Updated: Mar 8, 2019
One hidden gem near Tokyo worth your time
Sawara is a small city (or rather it should be said "was," since in 2006 it merged with three other towns to form a new city, Katori, and thus no longer exists as an independent body) located in Chiba Prefecture, roughly two hours away by train from Tokyo station, or an hour from Narita Airport. As a settlement, it existed since the Jomon period and starting with the Nara period it got established as a port, becoming an important centre of local communication, with ties to the nearby Katori Jingu （香取神宮） shrine.
The question one might ask is, is it worth investing a whole day to visit this place? To which the answer is - definitely yes. Sawara is sometimes being called " Little Edo" for a reason. Its city centre with a canal running through it is an exceptionally well-preserved old merchant town, with an atmosphere as if taken out of old samurai movies. You can walk through it on foot, or rent a boat and have a pleasant cruise through the canal, which boasts a waterfall bridge (the boat will be operated by a Japanese guide, so you don`t need to worry about your rowing skills not being up to the task, and you can have a nice conversation during the cruise).
One of the perks of visiting Sawara is that unlike in many other popular sites, like Kyoto`s Gion or Asakusa in Tokyo, you can experience this atmosphere of old Japan without having to fight your way through the masses of other tourists. For one, it`s still not as widely known as those places mentioned above, and also since its centre is relatively small not that many people are willing to wage a two-hour trip to get there. Which of course means more privacy and calmer environment for those who are. There is also an aquatic botanical garden in Sawara (although the author of this article has never been there), as well as a plethora of shops worth visiting. You can spend a night in one of the local inns (or ryokans / 旅館 in Japanese) and/or have a Japanese eel for lunch. Neither of those is particularly cheap, but both are more than worth the price paid.
One more place worth visiting is Katori Jingu (香取神宮) nearby. You can get to the shrine via a taxi, take a bus (although it must be noted that if you are a first timer it might be a bit tough to recognise the proper bus stop and which bus to get into), or simply have a 30-minute walk to get there. If you opt for the walk, which is what the author usually does, please be aware that in Summer you would be walking through open space with little to no shade and convenience stores being rather scarce, ergo be careful, wear a hat and have at least one full bottle of water with you.
Katori Jingu`s main deity is Futsunushi-no-kami ( 経津主神 ), Amaterasu`s general and the kami of swords. It`s also closely tied to Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu ( 天真正伝香取神道流 ), one of the oldest martial arts still practised today in Japan and worldwide. As such it is a mecca for martial arts practitioners from Japan and abroad, together with Kashima Jingu located nearby (it is possible to visit both shrines in one day). Even if you`re not particularly interested in Japanese martial arts, the shrine is still worth visiting for its unique visage, beautiful main hall and old cedar trees adorning the premises. It`s a serene and quiet place, offering a different kind of experience than big shrines like Meiji Jingu in Tokyo.
It is also worth mentioning that it holds its main festival on 12th April each and every year, and although it is bound to be more crowded than usual during that day, it is still worth your time and effort to go there.