Little Edo

Trip Start Jun 03, 2011
Trip End Aug 21, 2011

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Flag of Japan  , Kanto,
Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Today was predicted to be the first almost entirely clear weather free day of my trip, so I decided to go to Kawagoe. Stepping out of Kawagoe train station (the town actually had three stations), it looked just like every other over-developed Tokyo suburb. However, about a fifteen minute walk north of the train station, Kawagoe had a small cluster of buildings that had survived since the Edo period.

If you've read my earlier blog entries, you'll no doubt remember that Tokyo was damaged many times by fire, and completely devastated in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. WWII bombings finished off many of the remaining structures, so today there are almost no buildings in Tokyo remaining from the Edo period, and many of those that are have undergone significant reconstruction.

Kawagoe, while now a Tokyo suburb, was many miles away from the city for most of its history. It was a rich mercantile center providing rural products to Edo. Because of the town's wealth, its merchants were able to afford fire resistant buildings. Today, a handful of buildings survive from the Edo period, mainly clustered in a few blocks along a main street north of the train stations. I thought it would be a good place to see some of what historical Tokyo might have looked like.

Before heading to the Kurazukuri district to check out the old buildings, I decided to spend the morning at Kitain Temple (喜多院), also located north of the train stations. The way to the temple from Kawagoe station was sporadically marked, and just leaving the station heading in the proper direction was something of a challenge for me. This was probably my own fault because I thought I could take a shortcut to the temple instead of taking the easiest route. I did manage to find my way there without any wrong turns, although I wasn't exactly sure where I was in the beginning and the street I chose had no sidewalks.

The Kitain Temple itself, and most of the grounds, was nothing special. In addition to the main hall, there was a small Toshogu temple dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, but it was fenced off so you couldn't get close to it and it didn't compare to anything at Nikko anyway. The temple grounds were wooded and frequented by lots of large black birds. I'm not sure if they were ravens or crows, but if you're afraid of large birds, I wouldn't visit this temple.

So why did I decided to stop by? In search of a bit more of old Edo, of course. The only buildings to be preserved from the original Edo Castle had been relocated to the temple. The original temple was destroyed in 1638 by (can you guess?) fire. Tokugawa Iemitsu had some of the buildings from Edo Castle relocated to the temple grounds to help rebuild. The palace was located in the heart of Edo and destroyed by the dual scourges of the 1923 Earthquake and WWII.

I bought a ticket and wandered through the buildings. Presumably, the best of the best rooms weren't shipped all of the way up from Edo, but I was still surprised at how simple the rooms I saw were compared to the shogun's Nijojo Castle in Kyoto. The only room with a significant coverage of painted screens was the room where Shogun Iemitsu was born, and the screens were closer in appearance to the serene gold and black screens found at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto than they were to the bold and colorful screens from Nijojo.

In addition to the rooms, there was a nice garden and a few random items from the Edo period that may or may not have been recreations and may or may not have belonged to the shogun. The one I found particularly interesting was a painting of the shogun's nursemaid (her changing room was the largest room of those collected). She was painted as an old woman with significant wrinkles and obviously thinning hair. The portrait was not a grotesque caricature, but true and stately, an interesting splash of realism.

To emphasize the randomness of the room collection, one of the rooms on the tour was the shogun's bathroom. It had a chamber, which I assumed was used for showering, with a sloped floor and a slot at the bottom. The toilet was much harder to see, but I leaned way over the barrier and was able to locate the covered hole in the ground near the back that looked a lot like the hole for modern Japanese-style squat toilets.

The ticket to the rooms also included admission to a courtyard filled with stone statues called the 500 Statues of Rakan. I had seen the statues through a fence, but had thought there was no way to get in, so I was happy to find out that it was in fact possible to get close to them. There were actually 540 statues of disciples of Buddha with a wide variety of expressions, poses and paraphernalia. Allegedly, if you went to the statues at night, and put your hands on them to find the one that felt the warmest, and then returned the next day, you'd see you chose the statue that looked most like you. I didn't really think any of the statues looked remotely like me, but I couldn't stick around until night to try it out. It was off to Kurazukuri Street.

While it only covered a few blocks, the Kurazukuri district had by far the most interesting historical architecture I'd seen anywhere in the Tokyo area. (I liked Odaiba a lot too, but that area was modern architecture.) Marketed as "Little Edo", Kawagoe offered an unfortunately small, but much appreciated, glimpse of what Tokyo probably looked like before the 1923 Earthquake. It had the mix of traditional Japanese style with a few circa 1900 Western style buildings thrown in that I had imagined after visiting the Edo Tokyo Museum. There wasn't a lot to see, and there were a lot more cars on the street than I expected, but I definitely appreciated what was there.

The buildings were mostly filled with shops selling food and handicrafts. I stopped into a store with a lot of really good wood carvings and bought a couple of small sculptures. With the dollar tanking against the yen, I didn't feel like I could afford to buy any of the really cool stuff. I did, however, save room in my budget for candy.

Behind the main Kurazukuri street, there was a small area called Kashiya Yokocho (菓子屋横丁), or Candy Alley, selling "wagashi”, traditional Japanese sweets. Wagashi was translated as "sweets" on the map, but it really meant something more like "snacks". In addition to candy, there were stores selling a wide variety of Japanese rice crackers (senbei) in various flavors. Several of the stores offered free samples, and I went to all of them, buying a few small bags of treats that looked to me like traditional Japanese candy. Mostly, I ended up with a lot of sugar and a little rice.

Incidentally, the Japanese seemed to like making lists of "100 Spots for X", for example, the "100 Places to View Cherry Blossoms" or the "100 Places for Fall Leaves". The lists I'd seen before were pretty normal. However, according to the information marker for Candy Alley, it was on the Ministry of the Environment's "100 Scent Sceneries" list.

It was a pleasant way to end my visit to the historic district. I went back to the station area to grab some dinner in a large open-air pedestrian mall connecting Kawagoe and Honkawagoe stations. It was threatening to rain by the time I finished dinner, so I decided to call it a day.

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