BUDGET TRIP TO SAWARA

A quick exit from Tokyo

by Mark Schreiber

In the lexicon of Japanese travel, the expression “An-Kin-Tan” — an abbreviated reading of the three kanji for yasui, chikai and mijikai — refers to journeys that are cheap, close and short.

When summer comes ’round, one sensible way to avoid the heat, traffic and crowds is to embark on excursions via limited express trains operated by the Keisei, Tobu, Seibu Ikebukuro and Odakyu railways. These companies operate their own “bullet” style trains, with names like “Skyliner,” “Kinugawa,” “Red Arrow” and “Romance Car,” all of which offer reclining seats that you can reserve days, or even weeks, in advance. And while they cost a premium over a regular ticket, the prices are still quite reasonable and the benefits considerable as you tilt the seat back, read the morning paper and relax in air-conditioned comfort on the initial leg of your journey — conserving your energy for the fun once you arrive at the destination.

This summer, my rovings by rail have taken me to a couple of new “discoveries,” the first of which is Sawara.

Many Tokyoites only encounter Chiba when flying in and out of Narita airport, which is a pity, really, since once you get past the urban sprawl, Chiba is actually quite scenic.

My point of departure was aboard the Skyliner departing Keisei Ueno at 8:00 a.m. on a sunny Saturday. After a relaxing 53-minute ride (1,730 yen for a one-way ticket), I walked from Keisei Narita across the street to the nearby JR Narita Station just in time to catch the 9:05 a.m. Narita Line local bound for Choshi (platform 5), which got me into Sawara, the fifth stop, at 9:35 a.m. (480 yen).

This picturesque town, now incorporated into Katori City, served as an important commercial center in the feudal province of Shimo-usa, and the rivers and canals that provided the main means of transport before the era of railways and highways are still much in evidence.

My first stop was the Sawara Municipal Aquatic Botanical Gardens, a 20-minute bus ride (fare: 500 yen, admission 700 yen). This huge garden, known for its Indian lotus and irises, makes the most of the area’s natural water and greenery. Some 1.5 million irises of 350 species bloom throughout the year, and during July and August, more than 200 species of Indian lotus will be in bloom.

I also got a completely unexpected treat — the pleasure of watching a “Yome-iri,” outdoor Shinto-style wedding, in which the bride and groom are paddled to the altar aboard a small boat, accompanied by audible sighs from dozens of star-stuck onlookers.

The bus back to Sawara dropped me off in front of the Mitsubishi-kan, which, until a few years ago, had actually been in use as a bank since 1914 and is now open to the public as a museum. Many of Sawara’s beautifully preserved old buildings are still in business, like Nakamura Shoten (built in 1855), the Shobundo bookstore (built in 1880) and the Fukushin kimono shop (built in 1895).

No trip to Sawara can be considered complete without visiting the museum and former residence of Inoh Tadataka — the man who literally put Japan on the map. Born in 1745, Inoh was a wealthy Sawara merchant who was struck by wanderlust. In his late 40s, he developed an interest in astronomy and record keeping, which brought out his latent talents as a surveyor. After four expeditions undertaken at his own expense, he obtained funding from the Tokugawa Shogunate, and continued his map-making expeditions for the next decade.

Inoh’s atlas of Japan, the “Dai Nihon Enkai Yochi Zenzu,” was published three years after his death. Inoh’s maps were so accurate they remained in use until the 1920s.

The museum, which has explanatory panels in English, is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and closed Mondays and the days after national holidays. (Admission: 500 yen for adults, 250 yen for children). Immediately across the Ono River from the museum are the buildings of Inoh’s former residence. Admission is free.

At the river, you can take a 30- or 40-minute boat excursion beneath Sawara’s “Twelve Bridges” aboard a small boat called a sappa bune for around 1,200 yen. And before hopping on the train back to JR Narita, you might also want to visit one of the town’s five traditional sake breweries, like Tokun Shuzo, where tours are conducted (in Japanese) every 30 minutes between 10:00 a.m. and 15:30 p.m. (except at noon and 12:30 p.m.).

The great thing about Sawara is most of the sights — with the exception of several major temples and shrines like the Katori Jingu — are within walking distance of the station. Bicycles are also available for rent. A tip: Sawara’s Autumn Festival with spectacular colorful floats will be held on Oct. 12, 13 and 14.

A second Mark Schreiber article on escaping Tokyo appears next week. Travel tips: To minimize waiting times, check the return train and bus schedules when you arrive. Along with comfortable walking shoes, you’ll want to bring along a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and a water bottle. Also, because some places get buggy in the summer, full-length trousers are recommended.