kawagoe: an edo-era town   4 comments

Saturday, July 8:  I arrive at Kawagoe Station after taking the Yokohama Line to the Hachiko line to the Kawagoe Line, a train trip of about one and half hours north of where I live near Sagamihara that meanders through mostly small towns and rural areas.  I disembark in Kawagoe only to have to take a taxi ride for about $12 to the Kurazukuri Zone of Kawagoe, also known as the Old storehouse zone.

Kawagoe enjoyed political and military importance during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) as it offered northern protection for Edo Castle.  Today, the preserved main street of Kura no machi (Old Town) Ichibangai Street is a long row of preserved buildings from that period, modernized and converted to cute what-not and souvenir shops, as well as old-time sweet shops.  The streets of Koedo (Little Edo) offer a glimpse back into a bygone era.

Today is particularly hot, humid, and frankly, miserable. I feel discomfort immediately upon leaving the station.  At noon, the taxi drops me, as requested, at the Yamazaki Museum of Art, at the southern end of the Old storehouse zone. I hurry in to escape the heat.  Sadly, I’m told no photography is permitted except in one room.  This museum contains mainly works by Hashimoto Gaho, born on July 27, 1835.  His works were family heirlooms bequeathed to the museum by Yamazaki Yutaka (1830-1912).

Here are two items at the museum.  Sadly, I don’t even know what they are!

I go back out into the heat to walk down Kura no Machi (Old Town) Ichibangai Street, where traditional architecture can be enjoyed; it is designated as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings. On this hot Saturday in July, the street is packed with tourists.

Kura no Machi (Old Town) Ichibangai Street

Japanese homes once had strong buildings called “Kura” for on-property storage of household tools.  Since these buildings were fire-resistant, they developed into residential buildings and stores in Kawagoe.  This zone is considered a culturally significant area where the atmosphere of a town 100 years ago can be experienced.

creatures in the Old Town

displays in the Old Town

I stop into a small temple, Choki-in Temple.

Choki-in Temple

Jizo statues at Choki-in Temple

Choki-in Temple

Choki-in has a Gandhara-style statue of the fasting Buddha.  The story behind this statue is that Prince Siddhartha Gautama renounced his privileged life and traveled around trying to extinguish mind and body to become enlightened.  Siddhartha questioned many holy men as he traveled across northern India; these yogis forced themselves to do extreme penance “such as gazing into the sun until their eyes dissolved away, sitting or standing in rigid positions until their limbs became immobile, or starving to the point of death” (Asian Art: Fasting Buddha).

Over about a five-year period, Siddhartha tried fasting to a point where he became weak and ill, although his spirituality evolved; eventually, after a milkmaid offered him a bowl of milk, he drank it, then ate some food and began to feel strong again.  He then adopted the “middle way,” eating what was needed but no more, and focusing on calm meditation.  Eventually, he gained what he called ‘enlightenment.’ Following this experience, he was called Buddha, meaning “The Enlightened One.”

Fasting Buddha statue at Choki-in Temple

Choki-in also has a pleasant lotus garden, a quiet cemetery, and some small shrines.

lotus blossoms at Choki-in Temple

cemetery at Choki-in Temple

torii at Choki-in Temple

shrine at Choki-in Temple

small shrine at Choki-in Temple

water purification at Choki-in Temple

roof of the gate at Choki-in Temple

door at Choki-in Temple

gate at Choki-in Temple

I continue to walk down  Kura no machi (Old Town) Ichibangai Street, looking especially for a place to have some lunch, but all I see are shops selling sweets or souvenirs.  The few restaurants I do see have lines in front of them.  I pop into an adorable two-story shop selling all kinds of enticing goodies.  I linger in here for quite some time, enjoying the air-conditioning and the goods for sale.

a cute shop on Kura no machi (Old Town) Ichibangai Street

a cute shop on Kura no machi (Old Town) Ichibangai Street

a cute shop on Kura no machi (Old Town) Ichibangai Street

Painting of Old Edo

a cute shop on Kura no machi (Old Town) Ichibangai Street

I decide to follow the map, leaving the Old storehouse zone, and head for the Kawagoe City Museum, which is quite a distance away.  Along the way, I stop at a coffee shop which happens to sell sandwiches; there I sit upstairs in the air-conditioning for a bit while I enjoy lunch, cool air, and a cold drink.

It’s so hot today I feel like I’m going to faint while I’m walking outside.  I have to keep drinking water, as I feel dehydrated within minutes outdoors.  I figure I will make it to the museum, and then I will wander around inside until I stop sweating and don’t feel faint any more.  By the time I arrive at the museum, it’s 1:30 p.m.


Kawagoe City Museum

The Kawagoe City Museum was built to provide life-long education for the citizens of Kawagoe and people from other regions who want to learn about the history and culture of Kawagoe. Kawagoe began to deepen the connection with Edo (present day Tokyo) from about the 17th century.  The museum examines the cultural heritage of the Edo culture on Kawagoe.

One part of the museum is dedicated to the Primitive and Ancient Times, where displays show the people from the primitive society to the society just before the feudal one (from 30 BC to the 11th century) through relics found or excavated within the city.

The Primitive and Ancient Times

One section of the museum is devoted to the Early Modern Times.  During this period, some leading feudal lords who supported shoguns of the Edo era became the lords of Kawagoe Castle. Therefore, Kawagoe was an important castle town for the Edo shogunate. For that reason, political, economic, and cultural ties were promoted between Edo and Kawagoe.  The model of the castle town, armor of the lords, and tools and instruments of civilians and merchants are displayed in this section.

To the south of Kawagoe spreads the Musashino Plateau, which used to be covered in forests and fields. It had been so difficult to get water there that the area had long remained undeveloped and uninhabited. In the middle of the 17th century, the then Lord of Kawagoe began to develop this area and many new villages were born.

models of houses with walls of soil

Kawagoe houses

painting in the Kawagoe City Museum

ship in Kawagoe City Museum

Buddha image

Archbishop Tenkai, having won the respect of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun, served three generations of the Tokugawa shoguns. The Kita-in Temple, where Tenkai served as the chief priest, was once the head temple of  theTendai-shu sect of Buddhism in the Kanto area.

When the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu were carried to the holy place in Nikko, Tenkai stopped the funeral procession at the Kita-in Temple, and held a grand memorial service for him. To commemorate this, Archbishop Tenkai built the Toshogu Shrine in the grounds of Kita-in in 1633. The shrine was worshiped faithfully by the successive lords of Kawagoe Castle from then on.

Archbishop Tenkai and the Buddhist Temple of Kitain – The Toshogu Shrine

The Early Modern Times

Another section of the museum is devoted to The Early Modern and the Modern Times.  In the Edo era, Kawagoe was called “the kitchen of Edo.”  Many merchants with great economic power participated actively in the city.  In this section are model houses made of soil with straw, as well as dioramas showing the economic activities of the town.

Exhibition corner of the Early Modern and the Modern Times

economic activity in Kawagoe

The Kawagoe family was such an important vassal of the Kamakura government that a daughter of the head, Kawagoe Shigeyori, became a wife of Minamoto-no Yoshitsune, a brother of Shogun Minamoto-no Yoritomo’s. Later, however, the relationship between the Shogun and his brother grew worse. When the brother was killed by the Shogun, Kawagoe Shigeyori was also executed because of the kinship. The next generation of the Kawagoe family won an important position again, but later rebelled against the Muromachi government and was destroyed completely.

In the Folklore section, one can see the craftsmanship and skills of the Edo era craftsmen, as well as their tools and instruments.

In the past, Japanese cities consisted almost exclusively of wooden buildings, which made them vulnerable to fires. Kurazukuri construction was used both to make a structure fireproof and to secure it against intruders. They were expensive to build, as their construction involved making thick walls consisting of several layers. Thanks to the prosperous trade with Edo, the merchants of Kawagoe flourished, and many showed their wealth by building as good-looking a structure as they could afford (japan-guide.com: Warehouse District).

the process of building the Kurazakuri houses and the craftsmen

the process of building the Kurazakuri houses and the craftsmen

I enjoy the display of ceremonial masks.

Festivals related to the agricultural production are also displayed.

Kawagoe City Museum

I dread going back out into the heat again, but I must because now I’m quite a distance east of the historic district and I want to go to Kita-in Temple and the Gohyaku Raka (500 disciples of Buddha), which are further southeast.  All are long walks with no relief.  I really hope after visiting Kita-in that I will have time (and energy!) to return to the historic district to see several things I missed while looking for a lunch spot, namely the Toki no Kane (Time Bell Tower) and the Kawagoe Festival Museum, as well as Kaskiya Yokocho (Penny Candy Lane).

Onward to Kita-in Temple!


4 responses to “kawagoe: an edo-era town

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  1. great post! kawagoe is such a gem, I adore the place 🙂

  2. The fasting Buddha is a bit scary. 🙂

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