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Cowabunga! Kawagoe!

It surprises me sometimes how we miss the things closest to us. 

When I was here for six months in high school I lived in Sayama-shi, in Saitama Prefecture. Every day I rode the Seibu-Shinjuku Line to and from school, and I became fairly familiar with the various stops, even the ones I never had occasion to go to, such as Hon-Kawagoe. So I was pleasantly surprised (although perhaps I shouldn't have been) that when heading to Kawagoe I would, in fact, be heading to the Hon-Kawagoe area. Go figure, but, it was slightly nostalgic for me--I don't exactly have much reason to head to Saitama on a day to day basis anymore. 

Kawagoe is also known as "Little Edo" for the number of Edo Period (1603-1868) buildings that have been preserved, lining several of the main streets. Troy and I arrived during their Spring Festival, so there were plenty of koinobori, or carp streamers, hung in honor of Children's Day, which falls on May 5th. The koi are supposed to represent vitality and a parent's hope that their child will grow up vivacious, healthy, and strong. 

The main boulevard in Kawagoe is called Kurazukuri Street, named after the many well-preserved buildings built in the kurazukuri style--characterized by thick, clay-walled buildings that were often used as warehouses-- that still line either side. Kawagoe was home to many wealthy merchants who could afford to build in this style as opposed to the more generic, cookie-cutter-style wooden houses that were the norm in Edo/Tokyo.

By 1750, Edo had a population of approximately 1.2 million people, all living in close, wooden quarters. It was also known (perhaps retroactively) as an "antlion city" because like the pits antlions dig to trap prey Edo was a bit voracious in its "consumption" of people from the surrounding countryside and once you came to Edo you rarely left (a problem that still exists to large degree today--so many people move to Japan's urban centers, particularly Tokyo, leaving the countryside literally vacant).

Edo's huge population and cramped living quarters meant, as you might have guessed, frequent and deadly fires. During the Edo Period there were 1800 recorded fires alone--an average of 7 per year! One of the largest/ most famous, the Meireki Fire of 1657, even burnt down the castle's main keep (which was not rebuilt due to the exorbitant cost).

So these fire-protective buildings were hugely important to merchants, as one might expect. The windows created an oxygen-free vacuum seal that protect the building's contents (though an overeager merchant, if he opened the doors/windows to check on his goods before the fires of the city were fully extinguished, risked allowing oxygen to WHOOSH inside and, ironically, burn down everything anyways).

Another one of Kawagoe's main icons is the Toki no Kane,  the "Bell of Time" tower. Currently it rings four times a day.

We also stopped by several of Kawagoe's other offerings.

First we went to Hikawa Shrine, which is known as the "matchmaking" shrine. It was quite, quite crowded:

Rather than lining up to pray at the main shrine, we spent a lot of time looking at the float disintegrating human-shaped pieces of paper, called hitogata nagashi, down a small stream in order to cleanse their sins.

We also walked in a figure-eight around two massive zelkova trees, so we should have gained some spiritual powers.

And finally we spent an inordinate amount of time in the tunnel of ema (votive tablets) looking at everyone's various wishes and generally taking too many photos.

Our final stop for the day was Kita-in Temple which is famous for these 538 stone arhat statues, each one unique. We actually arrived too late to go in (because it closed at 4?!) so we could only peer in through the gate. But according to the plaque, if you went into the room at night and felt around all the statues, one of them would feel warm. Then, if you marked the statue so you could find it again in the morning, the statue that felt warm would be the one that most "resembled you."

The rest of the temple complex was also pretty spacious, and since we were there past the closing period of the main attraction we functionally had the courtyard to ourselves:


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