Imagine cobbled streets, 1,500-year-old shrines and traditional culture evoking memories of a time that has long since passed—this is Kawagoe, a small town suspended in time.
Dating back to the Edo period of 1603-1867, this “Little Edo” is tucked away in Saitama Prefecture, under an hour north of Tokyo. Historically a bustling commercial supply town, Kawagoe thrived throughout the Edo and Meiji periods. These days it’s an enchanting piece of living history, filled with charm.
Kawagoe has a lot to offer, so let’s look at six truly magical spots that’ll give you a taste of Japan’s old days.
1. Kura No Machi
A stroll down the main street of Kura no Machi (蔵の町) will have you lost in a time warp. The buildings on either side of the street selling sweet rice dumplings and ice cream have seen more days than you.
In 1893, a fire destroyed a substantial part of the city resulting in the reconstruction of several buildings using layers of clay, called “Kura.” This architectural technique shaped the beautiful old buildings you see today.
You’ll find various souvenir stores selling kitsune (fox) masks, chopsticks, beautifully-crafted ceramics, and handkerchiefs. Take your time exploring the intricacies within each shop, or take a rickshaw for the full Edo experience.
A visit to Kawagoe is also well-known for being a great excuse to wear a yukata or kimono, whatever the occasion. The town plays well into its reputation, with rental shops lining the streets ready to help you pick out your best color for your stroll through its time-honored streets.
2. Toki No Kane
This bell tower of Kawagoe is a relic from about 400 years ago. Located on a small street that branches off from Kura No Machi, Toki no Kane is a symbol of Kawagoe, keeping watch from 16 meters above the town. The bell rings four times a day: once at 6 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and 6 p.m.
The same fire that took much of the houses and shops on the neighboring street also destroyed the tower. It is said that several merchants restored the bell tower before their own shops because of its symbolic importance to the townspeople. Now that is some serious dedication.
The sound of the bell is known as one of the “100 Soundscapes of Japan,” an initiative made by the Ministry of the Environment to dilute noise pollution in Japan and to preserve local sounds of ordinary life.
According to research done by the World Health Organization in 2018, Japan is the noisiest country in the world. Cities like Tokyo are inundated with sounds from train stations, arcades, megaphones, and sirens that overwhelm the senses above the recommended decibels. The “100 Soundscapes of Japan” is meant to remind us of the beauty of sound in a world that is increasingly engulfed with too many overlapping and stressful noises, and to seek areas of calm and silence where one can enjoy the sound of a simple historic bell tone.
3. Edo Starbucks
If Starbucks were around during the Edo period, it would look like this—decorated with traditional sliding panels with classic nature scenes etched onto its surface.
This Kawagoe cafe is an extra step above the rest with two outdoor seating areas with Japanese gardens complete with bonsai trees, a stone pathway, and wind chimes to narrate your peaceful coffee break.
Starbucks is enormously popular in Japan thanks in part to regular releases of limited-edition seasonal products, which makes a branch of the ubiquitous coffee chain worth visiting while you’re here. The indoor area is just as nice, comprising of a spacious gallery for people-watching or just relaxing after exploring the nearby cobbled streets. It sits a few buildings down from the bell tower.
4. Kashiya Yokocho (Candy Alley)
A short walk northwest of Kura no Machi is the circular street of Kashiya Yokocho (菓子屋横丁), home to several sweet and savory shops.
You could choose literally any store, but I recommend Tamariki Seika, a shop selling traditional hard and soft candies with friendly staff. This nostalgic little store is filled with children peering into each basket and making the difficult decision of which candy to choose with just two coins in hand.
If you’re lucky, you can witness the homemade candies being made in the morning through the shop’s windows into the backroom factory. It’s a very Willy Wonka-esque experience, sans any fizzy lifting drink or violet-colored children.
Next door to Tamariki Seika is a small sweet potato shop where the friendly owner was kind enough to offer me a sample of yakiimo (baked sweet potato). Hopefully, you’ll be so lucky!
5. Hikawa Shrine
Nearby Shingashi river, which blooms with sakura in the springtime, is the 1,500-year-old Hikawa Shrine.
Looking for love? The shrine is known for its incredibly good luck, most notably when it comes to love and marriage. Several groups of friends and couples can be found here dressed in yukata (summer kimono), hoping to change their future beneath the tunnels of windchimes.
The entrance to the shrine is endowed with a 15-meter torii gate—one of the tallest in Japan—so you can’t miss it.
Once inside, there are several places to look around and pray. One of the most photogenic spots is the “Tunnel of Ema,” an underpass that hangs hundreds of romantic wishes.
Hang your own omikuji (fortune) in the tunnel so that your future love may one day see it and seek you out. Journeys end in lovers meeting as they say.
6. Kita-in Temple
A quiet and expansive area that will grant you some peace, Kita-in Temple has a deep history that you can grasp the moment you step foot inside. This temple is well known for its over 500 Buddhist statues.
Kita-in is thought to have been built around 850 AD, but historians can’t be one hundred percent sure because very few records have withstood the test of time.
During the 1600s the temple received support from the third Shogun, Iemitsu, who donated parts of Edo castle, now the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, to Kita-in. A close look at the 500 or so faces of the Buddha statues will reveal unique expressions of happiness or contentment.
In contrast with other temples in Japan whose Buddhas maintain stern looks, Kita-in’s statues recall the joys and imperfections of lives accepted and well-lived despite the hardships they endured.
Don’t miss: Kawagoe Festival
Kawagoe is home to many seasonal events throughout the year, one of the most popular being the Kawagoe Festival which takes place October 19-20. Think lantern lights, decorated floats, and bundles of music.
This peaceful town comes alive with culture, food, and the celebration of “Hikkawase,” the main evening event where decorated floats come together in a competition of Japanese orchestral music to see which can outplay the other. The crowd watches, and cheers wildly as the music crescendos. On the floats, the players dance enthusiastically to music while wearing traditional masks of lions or foxes.
Also along the Seibu Railway line: Moominvalley Park and more
While on the Seibu line, don’t blink, or else you’ll miss the other magical spots to explore whilst escaping from Tokyo.
Hailing from it’s home in Finland, the newly opened Moominvalley Park now sits in Hanno, Saitama. From Kawagoe, it’s a short distance to go to enter the world of the beloved characters. Inside the amusement park, you’ll be treated to live shows, a 4D theatre, and even a zipline adventure area. The park is nestled in nature and has loads of activities to indulge your senses.
If the art of now is your thing, be sure to check out Nerima Art Museum next to Nakamurabashi Station on the Seibu Ikebukuro line. Showcasing the contemporary Japanese artists of today, this locally loved museum makes a gallant effort to exhibit a fresh roster of local artists in an intimate environment.
Unlike any other sento (public baths), Hisamatsu-yu located near Sakuradai Station is a natural hot spring that offers a thought-provoking yet relaxing projection mapping experience while you bathe. Awarded the “Good Design Award” in 2015, this unique spot is also equipped with an outdoor bath and sauna to round out your leisure adventure. The award’s judges specifically mention the delights of bathing in the moonlight, or under the sun that peeks through the foliage of autumn.
If you’re looking for more things to do in Saitama, take a look at this list of things you didn’t know you could do there.
Use the Seibu MOOMINVALLEY PARK Ticket & Travel Pass for easy access to Kawagoe and the Moominvalley Park
Hon-Kawagoe station can be accessed from Seibu Shinjuku in just 44 minutes via express train. You can also get there from Ikebukuro Station on the Seibu-Ikebukuro line. The town of Kawagoe is accessible on foot, but you can also rent a bicycle, or use the Koedo loop bus for ¥500.
Get the MOOMINVALLEY PARK Ticket & Travel Pass for a convenient way to explore Kawagoe and the Moominvalley theme park in one day.
The pass costs ¥2,700 for an adult and ¥1,600 for a child and covers unlimited journeys on all Seibu Railway lines (excluding the Tamagawa line), admission into Moominvalley Park and a return bus ticket between the park and Iino and Higashi-Iino stations. This discount ticket is available as a one or two day pass which offers unlimited use on all Seibu lines.
Buy one at Ikebukuro, Shinjuku and Takadanobaba stations, the Seibu Tourist Information Center, and tourist agencies.