A Walk Through Feudal Japan

Tokyo has rebuilt itself so often that few visible traces remain of old Edo, as the feudal city was known until this century. Thanks to seemingly constant construction after earthquakes, fires, and war, Tokyo has emerged as a city that is at times antiseptically modern--in stark contrast with most Westerners' romanticized fantasy of ancient Japan. But Kawagoe, the prosperous castle town just an hour away that is nicknamed "Little Edo," preserves a taste of merchant Japan in the days of the shoguns--and not just in temples and shrines.

Kawagoe's main shopping street houses several century-old buildings called kura, combination shop/homes with blackened clay-and-plaster walls two feet thick, most still in use.

The shopping street runs north from Hon-Kawagoe station (the preferred of the town's two rail stations, since it is within easy walking distance of the historic area). Although narrow by today's standards, this street was once considered a broad thoroughfare and was a well-used commercial route where much of the traffic was man-powered.

The first kura you come to, after the third traffic light, is the Yamazaki Museum (admission: Y500, including tea). The small museum displays a mishmash of screen paintings, Noritake china, candy-making molds, coins, and elaborate candy sculpture made at Kameya, a 200-year-old sweet shop next door. Giant stone blocks pave the inner courtyard. The beams are thick and dark, the ceilings low, and the windows heavy to lock out fire. (Labeled by Japanese proverb as one of the four greatest fears in this land of traditional wood and paper houses, fire destroyed most of central Kawagoe in 1893. The kura, however, survived.)

TREASURE. Kura have other special connotations for the Japanese. Most were used for storage, especially of valuables, and even today, treasures occasionally are discovered in the dark corners of such storehouses near much-older Kyoto. But kura also were places to shut up a mentally ill relative or a young mistress--a place of dark and narrow staircases, small windows, shadows, and ghosts.

Continue walking up the street and you will see several other kura, mostly on the left-hand side. At one corner is pottery shop Yamawa, with an old man-powered jinrikisha displayed by the side entrance and a wide selection of intriguing ceramic designs. Two doors down is silk-scroll maker and art dealer Ichiro Fukazen, the fifth generation of his family to ply the trade. If you've a mind to shop, prices are moderately better here than they are in Tokyo. At the end ef the row, the Kurazukuri Museum, formerly a tobacco merchant's shop, gives the best look inside a kura, with what seemed to me to be the narrowest twisting staircase on earth. The Y100 admission includes an English brochure and a good map of other nearby sights.

FIRST SHOGUN. One of the largest is the Kita-in temple complex, with entire buildings transported from Edo Castle in Tokyo, a sculpture garden of 500 Buddhas, and quiet, pleasant grounds. There is some interesting history, too. Kita-in was the head temple of the Buddhist Tendai sect in eastern Japan, and the first shogun, Tokugawa leyasu, was a close friend of the head priest. As a result, the land at Kita-in was owned and run by the bakufu, the Shogunate, so Kawagoe police had no jurisdiction there. Rear access to the grounds is through what is known as the Thief's Bridge, once a simple log across the river over which a robber escaped. He was later forgiven for his crime after being converted to the path of virtue by the head priest.

For travelers with more time--and money--a trip to ancient Kyoto via Japan's bullet trains would provide much deeper insights into Japan's rich history and culture. But if work or other pressures tether you to Tokyo, Kawagoe can be surveyed in an afternoon, and you'll come away with an experience missed by most visitors to the ancient capital.

Be forewarned: You'll have difficulty finding English spoken in Kawagoe, even at the town's visitor center. But anyone can point you toward the kura. Besides, an up-close look at the real Japan is what this day trip is all about.

Getting There

BY TRAIN Take the Seibu Shinjuku line from beneath the Seibu Prince Hotel or Takadanobaba Station. It's a 45-minute ride to Hon-Kawagoe station, and tickets cost Y550. Explore on foot from there.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.