A Tale of Two Cities
Many decades ago, when the economy of Japan was exploding faster than anyone could have imagined, two cities of Saitama Prefecture, Tokorozawa and Kawagoe, made two decisions that would be the basis of their futures. Both cities lie a stone’s throw from the border of northwest Tokyo, bedroom communities for Tokyo office workers who long for space to breathe and stretch out their arms once in a while. Tokorozawa imagined a future where tens of thousands of these workers would be happy to live, a single train ride and half an hour from Shinjuku Station. Historic buildings were razed in favor of high density housing for commuters.
Another 15 minutes out of Central Tokyo from Tokorozawa, Kawagoe also made a decision. Rather than tear down their history to build for the masses, Kawagoe chose to preserve the Edo-era heritage and architecture that was a rarity in the Tokyo area after the mass bombings of WW2.
Today, Tokorozawa is known mainly for a dozen or so huge apartment skyscrapers rising up near it’s main train station, perhaps a few remaining farms growing famous Sayama Tea, and a snarl of traffic that has inspired many a driver (author included) to curse it’s name. Kawagoe, on the other hand, has quietly grown into a major tourist destination, a day trip for foreign tourists and locals alike to escape the big city and experience the Edo-era charm Kawagoe made a decision to preserve all those years ago.
One Thing That Makes Kawagoe Special
This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive description of all of the features that make Kawagoe a worthwhile place to visit. There are scores of articles telling you about the Edo period architecture, the restaurants and food stalls selling Saitama delicacies (though nothing beats a steaming hot baked Saitama sweet potato in the Winter), or how to tour the many interesting shrines and temples that are especially gorgeous in Spring and Fall.
This is about the fact that if you have only one day to spend in Kawagoe, it should be the 28th day of the month.
The 28th happens to be the day of the monthly Kawagoe Antique Market, held on the grounds (and spilling into the streets around) Naritasan Kawagoe Betsuin Hongyoin, a Buddhist temple that’s probably easier to refer to as Naritasan. Over 100 vendors gather earlier in the morning to sell mostly reasonably priced treasures of historic Japan, from the traditional like recycled kimono, tea ceremony tools and woodblock prints, to the kitschy like comics, anime figurines, and yes, snowman motif haori (a coat worn over kimono).
Unlike antique markets in central Tokyo, the prices of most items fall squarely within the budget of most tourists and if there is an item priced at 10,000 yen (about $90) or more, it’s probably worth it. In the past, I have bought dinnerware, antique tea boxes, kimono and die-cast metal toy trains, and rarely has anything cost more than a few hundred yen.
However, this is an antique market, not a flea market. There are flea markets in Tokyo where with a little hard work you can sort through piles of what sometimes appears like trash to uncover a few gems. If that’s the kind of adventure you like, this isn’t really the place. The vendors here know their stuff and how much it is worth. There are few surprises here, pleasant or unpleasant.
Best Items From Kawagoe Antique Market
Many people shop for antiques as pieces of decor and not necessarily for the practicality of the item. If that’s you, this is the type of market you will love. Some of the best items at the market are more aesthetic than useful. I found one vendor selling tiny little brands used to burn kanji (Japanese characters) into pieces of wood. Unless you are some kind of pyro, I doubt this has any practical value, but they are cool to look at nonetheless.
Kokeshi, simple wooden figures painted like humans, are also common finds. Originally made as a children’s toy, it is a common souvenir especially for visitors to Tohoku, and presumably, one people get tired of displaying in their homes.
Wooden masks of traditional or religious origins are also interesting souvenirs to bring home. Sometimes scary and sometimes whimsical, there is usually an interesting story behind the various faces that can be learned to impress your second cousin’s husband, the college professor, when they come to visit next Christmas.
But if you really want a conversation starter (or stopper), how about a jar full of preserved giant Asian hornets? I don’t even know what the purpose of these monstrosities are (dead or alive) but I assume there is some health benefit involved.
And The Rest of Kawagoe
It will probably take you an hour or two to see the entire market and after all that work, you might work up an appetite. Again, there are countless ways for you to satisfy said appetite, but let’s chose a more unusual one.
Along the main historic street, there is a little shop that specializes in foods made with sesame. In the summer, it happens to be my favorite stop for soft cream, as there is nothing more delicious than a fresh, cold, nutty black sesame soft cream cone on a humid summer day. In the colder months, however, the soft cream takes a back seat to these exquisite little fried sesame balls. The black sesame is filled with the more traditional bean paste (flavored with black sesame, however), while the golden sesame ball contains a savory surprise: camembert cheese!
If you arrive early for the antique market, as you should, you will have plenty of time to see the rest of Kawagoe’s attractions and shopping the rest of the day. If you’ve purchased too many items to comfortably lug around all day, simply take a taxi back to Hon-Kawagoe station and store everything at the Tourist Center for a reasonable fee.