Sawara: The Edo-Period River Town Close To Tokyo and Narita Airport

Located in northeastern Chiba Prefecture, Sawara is an Edo-period river town with charming retro scenery that is just under two hours from Tokyo and Narita International Airport. A true hidden gem, Sawara allows visitors to experience the spirit and beauty of traditional Japan without having to worry about the crowds! For this edition of our “Area of Japan” series, follow one of our editors in her exploration of Sawara and get ready for a full-day itinerary in a gorgeous kimono. Wander through perfectly preserved historical buildingsーon foot or by boatーas you savor local delicacies and immerse yourself in scenes reminiscent of old-time Japan.

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Sawara - An Ancient Merchant Town That Has Preserved Its Authenticity and Traditional Atmosphere

I discovered Sawara a couple of years ago and have returned multiple times since. My first visit was a solo trip that led me from Tokyo to the neighboring prefecture of Chiba, through a landscape of rice fields, vast plots of cultivated land, and tiny villages. The still somehow unbelievably untouched town welcomed me with its beautiful historical district, making me fall in love with its quiet, picturesque atmosphere. Unlike other traditional areas of Japan which areーunderstandablyーoften very crowded, Sawara is so peaceful that it seems to belong to another era.

Originally, the town developed as a farming community centered around Katori Jingu Grand Shrine which dates back to the year 643. Katori Jingu was considered one of the most important shrines in eastern Japan by the imperial court, and it was one of only two shrines in the region that were given the preeminent status of “jingu” until the Meiji period (1868 - 1912).

During that first visit, as I ventured along its waterways and streets lined with wooden merchant housesーmany of which have been in existence for generations and are still in business todayーI learned that they all stood as testament to Sawara’s past as a merchant town.

The birth of Sawara as a town of commerce is actually quite unusual. Originally, the Tone River, which now flows north of Sawara and was used as a navigable channel, wasn’t located there. In the Edo period (1603 - 1868), the river was diverted from its original outlet in Tokyo Bay through current Chiba Prefecture to Choshi (located south of Sawara) as part of a major shogunate’s project to prevent its frequent floods and develop new agricultural land.

Thanks to this new waterway, numerous goods were able to be transported from Sawara to the capital using the Tone River and the Ono River (a branch of the Tone River). Over time, this led Sawara to flourish as a major logistics hub and river port, and it gained the name "Kitchen of Edo."

Best Time to Visit Sawara

Not only did the connection to Edo bring economic prosperity but also cultural exchange, leading to the development of the Sawara Taisai, a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and unique festival with 300 years of history where you can see intricately decorated floats over five meters tall. The festival is held in July and October, giving visitors double the chance to enjoy its splendor.

I loved visiting Sawara in late winter, when its quiet streets are filled with the colors of Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day and Doll Festival) and people dressed as real-life hina dolls in Heian-period  (794 - 1185) attire navigate the Ono River on decorated boats during the “Sawara Hinabune” event.

What a mystical scenery it was in mid-August, when the willows lining the river are greenest and a lantern-lit Sawara at night welcomes the Sawara Bamboo Lantern Festival, during which locals write their wishes on floating lanterns before releasing them into the course of the Ono River.

Seasonal flowers also are one of the main charms of Sawara. Katori Jingu, for example, is famous for its cherry blossoms and autumn foliage, while Suigo Sawara Ayame Park holds an Iris Festival in June as its main attraction. During the festival, visitors can float through the expanse of iris flowers on small boats and admire them from up close. On specific dates in June, you might be even lucky enough to witness “yomeiribune,” an event where newly-weds dressed in traditional Japanese wedding attire traverse the park on traditional boats.

As I got to discover throughout my visits, Sawara has something to enjoy in all seasons, and I think you will come to love its different sides as much as I did!

Casual Rental Kimono TAWARAYA - Stroll Through Sawara’s Traditional Townscape in Kimono

As this time I wanted to be part of the scenery and atmosphere of the town that I came to love so much, I decided to make this trip even more special by renting a kimono. I looked up if there was any rental service available in town, found Casual Rental Kimono TAWARAYA, and booked right away, excited for my new adventure in Sawara!

Casual Rental Kimono TAWARAYA is located inside Sawara Machiyakan, a multipurpose facility built in the style of a traditional Sawara townhouse. On top of being used as a rest area for visitors, it houses several shops other than TAWARAYA such as a nail salon, a cafe and sweet potato shop, and a sweets shop that exclusively utilizes locally-produced rice flour. The location is so charming that you might end up returning more than once for a break and to try some of the delicious snacks available for sale.

The kimono shop is nestled on a corner of the first floor over beautiful tatami flooring and surrounded by wooden walls. When I arrived, the staff was already waiting for me, ready to help me change into my kimono.

TAWARAYA’s kimono come in almost every color and pattern, including quintessentially Japanese designs such as cherry blossoms and “asanoha,” a traditional pattern representing hemp leaves. Yukata for the summer months are available as well, and they’d be a great outfit to wear during the summer Sawara Taisai or Bamboo Lantern Festival.

Renting a kimono from TAWARAYA was also extremely convenient because once changed into my kimono, I could leave my clothes and backpack there, without having to carry anything around other than my wallet and phone.

After looking through the gorgeous garments for a couple of minutes, I decided to go for a red kimono with a pattern of different Japanese flowers. Not only is red one of my favorite colors, but as the majority of the buildings in Sawara are made of wood, I thought it would create a nice contrast for photos. When I mentioned this to the staff, they chuckled and said they might start suggesting red kimono more for this reason!

They also helped me pick a matching “obi” belt, suggesting a light blue obi in the same tone as one of the smaller flowers on the kimono. Repeating one of the lighter shades is apparently a way to elevate the outfit and make it look fresh and bright!

For an extra fee, visitors can also get their hair done into cute hairstyles with Japanese hair accessories and rent a “wagasa” traditional Japanese umbrella. 

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Highlights Of Sawara’s Historical District - Discover How It Was to Live in the Edo Period

Once outfitted, I jumped straight into my exploration of the historical town, savoring each and every step across Sawara. Maintained through the centuries, its panorama of merchant houses and warehouses narrate the history of the town and the efforts implemented by the locals to preserve its authenticity. One look will make you understand just why in 1996, this “Little Edo” was selected as the first ever Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings in the Kanto region.

As I walked along the Ono River and Katori Kaido Street, where most of the historical buildings are located, Sawara reminded me of an old painting. However, it was thankfully not frozen in time like an actual painting, but rather refreshingly alive and warmly beautiful. There were so many amazing places of interest to see around the preservation district, and it was easy to visit them all with some planning. I worked my schedule around one of the main attractions of Sawara that I didn’t want to miss, the Toyo Bridge, and made my way down, stopping at the best sights and most interesting buildings.

Shojo - A Soy Sauce Producer in Operation Since 1800

One of my favorite views while exploring the town was from the Kyoei Bridge as the river gently curves. You can spot the white warehouse of Shojo, a soy sauce producer that has been in operation since 1800. Hop inside their store if you want to buy some truly delicious edible souvenirs such as soy sauce with more than 200 years of history or soy sauce-preserved delicacies made from local fish and vegetables.

The Former Residence of Inoh Tadataka - Japan’s Most Famous Geographer

If you have time, also drop by the Former Residence of Inoh Tadataka, which was built in 1793 by Tadataka himself. Born in Sawara, he’s the geographer who created the first complete map of Japan using scientific methods. Visitors can tour the house for free and get an idea of what life was like long ago. If you are visiting the house during spring, don’t miss the old cherry tree in the garden - it’s a spectacle of pale pink blossoms!

Toyo Bridge - The Rare Waterfall Bridge of Sawara

The Toyo Bridge might seem just small and picturesque, but it’s actually a very rare type of bridge. In the past, it doubled as an irrigation channel, supplying water from the upper reaches of the Ono River to the rice paddies below where Sawara Station now stands. When water was not needed, the bridge would discharge it into the Ono River, creating a “ja ja'' (noisy) sound, which gave Toyo Bridge the nickname of “Ja Ja Bridge.” This sound was so distinctive that it was even selected as one of the "100 Soundscapes of Japan!” Today, this discharge - appearing like a waterfall - is released into the river every thirty minutes from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.

Little Edo Sawara Boat Tour - Explore the Beauty of Sawara From the Water

By the time I arrived at the Toyo Bridge, I was ready to try a different way to explore Sawara than just by foot. Built following the course of the Ono River, Sawara coexists with the water. Water was what brought prosperity to the town, allowing merchants to set up their stores and build magnificent buildings. With water being such a prominent feature of Sawara, this little Edo Sawara boat tour is a beloved experience to try when visiting the town.

Burekimera organizes 30-minute group river cruises with operating times that vary depending on the month. For as little as 1,300 yen, they'll show you the town from an entirely new perspective! Tours are held on “sappa bune,” a Japanese flat-bottomed type of boat typical of Sawara that really adds to the traditional panorama.

Welcomed by the staff, I boarded my boat and started my journey upstream to retrace the life of one of several wealthy Japanese merchants trading goods with Edo.

I instantly noticed a table at the center of the boat and the staff confirmed it was a “kotatsu,” a quilted, heated table that adds a little bit of luxurious comfort to Japan’s winter. I normally love to chill under the kotatsu at ryokan (Japanese traditional inn) or at friends’, and to find one on the sappa bune was such a pleasant surprise. Based on the idea of creating a space for people to gather even when outside is cold and gloomy, if you take one of the cruises in winter, you’ll be treated to this simple yet comforting staple of Japanese winter life. The warm kotatsu cruise is also great if you are planning to travel with family or friends.

With my legs tucked under the kotatsu’s blanket, I gazed out upon the scenery as the staff pointed out some of the important attractions along the way. As we slowly flowed through the town, I had the chance to notice details I had not seen before on my walks, such as the structure of the bridges we glided under or the “dashi” stone steps that were used in the past to load and unload shipments jutting out into the water.

Chaya Hana Kanmuri Uwagashi Bettei Branch - Retro Sweets and Tea in a Cafe By the River

After I disembarked the boat, tea and old-fashioned sweets seemed like the perfect way to end a day spent marveling at Sawara’s splendid architecture and historical treasures. I ventured inside Chaya Hana Kanmuri, a cafe hidden in one of the marvelous wooden buildings lining the riverside of Sawara.

Originally a Japanese pickles shop, the building is getting to live a second life as a cafe; a nook where visitors to Sawara can peacefully unwind while recharging with a sweet treat. It filled me with joy seeing this incredibly precious merchant house being lovingly cared after and continuing its legacy as part of Sawara’s daily life.

The building of Chaya Hana Kanmuri was carefully renovated by architects specialized in “sukiya zukuri,” a traditional Japanese residential architectural style, who made sure to preserve its magnificent, old elements such as the storehouse in the backyard or the “kaidan dansu” stairs (Japanese staircase chest typically found in old Japanese merchant houses) leading to the second floor.

From the second floor where I sat, sights of the town, fragments of the sappa bune gliding on the surface of water, and the murmur of the river below kept me company as I waited for my order to arrive.

The cafe also houses a variety of relics from the past, such as old signboards, boxes filled with metal movable kanji types used for old printers, and other interesting retro gems that survived the test of time. Even their selection of  crockery consists of exquisitely decorated vintage cups. The staff invited me to choose my favorite from their collection and served my tea in it, making my tea time all the more special.

Chaya Hana Kanmuri is very particular about their tea selection. On the menu were delicate pear tea, mellow black cherry tea, and spicy masala tea, each so unique and distinct that I ended up ordering more than one pot just to try the different flavors.

I also tried the cafe’s signature dessert, pudding a la mode. “A la mode” means "fashionable" in French, which perfectly describes this sophisticated sweet that was extremely popular in the Showa period. This dreamy treat appeared on the table crowned by a variety of seasonal fruits, such as strawberries, melon, and oranges from Chiba Prefecture and the neighboring Ibaraki Prefecture, both considered fruit kingdoms in Japan. The eggs and milk used to make the luxurious custard pudding are also locally produced.

With my nose captivated by the aroma of the tea brewed on the spot, I slowly enjoyed the panorama outside and the feast for tea lovers in front of me!

NIPPONIA Sawara Merchant Town Hotel - Feel the Culture and History of Sawara by Spending the Night in a Beautifully Renovated Historical Building

Just one day in Sawara might not feel like enough. If you wish to extend your travel back to the Edo period, NIPPONIA Sawara Merchant Town Hotel is the accommodation for you! This fascinating ensemble of facilities, which includes a total of six hotels, a cafe, and a restaurant scattered across Sawara’s Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings, reuses buildings with historical and cultural value, helping to preserve the traditional panorama of Sawara.

I stopped at GOKO for a visit and I was instantly captivated by the beautiful wooden facade and location. Standing along the Ono River, right in the historical center of Sawara, GOKO has guest rooms that retain the layout and storehouse structure of a merchant house.

The building is 120 years old and is part of “Namiki Nakanosuke Shoten,” a wholesaler of daily necessities and miscellaneous goods such as Japanese paper and incense founded in 1901.

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How to Get to Sawara - Visit This Traditional Town Just Under Two Hours From Tokyo and Narita Airport

Sawara is easily accessible in less than two hours from Tokyo. In the morning, Chiba Kotsu’s direct buses depart from Tokyo Midtown Yaesu Bus Terminal “Tokyo Yaesu,” situated right in front of Tokyo Station, at 8:45 and 10:55, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the town on a day trip. The bus terminal is located on B2F while the information desk is on B1F. Here, staff can provide you with timetables and point you to the right bus stop (usually bus stop 14).

Bus tickets cannot be reserved in advance, but can be bought directly on the bus and paid in cash or with an IC card. The bus will leave you at the Sawara Station North Exit Bus Stop on the opposite side of the station to the Sawara Historical District. Use the overpass right behind the bus stop and you’ll find yourself in front of Sawara Station’s main entrance. The Historical District is a 10-minute walk from there.

If you opt to go by train, you can use the JR Sobu Line or Keisei Asakusa Line and change at JR Narita Station with the JR Narita Line bound to Choshi which stops at Sawara Station. Both the JR Sobu Line and JR Narita Line are included in the JR Pass, making visiting Sawara all the more cheaper and convenient if you're planning to purchase it to explore Japan.

Sawara is also a 30-minute taxi ride or 1 hour by train from Narita International Airport and would make for a last, lovely destination and incredible memory before you take your flight back home.

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Immerse Yourself In a Picture-Perfect Scene of Japan’s Past in Sawara

A living museum from the Edo period, Sawara is the perfect day trip for those who want to experience traditional Japan in a tranquil, yet easily accessible, historical town. I was extremely excited to visit it again and share the marvels of this hidden gem with the world, so I hope you love Sawara as much as I do if you get the chance to visit the town on your next trip to Japan!

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Kanto Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Stefania Sabia
Born and raised in Italy, Stefania spent some of her teen years in Ireland. Today, Stefania lives in Tokyo and she likes to explore traditional Japan, hidden spots, and anything with retro aesthetics. Since childhood, she has always admired Japanese culture, and after coming to Japan, she made it her mission to explore the country and showcase its beauty on Instagram.
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