Exploring Japan: 'Little Edo' Sawara has old traditional Tokyo feel

Exploring Japan: 'Little Edo' Sawara has old traditional Tokyo feel

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

Before arriving in Japan, you may have imagined the streets here to be scenes of a movie, with old cobblestone roads and wooden buildings found in the Edo Era (1603-1867). You may have imagined running into samurai or kabuki actors in old Tokyo or the former capital of the Shogunate Government.

Today, it may seem like those times are gone in Tokyo, a megapolis with huge skyscrapers, modern infrastructure and transportation, but you’ll find old Tokyo if you know where to look.

In the area there are several towns known as “Koedo,” or little Edo, that preserve the original townhouses and streets from the era, allowing for a glimpse at the former glory of the samurai capital.

In Chiba Prefecture, Sawara is one of those towns which can take visitors to the old-style Japan they seek. It is only a few hours’ drive from most bases in the Kanto Plain via the Higashi Kanto Expressway.

Situated along the Tone River, Sawara accommodates various canals, ponds and waterways. The district is known for being a host to beautiful iris flowers, which draw many locals to enjoy them during the rainy season in early summer.

For the famous blooms, visit Sawara Iris Park, where there are over 400 different types of irises and over 1.5 million iris flowers in total between June and July. We visited the park in late June and were able to catch a park full of white, pink, violet and blue irises. The ponds, small rivers and bridges, along with traditional boats operated by ladies in blue kimonos, brought a touch of nostalgia. I suggest hopping on a boat to enjoy. No matter the season, a visit through the park will enchant  you with seasonal blooms. Late September brings water lilies and sarusuberi (crape myrtle) blossoms along the pond and river. Water lilies are early risers, so you might want to schedule a morning visit to enjoy these beautiful blooms.

After, we stopped in at the park’s souvenir shops and purchased iris flowers, local food and sweets. I even indulged and had a sweet potato ice cream.

Once we’d had enough irises, our next stop was Sawara’s city center.

We parked our car at a parking lot near a classic-looking wooden bridge and found ourselves in the old town of Sawara. The city center was surrounded by storehouses and merchant buildings, still standing and in remarkable condition, dating back to the late Edo period.

Willow trees lined the riverbank and the streets we strolled were lined with dark-brown wooden buildings and grey-tiled roofs. We were transported to scenes of old samurai movies.

Even more impressive is that this area is not only preserving its old town look and feel, but It’s still functioning as a modern town. We found a grocery store, vegetable stand, hardware shop, a barber shop, liquor store and various restaurants and sweetshops inside the old buildings on the same road.

Back in its heyday, Sawara’s waterway was vital for the transport of soy sauce, miso and rice from the countryside. Some of the wooden boats are still around and we saw a few of them, except now they carry tourists instead of food staples.

Unlike more well-known Edo Era districts like Kawagoe, located just north of Yokota Air Base, or any area in Kyoto, Sawara is the place to go if you want to enjoy freely without the crowds.

View video:

Old town of Sawara

Sawara Iris Park

Sawara Iris Park

Location: 1837-2, Ogishima, Katori City, Chiba Pref.

Hours: 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Tel: 0478-56-0411

Sawara Tourist Center

Location: 74-31 Sawara I, Katori City, Chiba Pref.

Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Tel: 0478-52-6675

Katori Jingu Shrine and Shinshoji Temple

On leaving the old town of Sawara, we headed to a majestic Shinto shrine and power spot that boasts more than 2,600 years of history and carries the highest shrine status in the nation.

Katori Jingu Shrine has been known as one of the three most prestigious Shinto shrines in Japan, ranked with Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture and Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture.

The enshrined deity, Futsunushi-no-Ookami, is believed to mitigate natural disasters, provide protection, and is a guardian of martial arts.

The quiet and solemn shrine is surrounded by rich, green forest. Unlike the striking vermillion-colored buildings of other shrines, the buildings of Katori Jingu Shrine are covered in a unique black lacquer. The main shrine dates back to 1700 when it was built by the Shogun Tsunayoshi Tokugawa and is designated as an important cultural property.

After the shrine, we drove 20 minutes to Shinshoji Temple, another power spot nearby. This temple draws about 3 million visitors annually for a traditional New Year’s visit – the second largest in Japan, next to Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.

Since its foundation in 940, the temple has been known as a sanctuary to ward off evil.

According to Japanese tradition, ages 25, 42 and 60 for men, and ages 19, 33 and 60 for women are supposed to be unlucky years. When someone turns one of the unlucky ages, they visit Shinshoji in hopes of warding off evil fortune. Although I am not at an age of unluckiness, I visited the large main hall, put my hands together and wished for even better luck.

Whether you’re at an unlucky age or not, Shinshoji’s main hall, main gate, 3-story pagoda and elaborately-carved Shakado (hall for Buddha) are worth some time to admire and explore.

And, make sure to stop in one of the many shops and restaurants along the approach to the temple for a quick snack and some souvenirs.

Visit Sawara for the old-style charm and take a little detour for a little good luck at one or both of these interesting power spots.

Katori Jingu Shrine

Location: 1697 Katori, Katori City, Chiba Pref.

Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Tel: 0478-57-3211

Shinshoji Temple

Location: 1 Narita, Narita City, Chiba Pref.

Tel: 0476-22-2111

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