of gorgeous and magnificent festival floats come and go through the streets lined with storehouse style houses, as the highlight of the event.
The festival dates back to 1648 when Nobutsuna Matsudaira, the clan lord of Kawagoe donated portable shrines, lion masks, Japanese drums and similar festival artifacts to the Kawagoe Hikawa Shinto Shrine. He adopted the style of the Edo Tenka Festival that is a so called “shinkousai” and this said to be the origin of Kawagoe festival. A “shinkousai” means a festival celebrating the temporary transfer of an object of worship believed to contain the spirit of a deity away from its main shrine. The “shinkousai” of Kawagoe is said to be started as a traditional event of when the local deity of Hikawa visited those people’s houses who were under his protection and this developed to the present-day event using festival floats.
In 2005, the “Kawagoe Hikawa Festival Float Event” was designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property by the country as a valuable city festival.
We introduced the highlights of Kawagoe city above, but these are just a part of them. Kawagoe is a city full of charm that would be too much to write about. It’s a rare place that continues to pass down history and culture to this extent despite of the closeness to Tokyo. Please don’t miss visiting Kawagoe together with your Tokyo sightseeing.
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