Getting off the train at Kawagoe Station, it at first feels like any of the dozens (if not hundreds) of similar areas scattered throughout the Tokyo metropolitan area. The usual assortment of shops, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants give way to an even larger mix of stores, pachinko parlors, and karaoke bars as one makes the fifteen-minute or so walk towards the Kurazukuri historical area that is separated from the station not just by distance, but seemingly by time.
Approaching the older part of the city, it’s immediately striking to see the black-tinged buildings that hint at previous encounters with damaging fires that were apparently held at bay by the local builder’s historical expertise at building structures with multiple layers of clay to help defend from fire damage. Looking up at most of the remaining buildings, one can see the unique interlocking structures of massive window shutters that were designed to be shut to an almost paper’s-width thickness to block out fire.
But it’s hard to imagine such conflagrations on a beautiful October day walking along the central Chuo street with hundreds of other visitors to a city that has retained all the charms of a time long past.
An interesting feature of Kawagoe shops is that many have retained the old sign-boards of prior businesses, so you might find a clothing store with a sign for an old knife-maker in front, or an ice-cream shop that was previously a rice seller, etc.
Speaking of knife-makers, there is one shop, Machikan, with an impressive array of what seem to be razor-sharp tools, knives, and even farming implements. The young man behind the counter took a break from his work at the whetstone to give an enthusiastic explanation of the hamon (blade patterns) on a beautiful collection of katana and naginata blades that would be at home in any museum.
The enthusiasm of locals for their culture and history didn’t stop there – I was fortunate to be able to just join a guided tour that had started at the Kawagoe City Art Museum given by a woman with more than enough energy to overcome any tourist’s jetlag. She possessed an intimate knowledge of the area’s rich history as both an ally and friendly rival to Tokyo. She mentioned how visitors to Tokyo (then called Edo) were so impressed by the neighboring city’s opulence, returned to Kawagoe, and then had luxurious (but hollow) adornments added to the top of their buldings.
Additionally, the name Edo for Tokyo, led to Kawagoe becoming known as “Koedo” or “Little Edo” (小江戸) – a name which seems to have been taken by the current local craft beer, Coedo (but spelled with a “C,” possibly to avoid appearing to have an official connection to the city?).
Further encounters which included a kindly book-binder in another well-preserved building (that had previously been a livestock feed-producer), along with many friendly food vendors, souvenir shop owners, restaurant & ice-cream store workers, led me to believe that there is not one merchant in Kawagoe that does not have both a pride in their city, as well as a friendly spirit that seems to be fading in their neighboring city, Tokyo.
It seems that for neighboring Tokyo residents, Kawagoe has a very strong attraction. While Tokyo has remnants of old townscapes that were not successful and have been taken over by new businesses, Kawagoe managed to have similarly old areas develop thriving businesses early on.
The old towns in Tokyo have had their beautiful old buildings mercilessly torn down by large developers and replaced with new buildings that seem to be all of one design, and by doing so, the loss of those towns’ individuality continues.
I’m curious to find out more about the process of how Kawagoe goes about preserving their classic look while at the same time allowing for new building construction. In the meantime, it can definitely be said that Kawagoe seems to be a city that’s worth it to residents of Tokyo to take a day and visit, so it must be doubly so for foreign visitors as well!