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Sunday, Jan. 25, 2004

Happy Ko-Edo exile

Staff writer

Midori Fujii calls herself a "cityscape exile."

News photo
Happy immigrant to Kawagoe, Midori Fujii with some of her biannual booklets

"When I introduce myself to the local people of Kawagoe, I always say 'I'm a cityscape exile from Tokyo,' " says Fujii, a resident of Matsue-cho in the center of Kawagoe City, Saitama Prefecture.

She loves the city so much that, after moving to Kawagoe 11 years ago with her family, she now self-publishes "Ko-Edo Monogatari (Mini-Edo Tales)," a biannual 18-page booklet on Kawagoe community issues and local history.

Fujii is one of a growing number of people choosing to move to Kawagoe, drawn by the character of this 331,000-population castle-town in Saitama Prefecture, about 30 km from Tokyo.

She was born in Chofu, in the western suburbs of Tokyo, and lived in Asakusa for 10 years after she married. But Fujii has renounced the big city and moved to Kawagoe "because there are things here that have survived down the years."

At the time Fujii lived in Asakusa, she was working as a flight attendant for British Airways and would spend one week in Tokyo and the next in London. It was the bubble era of the 1980s, when Tokyo's construction industry was aggressively transforming the city.

"Every time I came back from London, even after only a week away, I noticed the cityscapes of Tokyo had changed a bit. I was shocked to find my favorite buildings scrapped while I was away, seemingly overnight."

Also, with the sharp rise in land prices, family-run local businesses in Akasaka, as elsewhere, were forced to shut up shop.

"I remember one evening when my husband and I visited a local ramen shop just before it closed. The shop owner offered us ramen for free. We sat there eating our ramen and talking to the owner and the other regulars. It was very poignant, losing one of our favorite little neighborhood eateries."

London's cityscape was a stark contrast, Fujii says. Buildings and whole districts there are the same as they were generations ago.

News photo
Ichiban-gai rickshaw-haulers

Of course, wartime devastation wreaked great changes on Japan's land- and cityscapes. But Fujii believes there's more to it than that. During the bubble era, she says, Tokyo's character was gradually eroded by a series of massive redevelopment projects.

Then she happened to visit Kawagoe.

Now a 42-year-old mother of two, Fujii says that in Kawagoe she feels the "continuity of time," as she does in London.

"This continuity means," she says, "that children see the same view of Toki no Kane [the clock tower in Ichiban-gai] as their great-grandfather saw; and probably the next generation will also see this view. This fact gives me a sense of security."

Clad in kimono -- she wears the garment with casual ease -- Fujii says that the traditional outfit suits her town. "Back in Tokyo, I would often wish that I could wear kimono every day. Here, though, I can do that and feel unselfconscious."

Fujii appreciates not only Kawagoe's preserved cityscape, but also its unchanged way of life. As just one example, she points to the matsuri (festival) held every October.

"The matsuri events helped our family, relative newcomers, to fit right in straight away. The community pulls together to work on all sorts of things, from preparing the kimono to be worn at the festivities to planning performances.

"Such feelings of closeness and commitment to the community are largely absent from big-city life these days."

These and similar experiences inspired her to start her "Ko-Edo Monogatari" series. In the booklets, she writes about such topics as the area's tobi, (traditional-style carpenters), geisha and long-established family stores that have been in business for generations.

"I don't like to say that Kawagoe has a lot of 'history,' " she explains. "Rather, I would like to say, that here we still have -- and will always have -- the lifestyle of times past. That is the real charm of Kawagoe."

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