A visit to Little Edo in Kawagoe is like traveling through time without distorting the space-time continuum. Think about having leisurely walks in a neighborhood where people dwells it clay-walled warehouses, where a bell tower is the only means to tell time, and where, instead of horses, men are pulling carriages to transport people across towns. You’ll have all the perfect excuses to don your favorite ninja or samurai outfit in this 400-year old castle town.
Popular among locals as “Koedo,” this small city in Saitama Prefecture preserves both the cultural and architectural features of the Edo Period (1603-1868). And for this reason, Kawagoe made it to the list of the Top 100 Historical Sites of Beautiful Japan.
- Edo is the former name of Tokyo before Emperor Meiji moved the country’s capital from Kyoto in 1868.
- The city is just a 30-minute train ride from Ikebukuro and it can easily fit any day trip itinerary from Tokyo.
- The Ichibangai Shopping Street, Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine, Kawagoe Castle Ruins, and Kitain Temple are some of the major areas of interest you must visit in Kawagoe.
- Anyone who has a deep appreciation of history and architecture will find a visit to Kawagoe worthwhile.
- For the maximum experience, ride one of the jinrikisha (pulled rickshaw) touring around Little Edo, or get overboard — dress in kimono/yukata and bring your samurai swords.
My first visit to Little Edo was in 2004. One of the previous companies I was working at sent me on a business trip to Tokyo. During weekends, I stayed with my sister and her family in Kawagoe. She just took me to Toki no Kane to have my photo taken and to Renkeiji Temple when I was looking for souvenirs.
The second visit was in 2015. I was with my father, my two kids, and a niece. We strolled around the old warehouse district and had fun eating soft cream and sweet potato onigiri along the way.
And lastly, I went on a long vacation to Kawagoe during the last fall and winter season and was able to explore more of the tourist attractions in the city that my sister had always failed to introduce me to.
The best time to visit Kawagoe is during the fall season where the temperature is mild, the rains don’t fall as often, and there are fewer people during weekdays. This will allow you to walk leisurely from one area to another, which is the best way to enjoy and truly appreciate this 400-year old district.
There are four train stations servicing Kawagoe — Kawagoe Station, Hon-Kawagoe Station, Kawagoe-shi Station, and Nishi-Kawagoe Station. Since Little Edo is best enjoyed as a walking tour, I suggest you start at the nearest train station — the Hon-Kawagoe Station. Take the East Exit and head north for 10 to 15 minutes by foot to our first stop, the Old Warehouse District.
Ichibangai is a whole shopping street lined with old clay-walled warehouses which currently serve as souvenir stores, restaurants, cafes, and other commercial establishments. Being a shopping street, here you’ll find almost every Japanese souvenirs you’ll ever imagine — from kimonos and yukatas, to chopsticks and umbrellas, to origami and ikebana, and beyond.
Fans of Hayao Miyazaki will have a blast perusing the Studio Ghibli merchandise and memorabilia at the local branch of Donguri Republic. You’ll recognize the shop by the Totoro wooden standee at the left storefront. It’s at the left side of the street when you’re facing the Bell of Time Tower, right across Suisen-tei restaurant.
All those shopping frenzies aside, the Kawagoe Ichibangai is more popular for its historic landmarks and monuments such as the Kurazukuri no Machinami (Old Warehouse District), Toki no Kane (Bell of Time Tower), and Kashiya Yokocho (Penny Candy Lane) among others.
Building No. 85 (Saitama Resona Bank)
At the start of the Meiji Era, a certain millionaire called Yokota Gorobei of Saitama donated a land and, together with his fellow affluents, ordered the construction of a building that would function as a National bank in Saitama. The building was designed by Tasuoka Katsuka and was completed during the Taisho Period. The bank was named No. 85 National Bank and later renamed to Saitama bank, to Asahi Bank, and finally to Saitama Resona Bank.
There really is nothing to see here but the building is worth noting as it was designated as one of Japan’s registered tangible cultural properties in 1996. It is one of the many buildings you’ll find before reaching the Ichibangai Shopping Street from Hon-Kawagoe Station.
Kurazukuri no Machinami (Old Warehouse District)
Kurazukuri refers to the clay-walled warehouses that line the main street.
In olden times, Kawagoe flourished as the center of product trade in the region due to its proximity to Edo (currently Tokyo). Merchants built these clay-walled warehouses to store rice and other goods. When the entire castle town was engulfed by the Great Fire of Kawagoe in 1638, only these clay-walled buildings remained. Which is why the city was later rebuilt following the clay-wall style architecture for its flame resistant properties.
The clay-walled warehouses that survived the passage of time are the testament to Kawagoe’s history, culture, and architecture and are designated national treasures of Japan. And even if these warehouses are now converted to modern commercial establishments, the traditional elements in terms of service and architectural style are still being maintained.
Toki no Kane (Bell of Time Tower)
The Bell of Time Tower is the very symbol of the city of Kawagoe. It is located just a few meters from the main shopping street.
The original bell tower was located northeast of its current location before the uneventful fire destroyed most of the town. It was rung every hour by two persons living right next to it to inform the people of the time.
Nowadays, the bell is controlled electro-mechanically with a metal hammer swinging and banging the bell at four designated time each day – 6:00 AM, 12:00 NN, 3:00 PM and 6:00 PM. In 1996, the Ministry of the Environment has chosen Toki no Kane bell tower as one of the “100 Soundscapes of Japan“.
Right past the bell tower is the Yakushi Shrine. It is a Shinto shrine that is no longer in service but people still come here to pray for good harvests, money, and recovery from various illnesses.
Kashiya Yokocho (Penny Candy Lane)
Eating while walking is usually frowned upon in Japan but you’ll find the perfect excuse to do so with all the street food madness, particularly the various sweet potato treats, at Kashiya Yokocho.
Kashiya Yokocho or Penny Candy Lane is a small alley at the northwestern part of the Old Warehouse District. The place brings nostalgia to locals who grew up eating cheap candies in this very location. However, locals or not, anyone will have a fun time with the assortment of Japanese confectioneries sold for really cheap prices at Kashiya Yokocho.
- To reach the Kashiya Yokocho, go back to the main street from Toki no Kane. Head north and turn left at the first street. Continue heading west until you reach the entrance gate to Yojuin Temple. Turn right and then left.
Kawagoe Sweet Potato Haven
At Kashiya Yokocho, you’ll be amazed at the varities of street food made from sweet potato. There’s yaki imo (coal roasted sweet potato), imo senbei (thin, flat sweet potato crackers), imo kenpi (sweet potato strips), sweet potato soft cream, imo yokan (sweet potato bars), the list goes on. There are even imo gyoza, imo udon, and the triangular sweet potato onigiri (my favorite though I used to get it from the old man at Suisen-Tei food court at the main street).
Why is sweet potato so popular in Kawagoe? Here’s a fun fact. Due to its ease of cultivation, the sweet potato became a staple in Japanese cuisine and Kawagoe was the biggest source of food after the war. Nowadays, Kawagoe remains famous for its sweet potatoes that sweet potato tours are being conducted during the harvest season (mid-September to early November).
Check out Kawagoe Station Tourist Information Office (049 222-5556) if you’re interested. Arahata Noen (Kawagoe-shi, Saitama) and Musashi No Mura (Kazo, Saitama) are two of the popular sweet potato farms that offer digging tours in Saitama Prefecture.
Kawagoe Festival Museum (Kawagoe Matsuri Kaikan)
The Kawagoe Festival (officially Kawagoe Hikawa Festival) is the biggest festival in Kawagoe. It reflects the Japanese culture enough to be declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Though the festival occurs only only on the third weekend of October, you can still view all the colorful floats, costumes, and props used during the two-day parades at the Kawagoe Festival Museum.
Admission price is ¥300 per person for adults and ¥100 for elementary and junior high school students. If you’re visiting the other museums in Kawagoe, you can avail of the “Common Pass” tickets for ¥600 (¥400 for elementary and junior high school) which will allow you to enter up to five museums.
Shingashi River Promenade
Of all the places in Kawagoe, this river promenade at the southwestern end of the Old Warehouse District is my favorite “off the beaten path” spot to rest or just hang out. I’d usually go to this place to rest a bit before going back to my sister’s home nearby. Sometimes, I’d visit this spot just to watch the kois and the wild ducks or to take scenic photos of my stormtrooper action figures.
Cranes and other animals also frequent here on some occasions.
As compared to the canal at the back of the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine, this particular part of the Shingashi River has been least mentioned (if at all) in any travel guide, both print and online. Which is why not so many people are passing here and making it a great spot to just chill out after hours of strolling around the Old Warehouse District.
- To reach this spot, take the northern end of Kashiya Yokocho and head west. The river canal park is at the left side of the bridge crossing.
If you’re interested to see what the Japanese cemeteries look like, there is a small one near the riverbank. From the Kashiya Yokocho north exit, turn LEFT, LEFT, and LEFT. Your last left turn will lead you to a small alley heading to the cemetery. There’s also a small Buddhist temple at the cemetery premises.
Couples, lovers, and hopeless romantics will have a great time exploring the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine. A family of five Shinto deities (two of which are the married couple Susanoo no Mikoto and Kushinadahime) enshrined in the area is known to bestow love and spiritual blessings which makes the shrine popular to people seeking life partners and a harmonious married life.
The two huge zelkova trees standing behind the shrine are said to be the personification of the married couple deities themselves. These couple deities bestow spiritual blessing to those who would walk around the stone path forming the infinity sign.
I took a video of the two enormous trees as I couldn’t fit them in the frame. Embedded below is a quick YouTube video I made to compile the videos I took from the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine. The couple trees start at 00:09.
There are several places around the shrine where one can buy a love charm but the most popular one is the red snappers that you could fish for ¥300. These Red Snapper fishes are called “Ai Tai Mikuji” which means “Love Encounter Lottery.” Fish one and increase your chances of meeting your soulmate for a year.
Another point of interest is a ten-meter long tunnel holding prayer plaques located at the northern side of the shrine.
At the back of the shrine runs the Shingashi River. This is the most scenic spot to visit in Kawagoe is you’re aiming to see the burst of colors during the peak of spring and fall seasons. The colorful leaves during fall and breathtaking cherry blossoms reflecting on the river are just a magnificent sight to behold.
- To reach the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine from the river park, head northeast towards the bridge and turn left to the main road (where you exited Kashiya Yokocho). Turn left at the Kura no Machi and Ichibangai intersection. Turn right at the first traffic light and continue heading east until you see the large torii gate. This will take you approximately 15 minutes if you won’t be distracted by any other sights along the way.
The Kawagoe Castle was built in 1457. During the takeover of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the castle housed several lords of Tokugawa Shogunate to protect the north capital.
Today, the Kawagoe Castle is listed as one of 100 best castles of Japan and seven best castles of the Kanto Region. The Honmaru Goten, the innermost defense building, is the only remaining structures of the original Kawagoe Castle. It housed several lords of Tokugawa Shogunate to protect the north capital during the takeover of Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Walk inside the castle for ¥100 (9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., entry until 4:30 p.m. only) or explore the castle grounds for the ruins.
- To reach the Kawagoe Castle Ruins, head southeast following the Shinkawa River at the back of the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine and turn right when you reach the expressway. You’ll arrive at the place in less than 10 minutes.
Kitain Temple is a Buddhist temple with a very long history and is noted for being part of the original Edo Castle. There are several smaller temples, a pagoda, and other structures within the temple grounds. The 500 Rakan site is pretty interesting, while the Kitain Park is bursting with colors during spring and fall seasons.
We went here for Hatsumode (the first temple visit of New Year) and it is brimming with crowd beyond description. Best to avoid the site during the first three days of the year, but never hesitate if you’re in for the experience (like I do). New amulets are being sold while old ones are being burned at the site so you really might want to check it out.
The 500 Rakan is another feature at the Kitain Temple. It’s a collection of 540 stone statues depicting the disciples of Buddha. Interestingly, all 540 statues have different facial expressions. There is an entrance fee of ¥200.
I never really got to visit the Kitain Park as I already spent most of my time taking photos (and enjoying the cool fall breeze) on the back of one of the smaller temple. But picture this, the edge of the park is already exploding with fall colors, what more if I had to go real deep into the park grounds.
Naritasan Kawagoe Betsuin Hongyoin Temple
Similar to Kitain Temple, the Naritasan Kawagoe Betsuin Hongyoin is also a Buddhist temple. However, there greatly differ in their principles. It is a branch of the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, a popular layover destination in Narita City, Chiba Prefecture.
- Going to the Kitain Temple can be a bit tricky without a map because of several turns from the Castle Ruins. You’re better off with following the Google Map. It will take you 10 to 15 minutes by foot.
CNN Travel described Kawagoe as “the Japan of your historic samurai dreams.” That the most “historic” Japanese town can neither be found in Kyoto nor Nara but in this small city right next to Tokyo.
I used to regret having not pursued architecture during my college days but upon seeing the magnificent architectural styles from these forgotten eras, I suddenly had a change of heart. I, for sure, could not cough out intricate designs such as these.
Perhaps now I’d start regretting not having pursued a master in letters for I am surely not worthy of describing these works of art with my very limited command in language.
Little Edo / Kawagoe Sightseeing Map
Visiting Kawagoe by Train
There are three train lines going to Kawagoe
- Tobu Tojo Line: From Ikebukuro station to Hon-Kawagoe and Kawagoe-shi station; approximately 30 minutes by Express.
- Tokyo Metro Fukutoshin Line: From Shibuya station to Kawagoe-shi station; approximately 60 minutes.
- Seibu Shinjuku Line: From Seibu Shinjuku station to Hon-Kawagoe station; Approximately 60 minutes by Express.
Goung around Kawagoe by Bus
If you prefer to take a bus rather than walking, riding a CO-EDO Loop Bus or a Koedo Kawagoe Loop Bus leads you to Ichibangai.
- CO-EDO Loop Bus – These are the retro buses that take tourists around Kawagoe from Kawagoe Station (West Exit, Bus Stop No. 2) and Hon-Kawagoe Station (West Exit, in front of Family Mart). Ticket prices are 200 for one trip and 500 for a day trip (meaning you can hop on and off certain points throughout the day). Check the timetable and route here.
- Koedo Kawagoe Loop Bus – These are the bigger and more cheerful-looking buses going around specific locations around Kawagoe from Kawagoe Station (East Exit, Bus Stop No. 3). A day pass ticket costs 300. Check the timetable and route here.
Kawagoe Tourism Information
For more information on Kawagoe and Little Edo, contact Kawagoe City Tourist Information Center at tel. no.: 049 (222-5556) or visit their website at www.koedo.or.jp