Only 45 minutes from Narita International Airport by train or 90 minutes from Tokyo by bus, the enchanting town of Sawara will transport you to the past! Once a prosperous merchant town, today Sawara offers visitors the chance to explore unique shops, restaurants, cafes and museums housed in Edo-era buildings. You can explore Sawara’s attractions by wheels or water, and be sure not to miss the excellent local foods and sake during your time at Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020!
BY Sarah B. Hodge
Step back in time in “Little Edo” Sawara! Only 45 minutes from Narita International Airport by train or 90 minutes from Tokyo by bus, this enchanting little town was once “more prosperous than Tokyo” according to a popular Edo-era poem. Rich in history, Sawara’s roots can be traced back over 3,000 years.
As you exit Sawara station, be sure to stop in to the Sawara Tourism Center to pick up maps and brochures about local attractions. You’ll reach the historic canal district in about ten minutes. The district along the main street and the Ono River is designated as a Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings, the first such preserved townscape in the Kanto region. Eight shop buildings and five warehouses are designated as important cultural properties that are now home to cafes, shops, hotels and rest areas.
Rent a bicycle (regular bicycles JPY 500, electric assist bicycles JPY 700, cash only), grab a map and go on a leisurely 3-4 hour ride that will take you to the highlights of Sawara, including the historic Ono River area, Yasaka Shrine, Katori Jingu Shrine, and the riverfront area.
Or choose to experience Sawara from a completely different angle by taking a sightseeing cruise on the Ono River, JPY 1300, cash only. The 30-minute cruise starts from the landing pier in front of the Inoh Tadataka Museum and tours the lower reaches of the Ono River.
Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu changed the course of the Tone River to prevent flooding, and Sawara quickly became an important water transportation link to Tokyo, formerly known as Edo. Hundreds of mud-walled rice and cotton warehouses and dozens of sake and soy sauce breweries flourished. The exchange of culture between Edo and Sawara led to the introduction of Edo crafts, fabrics, and festivals such as Sawara Grand Festival held in July and October.
The Ono River divides the city into two, Honjuku, western Sawara, and Shinjuku, eastern Sawara. Twelve historic bridges, junikyo, span the two sides. If you would like to experience all twelve bridges from a unique vantage point, a 40-minute boat ride is available starting from the Suigo Sawara Ayame Park, advance reservations required.
The waterfall at Toyo Bridge was voted one of the top 100 sounds in Japan and can be viewed every 30 minutes between 09:00 and 17:00.
One of Sawara’s most famous residents was Inoh Tadataka, who made the first surveyed map of Japan. The tenth head of the Inoh Family, a wealthy Sawara merchant family, Tadataka was 50 years old when he decided to take up astronomy, surveying and calendar making. He spent 17 years surveying Japan and created the first comprehensive map of Japan. You can explore his life, tools, and works at the Inoh Tadataka Museum.
Katori Jingu’s ancient history dates back to 643 B.C. and the shrine is dedicated to Futsunushino Mikoto, the god of swords and thunder. Before the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), only 3 shrines, Ise Jingu, Katori Jingu and Kashima Jingu, had been granted Jingu status. Katori Jingu is the head of 400 Katori Jinja shrines throughout Japan. Its main building and prayer hall were constructed in 1700. Along with Kashima Jingu, it honors a god of martial arts and was very popular with samurai and today with martial arts practitioners. Katori Jingu is about 4 kilometers from Sawara Station on the JR Narita Line, with round-trip buses available on weekends and holidays from JR Sawara Station.
A 20-minute walk from JR Sawara Station, Kanpukuji belongs to the Buzan sect of Shingon Buddhism. Believed to have been established 1,100 years ago, the temple is regarded as one of the three great anti-evil “daishi” temples in the Kanto region. Several important cultural properties are housed at the temple. The temple grounds are notable for beautiful scenery year-round. Kanpukuji is also home to the grave of Inoh Tadataka (1745-1818).
Sawara also features Suwa Jinja and Yasaka Jinja, which take turns sponsoring the city’s two famous summer and autumn festivals (see below).
Sawara hosts several large festivals during the summer that visitors to Tokyo 2020 Games will not want to miss! In June, the Suigo Sawara Iris Festival features over 400 species and 1.5 million irises in bloom. Visitors can take a boat ride through the iris garden for an unforgettable experience.
The Sawara Grand Festival dates back over 300 years. Held twice a year in July and October, the festival continues for three days along the historic streets and is fun for all ages.
The larger-than-life dolls and elaborate float carvings date back to the Edo Period, and each neighborhood has its own unique float, festival songs, and costumes. To get a taste of this unique tradition, you can visit the Suigo Sawara Float Museum to see several actual floats up close and watch a video in English to learn more about the origins and traditions of Sawara’s grand festivals.
Sawara is blessed with rich agriculture and seafood, and is particularly known for its sweet potatoes, peanuts, and locally brewed sake and soy sauce. While you’re in Sawara, why not try sweet potato ice cream, soy sauce gelato, or even a sweet potato “Imo-ppuccino” at Café Netaimo? Grilled eel is also very popular, especially during summer. There is also a famous shop, Koboriya Honten , serving kurokiri black soba, a local specialty.
If you’re looking for a more familiar dining experience, there are numerous excellent Italian and French restaurants in restored merchant homes like Wordsworth, Ristorante Casa Alberata, Auberge de Manoir Kittei and Les Mougins.
In the present era, the two remaining Sawara breweries, Tokun Shuzo and Baba Honten, offer brewery tours, and participants can try sake produced there as part of the tour.
Sawara is also home to a number of traditional crafts, including hand-carved ear-cleaning picks, or mimikaki, from your choice of beautiful hardwoods, hariko dolls, paper cutting, and shops selling Japanese incense, stationary, and sweet potato, peanut, and soy sauce products.
The Nipponia Sawara Merchant Town Hotel embraces the unique concept that the entire town of Sawara is part of the hotel. Nipponia has renovated and restored five historic buildings including a former cotton warehouse, a popular Showa-era Japanese restaurant and an 1855 souvenir shop. The guest rooms are scattered around historic Sawara, and upon check-in you’ll be given a map to the area that includes discounts to local businesses and restaurants.
Each of the hotel buildings is named for a species of iris that you can see at the Sawara Iris Festival. The original framework, exposed beams, and beautiful lattices and screens of each building have been meticulously preserved, while the modern interiors pay tribute to the buildings’ original purpose. Deep fragrant cypress bathtubs allow you to soak in luxury.
The hotel’s Terroir et Nature restaurant features French-Japanese cuisine that uses local Chiba produce and the freshest seafood from nearby Choshi harbor. Chef Shota Nakagawa marries Japanese flavors and ingredients with French culinary techniques in a delicate, palate-pleasing balance with items like steamed local fish served with a canola flower beurre blanc, grilled Kazusa Wagyu beef loin, and peanut blancmange with a red wine and berry reduction. The traditional Japanese breakfast features favorites like salt-grilled fish, Japanese-style omelette, local soy sauce and sake products, and fresh fruit and vegetable juices.
The hotel is currently restoring and adding additional buildings and guestrooms, including a banquet and reception hall scheduled to open later this year.
Other lodging options in Sawara include the budget-friendly Hostel co-EDO Sawara starting from JPY 3900 and the newly opened Route Inn Katori Sawara Ekimae next to Sawara Station, which features a large public bath and free breakfast from JPY 7000.
In addition to the two visitor centers, 28 locations around Sawara offer free Wi-Fi.
And you can rent a beautiful kimono at one of several locations around town, allowing you to feel like you’ve stepped back into Sawara’s Edo-era heyday as you stroll the willow-lined banks.
For more information, suggested itineraries and downloadable English-language sightseeing maps, visit below.
A Day in Little Edo Sawara
A freelance writer for Tokyo Weekender magazine and Stars and Stripes Japan newspaper, Sarah has also contributed to a number of websites including Spiritual Travels, BentoYa Cooking and Thanks for The Meal.