Let’s go to Kawagoe, the “Little Edo” near Tokyo
Most people would easily know Tokyo as the capital city of Japan, and one of the most popular travel destinations in the country. A long time ago, the city used to be known as Edo (江戸), and the landscape has vastly transformed through generations. Although you would normally envision sleek buildings and modern urban scenery for present-day Tokyo, did you know that there is a place nearby where you can experience historical Tokyo?
The prefecture of Saitama is located just north of Tokyo, and is easily accessible by rail. Many people commute daily between Saitama and Tokyo for worker, but Saitama also has some surprises for travellers looking for a short respite from the capital city. One of them is Kawagoe (川越), a city that is famous for a district that is called “Little Edo” (小江戸 Koedo), where many historical buildings have been preserved since the Edo Period (1603–1868).
My walking route around Kawagoe. (Image credit: Google Maps)
To be honest, I had heard only a little about Kawagoe before my visit to the city. I have been to Tokyo numerous times, but I was curious to see some historical structures from Tokyo’s past. Hence, it was a delight to hear about Kawagoe’s historical district, especially when it is very close to where I was based in Tokyo.
We will have a look at what I discovered during my trip to Kawagoe in this article, and check out a few things I found that caught me by surprise. I mentioned before that I love exploring new places on foot; of course, Kawagoe was no exception. Without further ago, let’s go to “Kawa-go-e”!
① Kawagoe Station, the gateway to Little Edo
Kawagoe Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
When it comes to quick getaways from Tokyo, Kawagoe is one of the most popular choices. Not only is it conveniently located near the capital city, but it is also directly connected by a single train line, so it’s very accessible for everyone who is seeking a unique experience or a short break away from bustling city life.
Kawagoe’s Warehouse District. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
I must admit that prior to visiting Kawagoe, I had never looked up the city before, hence you can imagine how curious I was to hear about it. I have been to Tokyo numerous times, but I didn’t quite think there would be a Little Edo nearby, where I could experience what Tokyo was like in the distant past.
Saikyo Line. (Image credit: photoAC)
One thing that appeals to me about Kawagoe is the accessibility by railway from Tokyo. Situated conveniently in the heart of Saitama, the city can be accessed by taking the Saikyō Line (埼京線 Saikyō-sen), which passes through major stations such as Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ikebukuro. For those who are coming via Ōmiya Station (大宮駅 Ōmiya-eki), they can simply hop on the Kawagoe Line (川越線 Kawagoe-sen) and make their way there.
② Getting to the Warehouse District on foot
Navigating my way on foot to the Warehouse District. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Visitors who would like to explore Kawagoe’s Little Edo can take a 25-minute walk from Kawagoe Station. Alternatively, they can take the Koedo Kawagoe Loop Bus from the station that travels to the district as well as other attractions in the city, and get off at Ichibangai (一番街) bus stop.
Passing through Crea Mall. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
After leaving Kawagoe Station, I began to make way to the historical district, and I stumbled upon Crea Mall, a surprisingly charming shopping street featuring different kinds of shops that pedestrians see and browse through. It was yet one of those unexpected discoveries that I made while exploring a new place on foot (yet again), and I found it pleasant to simply check out the different shops along the way.
Taisho Roman Yume-dori. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
After passing through Crea Mall, I stumbled upon another discovery en route to Little Edo: Taisho Roman Yume-dori (大正浪漫夢通り Taishō Roman Yume-dōri). Translated as “Taisho Romance Dream Street”, the street invokes an atmosphere that hearkens back to the Taisho Period (1912–1926), and features a range of shops selling Japanese sweets and souvenirs, some of which have been in business ever since the Edo Period.
The street is lined with retro shophouses. (Image credit: 小江戸川越観光協会)
When I entered the street, I simply had to slow down and take in the view around me, as it was a truly novel experience. The street is lined with historical shophouses that date back many years ago, and it was tempting to stop at the shops one by one just to see what they have in store, be it nostalgic sweets and candies, or unique Japanese souvenirs that are always worth getting as mementoes.
I felt like I was transported to a distant past, and the quaint architecture around me offered a glimpse of Tokyo during the Edo and Taisho Eras, a stark contrast from its current sleek and modern self.
Taisho Roman Yume-dori
Address: Renjaku-cho, Kawagoe, Saitama 350-0066
Access: 20-minute walk from Kawagoe Station (川越駅)
③ Kawagoe’s own little Edo
Kawagoe’s Warehouse District. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
After exploring Taisho Roman Yume-dori, and another 5-minute walk, I finally reached my first intended destination: the Warehouse District (蔵造りの町並み Kurazukuri no Machinami). It is the iconic sight of Kawagoe’s Little Edo that is often featured in travel sites and magazines, and is one of the must-visits when in Kawagoe.
One of the historical warehouses along the street. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Kawagoe used to thrive as a merchant town in the past, and was a vital commercial hub for Edo. As such, many merchants then built warehouses called “kura” (蔵) which were made out of clay and featured an architectural style that was distinctive to the Edo Period. Many of the shops that occupy the warehouses today still use signboards that are stylised according to the Taisho and Showa Periods, invoking a strong sense of nostalgia among visitors.
One of the preserved historical buildings along the street. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
There is also something remarkable about the warehouses along the street. On 17 March 1893, the Great Kawagoe Fire destroyed much of Kawagoe, but incredibly the warehouses built during that time survived, and since then, several buildings adopted the warehouse construction style.
As I leisurely strolled along Warehouse Street, I felt like I was walking through a different era altogether, in a time when Kawagoe was a thriving commercial hub and the street was filled with lively merchants making business with the locals. Today, with some structures from that era still standing, I could vividly imagine a bygone era that I found fascinating.
The Bell of Time. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
When visiting the Warehouse District, there is one prominent landmark visitors should not miss: the Bell of Time (時の鐘 Toki no Kane). Said to be first built sometime in the early 17th century, the tower is often regarded as the symbol of Kawagoe and has been used to tell the time since the early Edo Period. The bell will automatically strike four times a day: 6am, 12pm, 3pm, and 6pm.
The Bell of Time in the evening. (Image credit: 小江戸川越観光協会)
The tower has endured many fires over centuries since it was first built, and the current tower was constructed after the Great Kawagoe Fire in 1893. I found it amazing to see a historical structure withstanding the test of time and still telling the time for the locals even to this day. To me, it felt like the tower was a symbol of resilience and identity for the locals, and I hope it continues to ring for more generations.
Warehouse District (蔵造りの町並み)
Address: Saiwai-cho, Kawagoe, Saitama 350-0063
Access: 25-minute walk from Kawagoe Station (川越駅)
④ Kawagoe’s sweets alley
Kashiya Yokocho. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Do you have a sweet tooth? Then you don’t want to miss Kashiya Yokocho (菓子屋横丁 Kashiya Yokochō)! Located just along Warehouse District, it is an area that is historically known for selling sweets and candies since the early Meiji Period, such as ice cream, rice crackers, karintō (かりん糖 sugar-coated cookies made from fried dough), and more.
It was a thriving place for people looking for sweets and candies in the past, and at its height, up to 70 shops lined the alleys selling candies during the early Showa Period. The number of shops has dwindled since then, with an estimate of just over 20 today.
I also learned an interesting fact about Kashiya Yokocho: when Tokyo was hit by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the city’s supply of sweets and candies was severely affected, and the alley in turn experienced a windfall in sales as a result.
Visitors at Kashiya Yokocho. (Image credit: 小江戸川越観光協会)
When I visited the alley, the rain was pouring and there weren’t many visitors yet because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. However, most of the candy shops were still open and I could see all the sweets and candies of different shapes and sizes on display. They brought out the inner child in me, making me feel excited at how tasty they must be, and I hoped that visitors would return to the alley and enjoy the wonderful treats that would bring a smile to their faces once again.
Kashiya Yokocho (菓子屋横丁)
Address: 2 moto-machi, Kawagoe, Saitama 350-0062
Access: 25-minute walk from Kawagoe Station (川越駅)
⑤ Kawagoe’s feudal history
Kawagoe Castle Honmaru Palace. (Image credit: photoAC)
Do you know that Kawagoe used to be a castle town? The city was home to Kawagoe Castle (川越城 Kawagoe-jō), which was originally built in the 15th century. The city was an important trading hub as well as a strategic defence point north of Edo, and one of the most prominent structures of the castle was Honmaru Palace (本丸御殿 Honmaru-goten).
Translated as the “palace of the innermost circle of defence”, the palace served as the residence and office of Kawagoe’s feudal lord. The palace has been carefully preserved to this day, and visitors can check out the inside, which includes several tatami rooms, a Japanese garden, and images of Japanese cultural heritage.
Entrance to the Honmaru Palace. (Image credit: photoAC)
The palace was partly undergoing renovations when I visited it, but I still got to see and admire the palace’s exteriors. It was built in the mid-19th century, and it amazed me to see how the structure was carefully preserved to this day. It serves as an important reminder of what Kawagoe used to be historically, and how the city has transformed so much over generations.
Kawagoe Castle Honmaru Palace (川越城本丸御殿)
Address: 2-13-1 Kuruwa-machi, Kawagoe, Saitama 350-0053
Access: 35-minute walk from Kawagoe Station (川越駅), or 10-minute walk from Warehouse Street
Operating hours: 9am–5pm (last entry at 4:30pm, closed every Monday, the fourth Friday of every month, and the New Year’s holidays)
Entrance fee: ¥100 per adult
One last walk through Warehouse District. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Kawagoe slipped under my radar when it comes to exploring new places near Tokyo, and after my brief visit to “Little Edo”, I was quite surprised at how I missed this place. Exuding old-world charms and ambience that is vastly different from its more modern counterpart in Tokyo, the city is a great choice for anyone who would like to experience what the capital city used to look like in an era long ago.
Would I come to Kawagoe for another short trip from Tokyo? My answer is a resounding yes. There were still so many spots that I didn’t get to visit, and if I get to be there again, I will definitely want to catch the famous Kawagoe Festival, an autumn festival where visitors would get to see stunning two-storey floats parading the streets in October.
That chance will have to wait for now, but if you want to visiting a charming historical place that is only a short train ride away from Tokyo, then Kawagoe is the place for you!
JR TOKYO Wide Pass
The JR TOKYO Wide Pass and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
If you like to visit Kawagoe and other destinations around the Tokyo region, then consider getting the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, an affordable pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains, and some Joyful Trains) in the valid area for 3 consecutive days.
At ¥10,180, the pass enables you to travel on the Saikyō Line from Tokyo to Kawagoe, and to other popular day-trip destinations from Tokyo such as Karuizawa, Nikko, Izu Peninsula, and more. The pass can be used at the automatic ticket gates, and you can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains, and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
Header image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang, illustAC