[From May Issue 2013]
Developed as a dormitory suburb for commuters, Saitama Prefecture lies to the north of Tokyo. The western Chichibu district is a mountainous area, rich with nature’s bounty. The Kanto plains take up the rest of the prefecture. Kawagoe, a city in the south-western part of Saitama, is a sightseeing spot where visitors can get a flavor of a historical cityscape. It is popular because it is about one hour away from the metropolitan Tokyo area.
Having prospered during the Edo era (17–19th centuries) as the castle town of the Kawagoe clan, Kawagoe is also known as Koedo, or “little Edo” (Edo being the former name of Tokyo). Visitors should first make their way to Kura-zukuri Street, a shopping street lined with black warehouses. Built to withstand fires, a peculiar feature of these buildings is their thick walls and well-tiled roofs. Telling the time since the Edo era, the eye-catching Toki-no-kane bell tower is Kawagoe’s most famous landmark.
Continuing north-east, on Ichiban-gai Street, the Hikawa shrine sits surrounded by trees. With a history stretching back 1500 years, this Shinto shrine is known for honoring the god of marriage. Held every autumn, the Kawagoe festival is one of the events celebrated at this shrine. Approximately eight meters tall, splendid dashi, or floats, are wheeled around the downtown area and the sight of these floats passing by each other is really impressive. These dashi, along with footage of the festival, can be seen on display and on screen at the Kawagoe Matsuri Kaikan (festival hall).
By providing an important line of defense to the north for the Edo Shogunate, the Kawagoe clan played an important role during the Edo era. Symbolizing this is the Honmaru-goten, (where the lord of the castle carried out his daily life and dealt with affairs of state); part of the entrance and the big hall of this building still remains standing and has a distinct architectural style. A deeper insight into the history of Kawagoe can be attained at the the Honmaru-gotten and Kawagoe City Museum.
Another 15 minutes’ walk away is Kitain. During the Edo era, this temple had ties to the Tokugawa Shogunate. Buildings, such as the reception hall where the third shogun, Iemitsu, was born, were moved from Edo castle and reconstructed in the temple grounds. Also worth seeing are the Gohyaku Rakan: 538 carved stone statues of Buddha’s disciples lined up in rows. The poses and expressions of the stone statues vary, and it is said that among them, it’s possible to find a statue that is your spitting image.
A local specialty of Kawagoe is the satsumaimo sweet potato. In the Edo era, when roast sweet potato become popular, Kawagoe was known for producing good quality sweet potatoes. That is why Kawagoe produces many snacks, including noodles, which contain sweet potatoes. Futomen yakisoba (thick fried noodles) has also become a popular local dish. Those who grew up in Kawagoe during the Showa era (1926–1989) fondly remember this snack.
Chichibu is another tourist spot worth visiting. Once the site of a flourishing silk trade, the town of Chichibu sits in a valley surrounded by mountains, such as Mt. Bukouzan. The buildings of Chichibu, especially Chichibu Furusato-kan, have a charming old-world feel. Those feeling hungry might like to try local koduuhan (small lunches) such as “okkirikomi” or the “miso-potato.” Hitsujiyama Park commands a view of the town below. In spring shiba-zakura blossom covers the park.
Held in Chichibu shrine, Chichibu is particularly well known for its festivals. During the summer, men carry a mikoshi (portable shrine) into the waters of the Arakawa river for the Chichibu Kawase Matsuri (Chichibu rapids festival), and during the winter at the Yomatsuri (Night Festival), flamboyant and striking floats and firework displays impress visitors. In addition, Chichibu is a historically famous site for pilgrimages. At the 34 Kannon reijou (holy Kannon sites), amulets are given out as proof of worship and, as they worship the Kannons (goddesses of Mercy), visitors can also enjoy the various gardens and flora of each temple.
In western Chichibu away from urban areas, a unique tradition has been passed down from generation to generation. Handmade rockets are launched for the Ryuusei Matsuri; a festival that started out in the Edo era and takes place at the Muku shrine in Yoshida. In Ogano-machi, a Ogano kabuki performance is held six times a year, using a mobile festival float and others as a stage.
To enjoy nature go to Nagatoro. Here there is a 500-meter long rocky ravine running along the Arakawa river; a protected habitat, this wild and rocky gorge, is a beautiful sight to behold. Enjoy the exhilarating rush as boatmen daringly guide the boat downstream. The area is crowded with tourists during cherry blossom season in spring and when the leaves change color in autumn.
Deeper into the mountains is the sacred mountain, Oku-Chichibu. It takes approximately one hour by bus to get there from Mitsumineguchi station. Thought to be the birthplace of the legendary prince Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, Mitsumine shrine is located 1,100 meters above sea level. Deep within tall trees, the atmosphere is very mysterious. To the west, beyond Lake Chichibu, lies the 50-meter high Fudoutaki (the motionless waterfall). Another fantastic sight is the Misotsuchi-no Tsurara; icicles that grow along the Arakawa river to a length of approximately eight meters.
With its fertile natural environment, Chichibu is the center of production for Chichibu soba (buckwheat noodles). Other excellent souvenirs from Chichibu are Chichibu wine and Bukou Masamune sake made with Chichibu’s delicious waters. In Oku-Chichibu, you can try wild boar and sushi made with char caught in the mountain streams.
There are also hot-spring ryokan (inn) in Chichibu. Hatago Ichiban, which has been in business since the Edo era, and Araki Kousen Ryokan, with a history stretching back for more than 180 years, are both examples of ryokan with long histories. If you’re just on a day trip, affordable outdoor hot springs with views over the ravine include the excellent Chichibu Onsen Mangan no Yu in Oku-nagatoro and the popular Ootaki Onsen in Oku Chichibu.
To get to Kawagoe station from Ikebukuro station, it takes 30 minutes by express on the Tobu Tojo Line. On the Seibu Shinjuku Line it takes approximately 45 minutes from Seibu Shinjuku station to Hon-Kawagoe station on the Koedo-Express. To get to Seibu Chichibu station, it takes approximately one hour and 20 minutes from Ikebukuro station on the Chichibu Express along the Seibu Ikebukuro Line. In addition, recently the Tokyu-Toyoko line and the Fukutoshin line were connected, and from Yokohama you can go directly to Kawagoe and Chichibu without transferring.
Text: YAMAZAKI Yuriko