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Sunday, Jan. 25, 2004

Where time stands still

Spared by both bombs and bulldozers, Kawagoe's Ichiban-gai is one of Japan's few authentic, living reminders of the way it was

Staff writer

Once upon a time, if you stood in the Saiwai-cho area of Kawagoe in western Saitama Prefecture, you would have seen all around you people in kimono moving between rows of old merchants' houses with upswept, tiled roofs, kura warehouses with double-shuttered windows, and alleys twisting between black-painted mortared walls.

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A man hauling a tw-seat   jinrikisha   pauses in front of the Toki no Kane clock tower that overlooks the center of Kawagoe's Ichiban-gai district.

Then, if you looked up, for centuries you would have seen the Toki no Kane clock tower thrusting skyward, with no ugly lattice-work of wires strung between utility poles to detract from its grandeur.

And now . . .? Well, the amazing thing is that nowadays you can still see much the same scenes, almost unchanged. Certainly the area around Ichiban-gai in Saiwai-cho has retained its traditional aspect -- which is why it is known as Ko-Edo (mini-Edo), and why around 4 million visitors a year visit for a taste of how their ancestors lived.

Unlike many other "old" towns around Japan, though, Kawagoe -- home to 331,000 and located just an hour by train from Tokyo -- is the real thing, not some loving restoration or "theme-park experience." Here, not only did Ichiban-gai escape the attentions of U.S. bombers in World War II, but just as luckily it held out against the tacky modernization that came with rapid postwar growth and then the speculators' nirvana of the 1980s' bubble economy.

Ironically, with much of Japan's remaining history having been razed during the postwar decades when times were good, in this period of economic stagnation, nostalgia for the feudal Edo Period (1603-1867) that Ichiban-gai represents is all the rage.

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A worker at the Matsumoto Shoyu Shoten soy sauce-maker's in Kawagoe's Ichiban-gai district attends to vats in use there since the Edo Period.

This enthusiasm was fueled, of course, by last year's 400th anniversary of the foundation of the Tokugawa Shogunate. So it is, perhaps, that the old heart of this city conjures in people's minds the image of a period when Japan enjoyed 260 peaceful years of isolation. During this time the country enjoyed a cultural florescence, with the explosion of arts such as ikebana, bonsai, kabuki and ukiyo-e. It was, too, a time of close-knit neighborhoods, and community and familial observance of festivals such as o-shogatsu and bon.

But it's not just an image. In the streets overlooked by the Toki no Kane (an Edo Period gem rebuilt after a fire in 1893) shopkeepers still trade and craftsmen work behind old-fashioned split curtains shielding them from the view of passersby. Ichiban-gai is a living time warp.

"Kawagoe appeals to many people who are tired of modern cityscapes devoid of character. They want something original and local," says Fumie Kanbara, a city-planning specialist and Kawagoe resident.

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Imposing Edo Period buildings along Ichiban-gai

"People find the architecture here attractive not only because the buildings are old, but also because they are built using materials and techniques particular to this place."

Historically, Kawagoe was a castle town of the Kawagoe clan, which the shogunate relied on to secure and protect the northwest approaches to Edo. The name itself means "across the river," but though Kawagoe was separated from Edo by the Iruma River ties between the two were always close. Not long after new fire-resistant, mortar-faced, wattle-and-daub building methods were introduced in Edo, the technique was adopted for the kura-zukuri merchant houses for which Ichiban-gai is famous.

Typically, the first floor of these houses comprises a workshop or retail space -- perhaps these days selling sweets or senbei, clothes, hardware or pottery. The upper floor is often adapted to a variety of uses, including a cafe, a community meeting room and an exhibition space. One Ichiban-gai house is a nationally designated important cultural property and 22 others in the 8-hectare area centering on Ichiban-gai are listed by the city as cultural assets.

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A   kura-zukuri   merchant's house with characteristic double-shuttered windows

Among the businesses based in one of these kura-zukuri is the Matsumoto Shoyu Shoten soy sauce-making firm, the distinctive smell of whose operations has been wafting through the surrounding streets for nearly 250 years.

Reflecting on his company's long heritage, Takashi Uchida, the banto (head clerk) of the business, says: "It would be easy to introduce a mass-production system, but if we did we would lose the distinctive taste of our shoyu that we are so proud of. I want to preserve that taste, and that is why we stubbornly stick to our old ways."

Those "old ways" in Kawagoe are certainly paying off these days, with the number of visitors having grown steadily over the last decade to its present level of around 4 million annually.

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Inside one of the area's traditional   senbei  shops

To some local residents, though, this is a cause for some concern.

Midori Fujii, a Kawagoe resident who is also the editor of a community pamphlet, is one of many who feel that tourist traffic in Ichiban-gai is now so heavy that restrictions are required, especially on weekends. More importantly, she says, Ko-Edo is fast becoming over-commercialized.

"I don't want Kawagoe to become just a tourist stopover, a place that'll be forgotten when fashions change," she says. "Instead, I hope this city will be cherished as a place where visitors can see something that has remained unchanged over a long, long period of time."

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