Saitama-ken is home to the interesting old castle town of KAWAGOE (川越), just 40km north of Tokyo. Although it doesn’t look promising on arrival, Kawagoe’s compact area of sights, around 1km north of the main station, is aptly described as a “Little Edo”, and once you’ve browsed the many traditional craft shops and paused to sample the town’s culinary delights, you’ll probably find the day has flown by. This would certainly be the case on the third Saturday and Sunday of October, when Kawagoe’s grand matsuri is held, one of the most lively festivals in the Tokyo area, involving some 25 ornate floats (called dashi) and hundreds of costumed celebrants.
Kawagoe’s fortunes owe everything to its strategic position on the Shingashi River and Kawagoe-kaidō, the ancient highway to the capital. If you wanted to get goods to Tokyo – then called Edo – they more than likely had to go via Kawagoe, and the town’s merchants prospered as a result, accumulating the cash to build fireproof kurazukuri, the black, two-storey shophouses for which the town is now famous. At one time there were over two hundred of these houses, but their earthen walls didn’t prove quite so effective against fire as hoped (nor were they much use in the face of Japan’s headlong rush to modernization). Even so, some thirty remain, with sixteen prime examples clustered together along Chūō-dōri, around 1km north of the JR and Tōbu stations.