Field Report: Kawagoe, Japan (01 October 2016)

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With Japan a mere four hours or so from Manila, and with the intense competition amongst airlines plying this lucrative route driving fares down to almost dirt-cheap levels, an overnight weekend trip to Tōkyō no longer sounds as crazy as it probably should. Believe me, I’d know – I did precisely that on the weekend of 01-02 October 2016.

Boring backstory time. Skip to the actual sightseeing bit below if you’d like to spare yourself the torture.

Now here’s the thing: I’m not the sort of chap who goes out of town during the weekends. Worn out from the work week by Friday evening, and ill-prepared to resume the rat race come Monday morning, I for one am inclined to think anyone daft who tries to squeeze a vacation into the two precious days in between (bearing in mind that half that time will probably be consumed by monstrous traffic jams en route).

Ah, but Japan, my beloved Japan … now that’s an entirely different story. I’d jump at almost any chance to go, time and finances permitting. And when a perfectly scheduled Friday midnight departure from Manila via Jetstar – with an early Saturday morning arrival and joined to an evening Sunday return – flickered before my eyes next to a price tag that almost seemed too good to be true, I swiftly (some might say recklessly) pointed, clicked, and typed myself straight into a one-weekend holiday in one of my favourite corners of the world.

After work on Friday 30th Sep, I summoned a ride through Uber and sped off towards the airport, where I was due to catch a 12:35 AM Jetstar flight bound for Tōkyō. (Hoping to save time on my usual ablutions the next day, I popped into an airport lounge for a quick shower before boarding time.) A few hours of shut-eye in the sky, and by 6 AM or thereabouts on Saturday 1st Oct, I was on Japanese soil. Next came a quick breakfast of cold sandwiches and coffee on the train ride to downtown Tōkyō, followed by a brief stop at the hotel to drop off my luggage, and come mid-morning I was all set to begin my weekend holiday.

Easy peasy. (Beats having to endure a hellish, traffic-heavy drive from southern Metro Manila just to get to and around Tagaytay or Quezon City, anyway.) Now the fun part begins.

********************

Day 1, 1st October 2016: a side trip to Kawagoe (川越).

I’ve had this small city in Saitama Prefecture on my to-do list for ages, and I decided that now was as good a time as any to make the attempt. From Tōkyō’s Ikebukuro Station, a half-hour ride on a Tōbu Tōjō Line express train is all that stands between the modern capital and a place that hearkens back to an older time.

From the east side of Kawagoe Station, I hopped onto a local bus and travelled to my first sightseeing stop of the day: Kita-in (喜多院).

It’s not particularly remarkable as temples go, with the usual key elements of the compound – tile-roofed gate, main hall, tahōtō and so forth – not appearing much different from what one might see elsewhere.

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That said, there’s a quite picturesque installation off to one side of the path leading to the main hall. From the second year of the Tenmei Era (1782) to the eighth year of the Bunsei Era (1825), 538 statues – each bearing a unique emotional expression – were carved and arranged in neat rows within a tree-lined enclosure. Local folklore has it that if you run your hand across each of the statues at night and feel one that’s warm, you should note its location and come back to see it during the day. Apparently that particular figure will be the one that most resembles you.

To be honest though, I don’t particularly relish the thought of looking like any of these chaps.

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Interesting, sure, but neither this nor the temple itself were the main reasons for my visit. That honour belongs to a rather nondescript assemblage of wooden structures north of the main hall. It’s unfortunate that photography isn’t allowed indoors, only outside…

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…because that means I can’t show you what might well be some of the last surviving original rooms of the sprawling palace complex at Edo Castle, the monumental headquarters of the Tokugawa shōgunate that once stood at the very heart of modern-day Tōkyō (on what is now the site of the Imperial Palace). After large parts of Kita-in were lost to a major fire in 1638, the shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu ordered parts of his residential compound – supposedly including the very room in which he had been born – to be taken apart, shipped to Kawagoe, and reassembled on the temple grounds as a replacement for the buildings that had been destroyed. As a long-time Japanese castle enthusiast, I’ve always wanted to see the rooms first hand, even though these were hardly Edo Castle’s most lavish chambers: the decorative scheme and architecture are refined and restrained, one might even say plain, as befits the more private inner sections and pavilions of the former shōgunal palace.

Right, that’s Kita-in ticked off the list. I walked to the nearest bus stop and moved on to my next destination, the Kawagoe City Museum (川越市立博物館, Kawagoe Shiritsu Hakubutsukan), where I brushed up on local history in order to put everything I’d seen (and was about to see) in the proper context.

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From here, the following item on my list was just a short walk away. Let’s recount a bit of area history as we make our way there.

Back in the Edo Period, Kawagoe was the capital of a domain with the same name, assigned to the stewardship of hereditary vassals with proven loyalty to the ruling Tokugawa house. And, as one might expect at a typical domain capital, Kawagoe once possessed its own castle, complete with defensive walls and moats and a palace for the local lord. Almost all of that is now gone, mainly the result of a nationwide drive to demolish the now-obsolete fortresses of dispossessed domain leaders around the start of the Meiji Era, save for the main hall of what had once been Kawagoe Castle’s Honmaru Palace.

The building was a fairly late addition to the castle compound, completed just a couple of decades before the fall of the Tokugawa shōgunate, which might explain the relative simplicity of its design and appointments. Unlike the splendidly ornamented palaces at larger castles like Nagoya or Kumamoto, the official residence of Kawagoe’s ruling family is quite spartan in appearance, with very little in the way of sculptural work or wall decorations (except for a few painted door panels).

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It is, however, of sufficient importance – both in historical terms and due to the preservation of its original palace – to be included on the Nihon Hyaku Meijō list. That introduces another reason for a castle lover to make the trek out here: namely, the chance to add one more hyaku meijō stamp to one’s collection. (Which I of course did; I’ll try to add a picture of the stamp here if I can locate the notebook where I’d put it in.)

Now then, back to the nearest bus stop for a ride to my last major stop of the day: Kawagoe’s old commercial district.

This area of the city is rich in old buildings constructed according to the kura-zukuri style; that is, in imitation of warehouses (kura) with thick fire-resistant walls and heavy tiled roofs. Some of the antique structures still house long-established shops and businesses, whilst others have been converted into museums or rented out to serve as cafes and restaurants.

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This is also where one will find the Toki no Kane (時の鐘, literally “Bell of Time”), a soaring wooden bell tower that is probably the single most recognisable landmark in Kawagoe. Last rebuilt in the late 19th century, the tower is old enough to require major restoration work…

…which unfortunately just happened to be in progress at the time of my visit.

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Ah, pity. But no matter – as always, I shall count this as another excuse to return someday. (^_^)

Kawagoe isn’t short on other activities and attractions – the local tourist association’s website is a good place to start one’s pre-trip research – but I decided to call it a day at this point. Back to Tōkyō and my hotel to complete check-in procedures, then some light sightseeing around Ueno Park (with a stop at the Tōkyō National Museum)…

…and of course, a bowl of my favourite ramen at a branch of my favourite ramen joint.

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That night, I returned to my hotel for some much-needed rest. Despite being a regular visitor to Japan (about twice a year on average), I’ve only ever stayed in one of the country’s infamous capsule hotels once – that is, during this trip I’m writing about now.

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Well, I did say it was just an overnighter right? That meant sticking to a tight budget, which required foregoing my preferred business hotel arrangements in favour of far less private – but significantly cheaper – accommodations.

To be clear, I’ve actually used similar capsule-style places a couple of times before, but the level was a notch or two higher with much roomier compartments; there’s a picture in this post if you’re curious. The present trip’s hotel, on the other hand, was fitted with the typical tight coffin-like shelving commonly associated with this class of accommodation.

I might write a separate review documenting that experience in detail, but for the moment let me say that I’d be quite happy to do it again … only on trips of very limited duration, of course. Anything of more than three nights or so would probably benefit from a proper private bedroom with a proper private bath.

And so ended the first half of this 2-day-1-night Tōkyō holiday. We’ll have a lot more to see and do on the next day…

…but let’s save that for another post.

Cheerio.

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4 responses to “Field Report: Kawagoe, Japan (01 October 2016)

  1. Great report. I am local to the area. If you ever come back to the area. I have many recommendations for you with fascinating history. It is a wonderful city.

    • Thanks! I barely scratched the surface whilst I was there – missing out on the Toki-no-Kane was my main regret (though beyond my control of course) – so a return trip at some point in the future is all but guaranteed.

      Great site, by the way. I’d love to dig around a bit more on the weekend and mine it for travel ideas in the Saitama area.

      Cheers and thanks for visiting.

  2. Pingback: Field Report: A Long Walk Across the Low City in Tōkyō, Japan (02 October 2016) – Part 2/2 | Within striking distance·

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