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Close in distance, but far back in time

Things to Do | Visit Chiba | Latest update:2022/02/02

Treated to both sights and sounds of old Japan, I spent a splendid night in Sawara. It’s a town along the mighty Tone River along northern Chiba, and was once a primary river port for shipping goods to the capital Edo (now Tokyo). Made prosperous through shipping mostly soy sauce, rice, and sake, it became known as “little Edo”, and keeps the charm perfectly to this day.

Sawara Old Town

The train to Sawara Station was a little under two hours from Tokyo, and while a little longer than my day-to-day train rides, it was pleasant rolling through the Chiba countryside. The first thing you’ll notice about the old Sawara district is the Ono River running through the middle. The shops and cafes are arranged along both sides of the river, with many staircase access points to the water’s edge, where river boats were long ago loaded with shipments of sake, soy sauce, and rice. Many of the buildings are very old, and made entirely of wood, some in use, and some that merely add to the scenery. You can learn more history at the Sawara Machinami Koryukan, and the nearby souvenir shops sell quaintly traditional Japanese goods, and many have been in operation for generations.

 

Katori Shrine

Katori Shrine was easily accessible, about 30 minutes by bus from Sawara Station. A popular route, so impossible to miss. The entrance to the shrine had its own promenade with shops and cafes, and after passing through the massive Torii gate, the walkway up to the main shrine area was nothing less than magical! A winding path of green, adorned with pagoda-style lamps felt like a fantasy, and the main shrine grounds were no less impressive. Katori Shrine (Katori Jingu), I was told, is a very important shrine in Shinto lore, along with Kashima Jingu, and Ise Jingu. The powerful vibes were very real here, as the story of the enshrined “kami”, Futsunushi, has to do with the beginnings of Japanese society in which the heavenly “kami” gods claimed this land.

 

Ayame Park

With such an abundance of water, the area around Sawara has been called “Suigo”, literally meaning “water city”. Naturally, the vegetation and flowers are stunning, and “Ayame Park” that I visited seemed to bring all of them together. Attached to the edge of the Tone River, and with large inlets of water in the park grounds, Ayame Park has a staggering collection of irises, water lilies and lotuses from both Japan and abroad, which bloom vibrantly in the early summer. Hydrangeas are another dazzling sight, not to mention roses in fall as well. I never considered myself a flower lover, but the beauty of this park surrounded by water left such a nice impression on me.

 

NIPPONIA Sawara Merchant Town Hotel

This hotel has a unique concept: You don’t stay in a “hotel in the town”, but rather stay in the town itself. Many of the classic residences have been structurally renovated, but maintain a traditional, minimalist design to make you feel as though you’re actually in Sawara of the 19th century. The insides are smooth, soothing wood, and while you’ll have electricity, there are no clocks or televisions, encouraging you to relax, read, and take your mind away from modern worries. Breakfast and dinner are served at the main building, and the meals use local ingredients and flavors, including the legendary mirin cooking wine from the Baba Brewery across the street.

Sightseeing Spots

Sawara Machinami Koryukan

Sawara made its name in the Edo period as a region of for goods to be prepped and shipped to the capital to the west. Much of the town layout still remains for you to explore, and reserving a guide at the Sawara Machinami Koryukan can give you deeper insight into the history here.

Katori City, Sawara, I, 1903-1

(A 15-minute walk from JR Narita Line, Sawara Station)

+81-478-52-1000

Accessibility

  • Handicap parking
  • Handicap toilet
  • Ostomate restroom
  • Wheelchair rentals
  • Written communication for the hearing impaired
  • Breast-feeding room

Katori Shrine

This is one of the original three grand shrines in Japan that originally have the venerable title of 'jingu'. Along with Kashima Jingu and Ise Jingu, Katori Jingu has an important place in Shintoism as the place where one of the deities responsible for claiming Japan for the heavenly 'kami' gods is enshrined. This story is so important, because it is said that the emperor of Japan is a direct descendant of the heavenly 'kami'. The shrine has historically been a bustling point for travelers looking to pay their respects, or participate in one of the many festivals that happen year-round. The nature surrounding this shrine on a hill is lush and full of old-growth, whisking you away to ancient Japan with its natural beauty and architecture.

1697-1 Katori, Katori City

(About 15 minutes from JR Katori Station by the Sawara loop bus or the local bus (Kamisato Line).)

+81-478-57-3211

Accessibility

  • Handicap parking
  • Handicap toilet
  • Wheelchair rentals
  • Wheelchair ramp
  • Service dogs permitted

Ayame Park

The gorgeous water flowers of Japan, gathered in one park.
Irises and lotuses need a lot of water to grow, and Ayame Park sits next to Japan's second longest river: the Tone River. People come from far and wide to see the over 400 iris, and 300 lotus varieties, as well as the other seasonal flowers such as roses, wisterias, licorice, and narcissus, not to mention the lush green of the surrounding area, and beautifully expansive riverside.

1837-2 Ogishima, Katori City

(20minutes by car from JR Sawara Station)

+81-478-56-0411

Accessibility

  • Handicap parking
  • Handicap toilet
  • Ostomate restroom
  • Wheelchair rentals
  • Written communication for the hearing impaired
  • Wheelchair ramp
  • Service dogs permitted

NIPPONIA Sawara Merchant Town Hotel

Sawara Town in northern Chiba is a beautifully preserved historical district, giving you a look at how riverside towns were once booming points of commerce in the Edo and Meiji periods. NIPPONIA Sawara Merchant Town Hotel has renovated ― while keeping the original appearance fully intact-some of the town’s traditional wood buildings to be guest rooms, making the town itself a place to stay, rather than have you stay in a typical stand-alone hotel. Many restaurants and shops here have existed for generations, and you'll truly be stepping back into time when you visit.

1708-2 Sawara-i, Katori City

(About 10-minute walk from JR Sawara Station)

+81-120-210-289

Accessibility

  • Handicap toilet
  • Wheelchair rentals
  • Written communication for the hearing impaired
  • Wheelchair ramp
  • Breast-feeding room
  • Service dogs permitted