Tourists Love Koedo Kawagoe – and The City Doesn’t Know Why

Tourists Love Koedo Kawagoe – and The City Doesn’t Know Why

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Koedo Kawagoe
Picture: 二匹の魚 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Koedo Kawagoe's Edo-era charm is attracting more tourists than ever better - but the city is at a loss to explain its sudden popularity. Learn why the influx of visitors has officials stumped.

A location outside of Tokyo that lets tourists soak up a piece of Edo-era Japan is even more popular than ever. That’s a surprise to the city, which can’t tell you why it’s become such a hotspot.

A piece of Edo Japan?

Koedo Kawagoe
Picture: denkei / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

If you’re an Unseen Japan regular reader, it’s no surprise to you that tourism to Japan is booming. Tourists are spending more here than ever – and more are visiting than since even the pre-health crisis heyday of 2019. Sadly, that also means many popular tourist spots are dealing with congestion and bad manners.

As tourists flock in, many are looking for “authentic” Japan experiences that give them a taste of the country’s history and culture. So it’s little surprise that many find their way to one of Japan’s Old Edo, or “Little Edo” (小江戸; koedo) towns. These towns usually are one or more streets within a city that retain an Edo Era (1603-1868) feel in their architecture and shop facades.

The Edo Era was Japan’s longest period of peace after shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu united its warring fiefdoms into something resembling a country. Tokugawa’s carrot/stick approach to keeping his daimyo, or feudal rulers, close at hand prevented outright rebellion for over 250 years. During this time, the country saw an explosion of creativity that included the birth of art forms such as ukiyo-e woodblock printing and kabuki. Sushi in its (more or less) modern form also dates back to Edo.

In other words, a lot of what people imagine when they think of “Japan” dates back to this prosperous and productive area. Koedo towns are ideally situated to cater to that perception.

How Koedo became a tourist hotspot without even trying

Koedo Kawagoe
Picture: Jake Images / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

The most famous of the Koedo is in Saitama Prefecture, Tokyo’s next-door neighbor. At around 1 hour and 45 minutes from midtown Tokyo by train, a visit to Kawagoe is a great day trip for those looking to get out of the big city for an afternoon. The town is host to many shops offering traditional crafts, as well as some amazing places to eat.

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The town’s picturesque-ness is due mainly to its kurazukuri, warehouses with their building walls covered in black plaster – a fire-proofing measure that gained popularity during this era. Many tourists also come to snap a picture of the Bell of Time (時の鐘), the town’s most famous landmark. The Bell actually dates back to Japan’s Edo Era, though it was rebuilt in 1894 (Japan’s Meiji Era).

A mystery boom

It seems a lot of people are opting to make the trip these days. Sankei Shimbun reports finding the town chock full of foreigners in late January. One Indonesian tourist said the town is very popular among Indonesians who come to visit Japan.

The numbers back that up – in a big way. The most visitors the town had ever seen previously was back in the first year of the Reiwa era (2019) at 313,000 people. But in 2023, it shot past that with a record 615,000 visitors.

Yes, tourism is up everywhere in Japan – but tourist hot spots aren’t doubling their numbers like Kawagoe is. So Saknei asked a city representative: why is Kawagoe so popular all of a sudden?

The city responded: “We don’t really know.”

According to the city, it hasn’t done any PR this year to promote tourism, such as reaching out to influencers to help tout Kawagoe as a must-see destination. It also hasn’t done anything to improve accommodations for or reception of tourists.

The growth in tourism, in other words, feels fully organic. Of course, it could also be driven by external travel agencies promoting Kawagoe as a getaway from Tokyo. With the popular tourist spots in the city becoming more and more crowded, it’s natural that people might want something a little more subdued.

Going to Koedo Kawagoe

Mrs. Hamburger - hamburgers in Koedo Kawagoe
Okay, it’s not traditional Japanese cuisine, but there’s a certain kawaii charm to Mrs. Hamburger’s food.

Despite saying they’re not actively promoting Kawagoe, the town has a very complete site for tourists. It even includes a detailed English version detailing the area’s rich history.

While day trips are common, Kawagoe also has plenty of local accommodations. While there, be sure to taste some of the local delicacies, such as a traditional kaiseki (multi-course) meal at Torokko. Or eat on the go with some insanely good-looking hamburger and fries at Mrs. Hamburger. (Yes, I’m recommending you eat hamburgers in Japan. Consider it a cross-cultural experience.) You can also get unagi (eel) at Uchinoya’s flagship store, which has been in business for 180 years.

Also, remember – there are many other Koedos around Japan! You can head to Sawara in Chiba Prefecture, Narai-juku in Nagano, or Mamedamachi in Oita Prefecture, among others.

Sources

小江戸「川越」の外国人観光客爆増のナゾ 過去最高記録「理由よく分からない」. Sankei Shimbun

時の鐘. Kawagoe City

Kawagoe, Feel EDO Culture. Koedo Kawagoe Web site

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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