My favorite part of the Chiba-kun ambassador tour revolved around the water: exploring the city’s canals by boat and walking the historic streets along the canal. (If you don’t know me, I’m kind of obsessed with water. I’d like to think this reflects my thirst for life.) This is one of the coolest historic places in Chiba prefecture, so you need to come and visit this Japanese Venice!
The twelve bridges of Kato-zu boat tour
Right next to the Suigo Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden was a little pier with boats. This kind of flat-bottomed boat is called a “sappa-bune.” This is where we started our boat tour of the city.
These boats are steered by women who skillfully maneuver with only a pole in the water to push us forward. I’m really jealous of this arm strength, especially now that I’m on crutches and lacking in that department. They do this wearing a hat made of sedge leaves and Monpe pants, a type of Japanese work clothing.
As advertised, there are 12 bridges. These bridges were built for people living along the canal to easily access other parts of the town. It was a nice glimpse into Japanese daily life as I imagined living next to a canal.
Somehow, Chiba-kun got away from me and started trying on parts of the boat woman’s uniform.
“Little Edo” Sawara Historic Merchant Town
Sawara is known as “Little Edo” because of the historic merchant district along the Onogawa river that hasn’t changed much since the Edo period. Sawara used to exist as a separate city until it was merged with other nearby towns to form Katori city, so don’t be confused like I was by all the Sawara this, Sawara that. We’re still in Katori city.
This lovely district is the only one in Chiba to be officially recognized by the Japanese government as an area of historic preservation. This designation mandates protection and preservation of the district’s cultural significance.
What I love about visiting other countries is the sense of history you can feel just by walking down the street. If countries were people, the US would be a crawling toddler. So walking around the streets of a place built in the 1500s with stores 100-200 years old was inspiring.
I wish I had time to go into all of the stores. I found one selling these red bean sweets (monaka) as omiyage (souvenirs) for my coworkers, and another one that had this really cool Japanese monsters hand towel. We also stopped by a store that had a guy carving crazy expensive wooden ear picks in the store window.
Below is the Toyohashi bridge that does the waterfall thing every 30 minutes. It’s known as the “ja ja” bridge because “ja ja” is a Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of running water. Maybe kind of like “whoooosh whoooosh” bridge in English.
One of Katori’s most famous citizens is Inoh Tadataka, a man who walked all over Japan to create the first map of Japan using modern surveying techniques. Talk about badass.
The house where Inoh Tadataka lived is designated as a National Historic Site and conveniently located along the same Onogawa canal. All the maps, drawings, documents, and tools he left behind are actual National Treasures and are housed in the Inoh Tadataka Memorial Museum. Unfortunately his house was under construction, and I didn’t have enough time to visit the museum. Guess that means I’ll have to go back sometime!
Overall, I loved the historic feel of the merchant district and the canals. This area isn’t too far from the Narita Airport, so it’s a great place to spend a day!
The twelve bridges of Kato-zu boat tour (水郷佐原十二橋船めぐり)
-Access: The boat tour starts from the pier at Lake Yoda Ura, right next to the Suigo Aquatic Botanical Garden.
- By train, get off at JR Sawara station (Narita line) and take the Kan-Tetsu sightseeing bus for Itako (20 min). Get off at the Aquatic Botanical garden stop and walk 5 min.
- By car, take the Higashi Kanto Expressway, 20 min from the Sawara-Katori exit, or 25 min from the Taiei exit. Free parking available!
-Admission: 1 boat is ￥6,500 and fits up to 5 people
-Website in English
Sawara Historic Merchant Town District
-Access: From the JR Sawara Station, walk 10 min to the Onogawa river.
-Website in English
-Here’s a map to the Inoh Tadataka Memorial Museum, but you can clearly see the canal to the right of it. (Hint: it’s the only blue river-looking thing nearby.)