As we exited the station in Sawara we immediately noticed the sound of pipes and drums. Looking around for the source of the music we spotted a larger-than-life doll-like figure moving in the distance. Hurrying over we found one of Sawara’s famous festival floats making its slow way through the streets. We watched as the men on top used wooden sticks to push the wires and cables out of the way for the tall figure while the men on the ground heaved on wooden poles to manoeuvre the heavy float round the corners of the tight residential streets. The musicians were perched around the sides, keeping a rhythm for those pulling the float along. Everyone was dressed in yukata and it was all very colourful. It was a great introduction to Sawara.
We were visiting the old Japanese town, east of Narita, where many of the merchant buildings and warehouses have been preserved as they were during the Edo period some 100 or 200 years ago. Wooden shops with decorated tiled roofs and storehouses lined with earthen walls to protect goods from fires border the streets.
Sawara is reached in about two hours from Tokyo via Chiba and Narita. Arriving by train collect a map from the station tourist office and follow the route through town to the Onogawa River. It is then a pleasant walk along a waterway edged by weeping willows. Below the road level women in big straw hats guide the tourist boats through the narrow river.
Fifteen minutes or so from the station is Chukei Bashi – the centre of the town and you can take either direction here along the main street. The main tourist office is a hundred metres or so from bridge, attached to an old bank building. It is worth calling in here to pick up a brochure in English and see the displays, including models of the old shops in the town.
The area around Chukei Bashi was designated ‘Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings’ in 1996. Some of the shops still have interiors with a raised area covered in tatami mats for the goods to be displayed on and the storekeeper to sit. Others have a small museum attached and the owners encourage visitors to explore the back of the premises and view their collection of dolls, costumes, swords and other artefacts.
One of the old buildings open the public is the former residence of Ino Tadataka (entry free). Tadataka was a surveyor and mapmaker who drew the first known map of Japan. He was born in a village on the coast but moved to Sawara when he married into the Ino family. He spent seventeen years travelling round Japan, surveying the country. There is also a memorial museum to Tadataka showing the methods he used to compile his maps.
Along the road from Chukei Bashi next to the Yasaka Jinja, is the Festival Float museum. Sawara is known for its twice-yearly grand festivals when big dolls on floats are paraded around the town. The summer festival is held on Friday through Sunday in the second week of July and the autumn festival is held Friday through Sunday in the second week of October. The large carved floats are pulled and pushed by the town’s people, accompanied by musicians. The Festival Float Museum has two of the floats on display and shows a video of the festivals.
Two sake breweries are still operating in Sawara. Easily spotted by the cedar ball hanging outside the premises and the tall chimneys behind, they are close to each other on the main street. ‘Baba’ brewery has a small display of sake making items on show, while ‘Tokan’ brewery was running tours (in Japanese) and a tasting on the Saturday we visited.
As we prepared to walk back to the station we were again alerted by the music to a festival float. Following the sounds we saw another of these giant carriages being pushed and pulled around the streets. We reluctantly left them to it as we ran to catch our train, but we will possibly arrange to visit again for the autumn float festival to see the town in its full glory.
Access: Tokyo to Chiba by JR Sobu Line and Chiba to Sawara by JR Narita Line.