By Aileen Kawagoe

Kawagoe City (Saitama Prefecture) has a population of about 33,000 and attracts about 4 million tourists annually, many of whom come to see the historical sights of the traditional warehouse buildings, the palace remains of the Kawagoe Castle and the Kita-In Temple … all legacies of the ancient Castle Town that served the Edo Capital during the Edo Period.

Most of Japan’s modern cities had its beginnings as towns built around a daimyo’s (feudal lord) castle and the majority had their origins during the Age of the Country at War. This was when in an age lacking real central government, the local daimyo established themselves as independent rulers of as much territory as they could grab and defend. These daimyo were often absolute masters of their domains (until the Edo period changed that) and established their own laws, taxation rates and even systems of weights and measures. Each domain developed its trade and commerce which resulted in the economic expansion of areas that normally were provincial backwaters.   Each domain was defended and governed by the castle, and the castle was the heart  that drove the towns that thrived on the commerce and grew up around it. The towns expanded culturally as well and impoverished nobles poured into the towns to tutor provincial spawn in poetry, the classics and other courtly traditions.

The daimyo who survived the century of feudalistic battles and the campaigns of Nobuga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu were allowed by the Tokugawa Shogunate to continue as rulers of their domains and this federal system survived until the end of the Edo period in 1868. At the end of the 18th century, there were about 250 daimyo and more than half of them owned castles of considerable size. The daimyos were forced to maintain second residences in the city of Edo (with their families in permanent residence there) and spend alternate or half-years in the Edo city – this discouraged rebellion, strapped the daimyo financially leading to the huge growth of Edo and post-towns but to the decline of feudalism.

This story of the growth and decline of castle towns is also the story of Kawagoe City. Below we aim to study the significance of Kawagoe City as an ancient Castle Town, and navigate the history and the heritage sights of Kawagoe City.

Kawagoe City: A strategic castle town in ancient times

Built in 1457, the Kawagoe Castle’s strategic importance grew as a defense point in the north of the Edo capital at the time when Tokugawa Ieyasu set up his new government in Edo. Kawagoe town commanded the road to Echigo province to the west, and its location on the Sumida River and near the Edo River were important elements of its tactical significance in defending the Kantō from attacks from the north.

A flatland type of Japanese castle, the Kawagoe Castle is located in today’s Saitama Prefecture (only 30 minutes away from Tokyo’s Ikebukuro station), it is the closest castle to Tokyo that provides open access to visitors (the Edo castle being the current Imperial palace is largely inaccessible).

The Kawagoe Castle is said to have been established in 1457 by Ota Doshin and his son, Dokan, father Dohshin, loyal retainers of Uesugi Mochitomo who ordered the building of the castle. As the chief retainers of the Edo regime, they were appointed as Lords of Kawagoe Castle from generation to generation with the important tasks as the northern guardians of the Edo capital.

Kawagoe Castle saw much action during the 15th-16th centuries, especially as the strategic location for the15451546 night battle of Kawagoe (河越城の戦い Kawagoe-jyō no tatakai) during the Sengoku period or Warring States period of Japan where the Hōjō clan and two branches of the Uesugi clan battled for control of the Kanto region.

In the 1450s, Kawagoe was initially a stronghold of the Uesugi Clan. But things came to a head and Kawagoe featured an important logistical base of operations when the Hōjō clan fought to wrest control of the of the castle from their enemies.

The Battle of Kawagoe is particularly famous for the ninja stealth and other risky battle tactics used and for the amazing victory of the Hojo Clan despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered by the force of 85,000 men led by Uesugi Norimasa and Ashikaga Haruuji, in the attack upon the Kawagoe Castle, that was defended by Hojo Tsunanari and 3,000 men.

Despite an overwhelming numbers of soldiers besieging the castle led by Uesugi Tomomasa of the Uesugi clan, joined by his more powerful relative Uesugi Norimasa, by Ashikaga Haruuji, the Kantō Kubō inKoga, and by a host of anti-Hōjō daimyō from the Kantō regionHōjō Tsunanari and his 3,000 men managed to hold off the siege until their relief force arrived. With a outnumbered relief force of only 8,000 men led by Tsunanari’s brother, Hōjō Ujiyasu, Ujiyasu directed just one lone man to sneak past the Uesugi siege lines to inform Tsunanari at the castle garrison of the relief’s arrival. Ninja spies were also sent out, from whom Ujiyasu learnt that bolstered by their superior numbers, the attackers, with reference to Ashikaga Haruuji in particular, had let down their guard.

The Hojo then tried a number of risky battle tactics. Launching a night attack on their enemy, and bucking battlefield custom, the Hojo leaders ordered their samurai to not don the usual heavy armor, and to not bother taking the heads of their defeated enemies (presumably favoring speed and agility). Although this move would deprive the samurai warriors of triumph or honor, the Hojo warriors followed their orders out of loyalty. In any event, the risky tactics paid off, and the Hōjō foiled the siege. This defeat led to the massacre of the Uesugi Clan and to near annihilation of the family.

After the 1545 battle of Kawagoe,  Hōjō Ujitsuna seized control of the Kawagoe Castle in 1537, taking the Edo castle as well in 1524 and so ultimately established supremacy when the Hōjō garrison of Kawagoe defeated an attempted siege of Edo castle which essentially finished the Uesugi clan.

Now a secure Hojo stronghold, the Kawagoe town then served for another forty-five years as a satellite fortress defending Edo and the Hojo clan’s central castle at Odawara. From the fall of the Hōjō until the end of the Edo period, it was the headquarters of the Kawagoe Domain.

Throughout the Edo Period, would reside twenty-one lords at the Kawagoe Castle from various clans, all allies and strong supporters of the Tokugawa Shogun.

Kura-style warehouses, Kawagoe City

The Growth and Expansion of a flourishing Merchant Town

Kawagoe city was called as the “mother of Edo”, since the Ota Clan which had built Kawagoe Castle in 1457, had also the built Edo Castle, and transplanted Kawagoe’s culture. Moreover before the end of the Muromachi Era (1457~1524), Kawagoe had already become a developed province while Edo was still considered a remote backwaters land. Kawagoe fief produced an annual yield of 170,000 koku of rice, demonstrating the region’s relative wealth and power.

When the Tokugawa shogunate established their base of power at Edo (Tokyo), the city of Kawagoe likewise flourished as an important logistical hub for the transportation of food and other goods to and from Tokyo. The trade and commercial activities carried out by the Castle Town are still evident from the abundance of storehouse style buildings that are the modern Kawagoe City’s heritage today.

The old castle town of Kawagoe covered an area of 109.16 square kilometres. The main street of the former castle town, lined by massive kurazukuri (warehouse style) merchant buildings, has survived till today. The Kawagoe City has been designated an important preservation district for groups of historic buildings including the traditional merchants’ houses. Kawagoe City is consequently called “Ko-edo,” or “Little Edo,” because of its city architecture.

During the Edo Era (1603~1867), Kawagoe supplied Edo, then one of the world largest city in the modern ages, with agricultural products and textiles. Materials and supplies were transported through the newly developed canal called “Shingashi-Gawa River” by Edo Shogunate, which conveyed much of the culture of Edo City directly flowing into Kawagoe City.

The ancient Kawagoe Town had thus been been the center of culture and commerce since ancient times. In 1703, it had more than 300 tradesman’s houses.

According to an ancient antique map created in 1778, the castle town was roughly divided into blocks of tradesman’s residences, samurai residences, temple and shrines. [To see what the old Castle Town looked like in its heyday, see the reconstructed scenes of the Castle Town at this page.]

Kawagoe remained the most flourishing of towns in Saitama Prefecture after Meiji Era. It became the premier city in the prefecture in 1972 (Taisho 11).

The Bell Tower of Time is an iconic symbol of Kawagoe City

Landmarks of Kawagoe City include the Kawagoe Castle’ s Honmaru Goten, the bell-tower of time, the “kura-style” merchant warehouses, the Kita-in Temple, and the Confectioner’s Lane which are described below.

Honmaru Goten

At the heart of the ancient Kawagoe Castle Town lay the Kawagoe Castle, its Honmaru Goten.

Honmaru Goten, the feudal lord's palatial residence

The only surviving castle building today is the Honmaru Goten, the castle’s innermost palace building and the lord’s residence. Honmaru Goten means “Palace in the center area of the castle”. Originally comprising 16 buildings standing on the site of 3388 square meters, the Honmaru-Goten was the main castle in 1848 by Matsudaira Naritsune, the domain lord at the time whose goal was to suppress the movement of Koga Kubo (the governor general of the Kanto region), Ashikaga Nariuji. Matsudaira Naritsune’s status as a Kawagoe feudal lord is seen in the luxury of the Honmaru Goten’s architecture and in his having been awarded with the production capacity of 1.7 million koku (unit used to express the rank of a feudal master) of rice.

Honmaru Goten room for chief retainers

The extant palace building was the former residence of the court lady Kasuga-no-Tsubone and the infant Third Shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa whom she had nursed. The palace was actually disassembled, and transported to Kawagoe from the premises of Edo Castle — a donation by Iemitsu to the Kita-in Temple about 240 years ago.

The buildings that exist today and that are open to public viewing – the entrance, main hall and the chief retainer’s residence that make up the former Honmaru-Goten – are significant historical architecture because there remain very few authentic palaces from ancient Japan today. See views of  Kawagoe-Castle here

The castle was built only 20 years before the end of Japan’s feudal age. Along with a number of other castles in the region, Kawagoe Castle and its environs flourished since as a castle town in the 17th century.

The Bell of Time 

The Bell of Time (時の鐘 Toki no kane) is perhaps the most prominent tourist symbol of Kawagoe City – seen on every tourist brochure. The daimyo or feudal lord of Kawagoe Castle, Sakai Tadakatsu(酒井 忠勝) ordered a bell that would toll the time to be built in the mid-17th century. Sakai Tadakatsu was one of the two highest ranking bakufu officials and amongst the first to be appointed to great office of Tairo — the highest ranking of advisor to the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Three-storied tower measuring 16 meters in height, it is still a commanding sight and lending to the historical atmosphere of the warehouse lined streets. Still used by the local residents for referencing time, the tolling sound of the tower bell can be heard four times a day (6 a.m., 12 p.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m.), which in 1996, was recognized as one of the “100 Sound Sceneries of Japan” that should be preserved by the Ministry of the Environment. As time passed, the method of ringing the bell has changed from manual to mechanical.

The present bell tower structure goes back to 1894, a year after the Great Fire of Kawagoe. Reconstruction was carried out by local merchants who put aside rebuilding their own stores for the effort.

Kura-style Merchant Warehouses

The area around Saiwai-cho, Moto-machi, and Naka-machi with the Ichibangai or the first street at the center, is one of the oldest towns in the Kanto region, where houses, including a draper’s mansion, the Osawa family, and other heritage remains. The Kurazukuri Street (蔵造りの町並み Kurazukuri no machinami) is a segment of the Old Castle Town with a street lined with traditional warehouses constructed in a style called kurazukuri (蔵造り) which is totally evocative of the atmosphere of the mercantile Edo era.

These historic kurazukuri-style warehouses started disappearing in the aftermath of a great fire that gutted one-third of the old Kawagoe in 1893 (Meiji 26). One building that survived the Great Fire in the midst of the fiery inferno is historially important today – the Osawa Family Residence. At that time, an old house in which Osawa Family had lived and used as a shop selling ‘miso’ (bean paste) and soysauce since Edo Era (the Osawa Family had pasted ‘miso’ on the surfaces of backside of its thick windows).

After the fire, the other merchants whose warehouses had burned down later rebuilt their warehouses adopting the 1792 dignified warehouse-design of the Osawa family. The Kurazukuri Street  – where now cluster more than 30 dignified warehouse-design houses of the 18th and 19th centuries that had survived and that were reconstructed with multi-layered fire-proof clay-walls. The street now represents one of the largest historical places of this kind in Japan and the relic warehouse buildings (called kura) have been designated as national treasures. A popular stop for visitors is the Kawagoe Kurazukuri Museum, the site of a traditional 1893 warehouse, that invites visitors to walk around inside and experience the life of Edo merchants.

Candy and confectionary treats aplenty in Kawagoe City

Also popular with tourists looking to go down nostalgia lane of the early Showa period, is the “Kashiya Yokocho” — the famous Penny Candy Alley, which is a stone-paved alley embedded with colorful glass and lined with 22 traditional style Japanese candy shops. Kawagoe is famous for producing various kinds but especially quality confectionary treats using sweet potato (including sweet potato flavored ice cream, coffee and beer). The history of Kashi Ya Yokocho began in the early Meiji Period with the town becoming the main producer and supplier of candy after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. There were more than 70 shops in the early Showa Period alone. In 2001, the simple and nostalgic scent of Kashi Ya Yokocho was chosen as one of the “100 Scent Sceneries” by the Ministry of the Environment.

The city has a total population of 332,918 (2006 figures). For two days each October the Kawagoe Festival takes place here.

Kawagoe Festival

As tourist events go, the Kawagoe-matsuri Festival celebrated in autumn is ranked as one of three best festivals in the Kanto region. The festival known for the parade of exquisitely decorated seven-meter tall floats through the city originates from the donation of a ‘mikoshi‘ (portable shrine) in 1648 by Lord Matsudaira Nobutsuna and floats created by participating neighbouring towns.

The festival’s biggest highlight is called ‘Hikkawase‘ where several festival floats face each other and compete with each other in ahayashi performance (a traditional Japanese orchestra comprised of flutes, drums, handbells and dancing), cheered on by an excited crowd of festival-onlookers bearing paper lanterns.

The Kawagoe Festival had its beginnings in the “Jinkosai” festival in 1648, when the reigning Kawagoe clan lord Nobutsuna Matsudaira Izunokami, offered religious artifacts such as a portable shrine, a lion mask and taiko drums to the Hikawa Shrine. In the original “Jinkosai” festival, the portable shrine of Hikawa Shrine was carried through the neighborhoods of shrine parishioners, and was accompanied by adornments of floats including costume parades provided by ten neighborhoods of shrine parishes. From 1651 onward, the extravagant processions passed through the neighborhoods of shrine parishes, and these were soon supported by elite members of the trade and commerce scene. Boat transport on the Shingashigawa River allowed Kawagoe to receive the latest fineries and customs flowing from Edo.  It is in these rituals and festivals that the Kawagoe Festival takes root. , but also gradually developed the festival. All the festival floats of the 10 neighborhoods were eventually unified in in 1844 in a single-column style and dolls were placed on the balustrades as depicted in Hikawa-sairei-egaku votive picture scroll.

From the Kawagoe-hikawa-sairei-emaki (1826) Source

The Kawagoe Festival has been passed down in an unbroken line, and in February 2005, the ‘Kawagoe Hikawa Festival Float Event’ was designated as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property .

Kita-in Temple (a.k.a. Kawagoe Daishi)

Kita-In Temple (which is registered as a national treasure) is said to have been established by Jikaku Daishi Ennin (High Rank Priest) in 830 in compliance with Emperer Junna’s edict.  Its main object of worship is Amida Nyorai. Originally named Muryojuji Temple, the temple was destroyed by a battle fire in 1205 but was reestablished by the priest Sonkai.

Temple buildings including Kita-in (the north temple), Naka-in (the middle temple) and Nan-in (the south temple) were established but the middle and south temples were ruined at the end of the Warring States period (1493-1573).

In 1588, when the priest Tenkai became a resident priest of Kita-in (北院, the north temple), he changed the characters of its name to the present “喜多院.”  While acting as the 27th superior of Kita-In Temple, the influential Buddhist Bishop Tenkai apparently reversed the fortunes of the temple which prospered during his residence.   It is said that Tokugawa Iyeyasu had often sought Bishop Tenkai’s advice in his governance of this country. Bishop Tenkai served Tokugawa’s first three successive Shoguns, Iyeyasu, Hidetada and Iyemitsu and is thus regarded as having had great influence upon the early governance of Edo Shogunate.

Long-lived to a really ripe old age of 108 years old, it is said the bishop’s favorite motto was

” Be patient, work hard, be modest to love, eat lightly, and be generous to every body.”

In 1638, all the temple buildings except the gate were destroyed by fire. In the following year, Tokugawa Ieyasu orderd to move a pert of Edo Castle to this place and reconstruct it as the temple building.
The precinct is especially crowded during the New Year on January 3rd, when Hatsu-Daishi Festival (the first Daishi festival of the year) and Daruma Market are held in memory of Jie Daishi.

Gohyakuraka, Buddha's 500 disciples at Kita-in Temple, Kawagoe City (source)

Visitors who go to Kita-in Temple  to see the Kyakuden, a reception hall, and a study hall Sho-in (both of which are important cultural properties) also go to see the temple garden’s 500 Rakan statues (particularly during the Japanese New Year) — called the Gohyakurakan, the images modeled after 500 Buddha disciples, and carved over a period of 50 years — no single one statue is the same.


Below is an access map of Kawagoe City to help you navigate and around the city:


An afternote on Castle Towns:

The old folk song handed down in Kawagoe City in Saitama Prefecture goes, “There are plenty of Shokyoto in the country, but Koedo is Kawagoe alone.” However, Kawagoe City was actually relatively little known until fairly recent times in 1986 when the cities of Tochigi, Kawagoe and Sawara held “the Koedo Summit” which popularized the attractions of the three “Koedos”.  Along with Kawagoe City, the other two best known “Koedo” cities today are Tochigi City in Tochigi Prefecture, which is famous as a castle town and for the townscape of old-fashioned storehouses and Sawara City in Chiba Prefecture, which is famous for its Sawara Taisai (grand festival) and is selected as a Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings. Others include Otaki Town in Ishumi-gun, Chiba Prefecture, Atsugi City in Kanagawa Prefecture, Iwata City in Shizuoka Prefecture and Hikone City in Shiga Prefecture.

Did you know?  There was such a place as Kawagoe Prefecture? Before Kawagoe City was merged with Saitama Prefecture in 1873, it was the capital of Kawagoe Prefecture (1871), then later of Iruma Prefecture (1871–1873).

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References and further readings:

The Kawagoe City Museum is particularly worth visiting and complementary to a study of ancient castle towns. On display are museum exhibits “Small Edo Kawagoe” in modern ages, “How Kawagoe Had Grown” in modern and present ages, “Acivities of Samurai and Kawagoe” in feudal ages, “The Dawn of Kawagoe” in genesis and ancient times, and “Race, Kawagoe’s Craftsmen and Anniversary”, and other exhibits. The entrance fare is 200 yen for adult, 50 yen for child and 100 yen for pupil or student (primary, junior, or senior high schools). For 300 yen, you can also enter Kawagoe Castle near the museum.

Recreating the Past City Model of Historical Town Kawagoe From Antique Map by SUZUKI Sayaka and CHIKATSU Hirofumi

Life in Kawagoe

Kawagoe Conserves Much of Edo Era’s Culture by Shohei Kurita

What is Koedo? (Seibu Railways website)

Kawagoe Matsuri Festival website | See also video clips of the Kawagoe matsuri (Regional Cultural Asset Portal website)

Kawagoe Castle Profile

What is Japanese architecture? by NISHI Kazuo Nishi and HOZUMI Kazuo

Turnbull, Stephen (2002). ‘War in Japan: 1467-1615’. Oxford: Osprey Publishing (On the Battle of Kawagoe and sengoku period)

There are a fair number of small-sized museums that are worth visiting, see this Welcome to Kawagoe page for access information.

Also worth visiting are several of the other shrines and temples in Kawagoe City, such as the 6th century Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine known for the elaborate Edo carvings of the sacred shrine pavillion and the Semba Toshogu Shrine considered one of the three major Toshogu shrines in Japan, which Honden Main Shrine with its brilliant colored lacquer ornaments, and Karamon Gate, Mizugaki Fence, Haiden Front Shrine, Heiden Side Shrine, Zuishin Front Gate, stone Torii Gate are all recognized as important cultural assets.