Brides, boats and blooms

Itako and Sawara invite visitors to step back in time amid beautiful natural surroundings

by Mandy Bartok

The bride in the garden is a vision in white, her snowy dress contrasting sharply with the brilliant purple of the irises around her.

“Beautiful!” sighs the gaggle of Japanese women around me, with that classic, high-pitched exhalation of breath and wistful looks in their starry eyes. The bride herself smiles little, her face serene as she retains the haughtiest of composures. Her steps are measured and the procession is slow; following behind her, both clad in black, her husband-to-be and mother are equally solemn.

At the edge of the garden, a boat bobs gently on the tranquil Mae River, waiting to ferry the new couple to their wedding reception. As the bride settles herself on the scarlet-draped stool in the bow of the craft, a congratulatory shout erupts from somewhere in the crowd and the bride cracks her first smile of the day. Slowly, a wave of applause ripples down the riverbank, swelling into a crescendo as the boat casts off from the dock and glides smoothly down the waterway.

Shutters click furiously as the happy couple pose for the cameras, and it may seem that the crowds are an intrusion on this private moment. But these newly wedded sweethearts are used to the attention; you would be too if you “got married” three times a day for Itako’s tourist crowds.

Outside of the summer months, there’s not too much that attracts visitors to Itako, a watery city surrounded by rice fields near the eastern coast of Ibaraki Prefecture. But for six short weeks in June and July, the gardens along the Mae River burst forth in a floral extravaganza.

Irises make their appearance first in early June, followed by the slightly more subdued lotus flower a month later. When the petals appear, so do the promised couples, and wedding ceremonies both staged and real take place among Itako’s countless blossoms.

Towns in the region have long had a tradition of transporting newlyweds down the local waterways on their wedding day, and while hired actors now mug for the masses on weekends, local couples still follow the tradition.

As the bride and her consort sail off into the gleaming sun, the real festivities begin and the garden fills with traditionally clad dancers in flower-print kimono. They sway gracefully among the 500 different types of irises, most of which showcase some hue of purple for which the flower is famous. A walk down the length of the garden, however, reveals the occasional white or even sunshine-yellow bloom hidden amid over a million of their ilk.

With the heat of the day building, I set my sights on a boat ride of my own. However, the crowds are teeming and the wait for a sappa-bune experience on Itako’s river is interminable — so on the advice of helpful volunteer guides, I head for the train station and hop a local service to neighboring Sawara in Chiba Prefecture.

Sawara hosts its own iris festival, though its gardens aren’t nearly as accessible as Itako’s. Consequently, I bypass the blooms and make my way to the center of town where willow trees bend picturesquely over the small Ono River as it meanders along beside the streets on its way to join the mighty Tone River drainage system.

Sawara came to fame in the Edo Period (1603-1867), when merchants plied the waters of this prosperous port town and engaged in brisk trade with the growing capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo) to the south. The old warehouses and traders’ homes that still line the canal are a testament to Sawara’s former wealth, though the only boats seen from the banks nowadays are those that take visitors on cruises through the old quarter. I queue up for a turn to glide down the tranquil river.

After a short wait, I find myself in the boat of Sachiko Shimazaki, a grandmotherly figure sporting a hat woven of dried iris stalks. She poles us away from the wharf with ease and I ask how long she’s been on the river. “Fifty-one years,” she says proudly, her grin growing wider at our surprise. “I’ve been a boatwoman for most of my life.”

Her expertise shows as she guides us down the river and points out the sites along the quays above.

“Most of Sawara’s riverside buildings date from the late Edo Period,” she explains, and their age averages around 150 years. The oldest, which she indicates on her left as we pass by, just recently celebrated its 210th birthday.

Along the banks, wide stone steps worn smooth by years of foot traffic once served as wharfs for unloading goods. From here, traders would carry raw materials to the nearby businesses, most of which engaged in the tasty production of soy sauce or sake. Today, the steps remain as seats for the dozens of artists who line the river on fair-weather weekends, turning out watercolors and charcoal sketches.

The banks of the Ono River also play host to Sawara’s popular summer and autumn festivals, when residents of the local merchant quarters parade extravagant floats through the center of town. Life-size figurines adorn the tops of most floats, carved in the likeness of Japanese heroes and mythological figures. The elaborate dolls were originally thought to attract the attention of the gods; nowadays their appeal is primarily to Sawara’s visitors — and should my curiosity have been suitably aroused, Shimazaki gestures to a nearby float hall and display room we pass as she guides us back to the main boat launch.

Back on dry land, I plot out my next move and am soon heading for the Inoh Tadataka Museum. An adopted member of one of Sawara’s most notable families, Tadataka (1745-1821) was the first man to survey the entire nation — on foot and after he passed the age of 50 — and produce a complete set of accurate maps.

Lacking the plethora of technological devices we might use today, Tadataka measured distance by the length of his stride. It takes me just under 300 of my own careful paces to reach the doors of his eponymous museum, where a well-crafted exhibit schools me in the principles of map-making before showcasing the gems of the exhibit, wall-size copies of Tadataka’s meticulous cartography. Modern GPS may have rendered Tadataka’s original efforts obsolete, but there’s no denying that the dedicated explorer put Japan — quite literally — on the map.

On my walk back to the station, I purchase a selection of iris bulbs to brighten up my currently plant-free quarters. It’s a final souvenir of the region’s natural beauty that — with luck and a bit of a green thumb — will hopefully last me until I can return next year.

Ayame limited express trains make the trip from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to Itako several times a day in just under 2 hours, stopping at Sawara. Itako’s iris festival runs until June 27, while wedding reenactments (Sat. at 11 a.m., 1 and 8 p.m.; Sun. at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.) and special performances take place on weekends only. Sawara’s Inoh Tadataka Museum (open Tues. to Sun., 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) is a 3-minute walk from the boat launch in the center of town.