January 25, 2019

Historic Sawara

Found a mere stone's throw from Narita International Airport, the historic area of Sawara makes for a great final destination before your flight.

The historical areas along the river of Chiba Prefecture's lovely Sawara

If you’re anything like me and my fellow Tokyoites, then you absolutely loathe the idea of having to fly in and out of Narita International Airport. After all, the bloody terminals are located over an hour outside of the city’s center, all the way in neighboring Chiba Prefecture. After a very long flight, the absolute last thing weary travelers want to do is to tackle yet another leg of an already arduous journey. Honestly, is it any surprise at all that the conveniently located Tokyo International Airport (A.K.A Haneda Airport) is the preferred option for those visiting Japan’s capital?

Luckily though, there is a silver lining here should you not be able to snag one of the coveted Haneda flights. You see, despite the headaches of getting to and from Narita International Airport, the area around the airport is actually home to a vast collection of attractions and hidden gems. From a famous and historic temple, to a plethora of shopping options, Narita has something for everyone. Even if you’re just passing through Japan en route to somewhere else, you can still experience an authentic taste of what the country has to offer while you wait for your next flight.

Now long time readers will know this but I’ve actually already published an in-depth area guide on Narita which is a great read if you’re looking to learn more about the region. Nevertheless, in this post, we’ll be taking a look at the charming little town of Sawara. Located only about 20 km northeast of Narita International Airport, this historic hamlet makes for a great final stop for those who have evening flights out of Narita. If you have a few hours to spare and are craving just a little more action before heading home, I highly suggest that you consider ending your stay in Japan with Sawara.

Getting to Narita & Sawara

The sign for Sawara Station in Chiba Prefecture

As mentioned above, Sawara is located relatively close to Narita International Airport. It can therefore be easily reached from the JR Narita Station in about 30 minutes by train. From there, the areas of interest are only a few minutes away on foot. As always, plug your route into Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the best train connections. Just note that there are only a few departures per hour on the line that services Sawara. Be sure to be mindful of this scheduling and plan accordingly, especially if you have a pending flight that you need to make. Here, it’s better to be safe than sorry so be sure to head back to the airport a little earlier than necessary just in case.

Note that while Sawara is indeed an attractive little town in its own right, it’s a bit too remotely located to warrant a visit in and of itself. After all, Japan just has too many other things to see and do to justify traveling nearly two hours on the train. That said, if you already need to shlep your sorry self out to Narita for a flight as is, then Sawara’s appeal really goes up significantly. Honestly, the only real thing that Sawara has going against it is that the town is rather inconvenient as a singular destination. Were this not the case, I’m sure it would be a lot more popular.

Sawara’s Nickname: “Little Edo”

A wooden boat along the main canal in Sawara, Chiba Prefecture

So, what makes Sawara worth visiting? Well, one of the things that originally attracted me to this area is that, along with my beloved Kawagoe, Sawara holds the title of “Little Edo.” This is due to the fact that the town boasts a small historical district that is comprised of buildings dating back to the Edo period (1603–1868). Throughout Sawara, you’ll find a collection of restored and well-preserved traditional residences, merchant shops, and warehouses. As such, a visit is much like stepping back in time to a different age. I’ve often heard it said that if you want to experience what life was like in Edo (the former name for Tokyo) then you should visit Sawara.

Now one of Sawara’s most defining features is its central canal that snakes its way throughout the town. Known as the Ono River, this waterway has played a vital role in Sawara’s history. You see, in years gone by, Sawara was an important transport hub for rice shipments to the capital. Without its crucial canal, the otherwise landlocked Sawara would never have been able to develop into the bustling merchant town that it did. Today, this legacy is celebrated by the fact that a leisurely cruise up and down the Ono river is one of the best ways to explore the Sawara. If boats just aren’t your thing then I at least suggest that you aim to have a leisurely lunch at any of the restaurants that overlook the canal.

Given the Ono River runs right through the center of Sawara’s historic district, it’s logical that there should be a number of bridges spanning the canal. While most of these are rather mundane and serve only to facilitate foot traffic, there’s one bridge that you need to keep your eyes out for. Known as the Ja Ja bridge, this crossing spouts a waterfall from its span into the canal below twice every hour. The bridge can be somewhat of a challenge to find if you don’t know where to look; so, just seek out the bridge closest to where the aforementioned river cruises depart. You’ll know it when you see it.

Note that, like with the Kawagoe Festival, Sawara also has a lively celebration that originated from its pedigree as a merchant town. The festival is held twice per year in July and October. Those lucky enough to visit will be greeted by the sight of massive floats topped by giant dolls that represent figures from Japanese mythology. Timing doesn’t work out for you? Fret not. Several of the floats and other festival paraphernalia can be viewed year-round at the Dashi Kaikan Museum. You’ll find it located just a few minutes walk from the center of the historic district.

Sawara’s Amazing Maker of Maps

Sawara’s Ino Tadataka, a historical cartographer of who charted all of Japan

In addition to boasting the title of “Little Edo,” one of Sawara’s other claims to fame is that it was the birthplace of Ino Tadataka, a historical figure of whom I’m very jealous. Born from a long lineage of wealthy merchants, Tadataka took it upon himself to measure and survey all of Japan. The vagabond’s mission took him all over Japan and he was able to see aspects of the country that few of his time could dream of. Sadly, Tadataka never got to see the completion of his goal. However, three years after his death in 1821, Tadataka’s assistants completed a detailed map based on his topographical charts. When compared with modern-day satellite image based map making standards, Tadataka’s team produced astonishingly accurate diagrams.

Today, Tadataka’s legacy is celebrated at two locations in Sawara. The first of these is a structure a museum dedicated to the man and his works. Known as the Ino Tadataka Museum, this facility chronicles Tadataka’s life and exhibits several of the tools he used for measurement as well as some of his maps. While some of the details are provided only in Japanese, the museum has localized many of the explanations into other languages, English included. Entry will run you 500 yen. In addition to the Ino Tadataka Museum, you can also explore Tadataka’s former residence which can be found on the opposite side of the Ono River by the water spouting bridge.

Attractions Near Sawara

Narita International Airport's Narita Transit & Stay Program which is near Sawara

Got some time to kill and want to explore a bit more of the area? Well, why not hit up the solemnly exquisite Katori Jingu? This shrine is dedicated to the deity Futsunusi-no-Ookami who is believed to be a god of war. The shrine is the progenitor of over 400 sub-shrines across Japan and is something of a pilgrimage for those who are patrons of the martial arts. Along with its sister shrine and neighbor Kashima Jingu, Katori Jingu has literally thousands of years of history to its name and is surely not to disappoint.

Lastly, before closing, I have one final bit of advice that I’d like to part with. As with all things related to the area round Narita, be sure to hit up my friends over at the Narita Transit & Stay Program. They offer free tours for travelers and those with layovers at Narita International Airport. If you so desire, you can take a full-day bus tour that will transport you to three towns within the vicinity including Sawara. If you’re interested, know that the tour services are offered on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.