Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dashi Kaikan And The Great Float Festival Of Sawara

"A great passion for 
the splendid festival of floats."
Sawara's Great Float Festival

The entrance to the Suigo Sawara Dashi Kaikan (Float Hall).
Sawara, a town of canal by the Toner River, is a vibrant community known for its summer and autumn festivals. The dynamism of these festivals can be experienced at "Dashi Kaikan", where 2 of the 24 floats are shown up close. "Dashi" is generally a float pulled on the streets at festival time, decorated with a figure of a mountain fish, doll, bird, animal, or plant. The word "dashi" (山車) was derived from the word describing the targeted location where God descents down.

The wooden floats are mostly made of zelkova tree. They are surrounded on all four sides by ornamental handrails and are decorated with twisted fresh straw ropes as well as gorgeous canopies. This is because the "dashi" is considered a symbolisation of the throne. Big dolls of 4-meter high or other kind of symbols are set on the top of the floats. Towards the end of the Edo era, luxurious dolls were made by experienced craftsmen of Edo.

Visitors will get the chance to see the floats from close-up at the Float Hall.

The front view of the 8-meter tall float.
 To be honest some were a little intimidating, but they were still pretty impressive.

A close-up view of the one of the two floats figure.

An anecdote says that in the age when Sawara was well-known as a village that produced good rice wine (sake) and soy sauce, there lived a lot of sake masters and young workers at every brewery. On festival days, they were smart "chonai-banten" (workman's livery coat with the initial letter on the back) and draw carts fully loaded with his first products of the year to dedicate them to the shrines. These carts were beautifully decorated with sacred tree branches with green leaves and pendant strips of cut paper, which prompted the villagers to call these carts "dashi" or "heidai". 

Back then, after the festival ended, any decoration on the top floor of the "dashi" was thrown into the fire and  villagers will rebuild a new one in the following year. However, the same decoration are used every year at present day. In the olden days when there were no electric lines over the sky, the figures on the top floor of "dashi" were so huge, that people in nearby village is said to be able to see the upper parts of the figures from distance away across the field.

The artful engravings and beautiful embroidery around the float may make you feel as if you were on the day of the festival.

A mikoshi which is a divine palanquin. Shinto followers believe that it serves as the vehicle to transport a deity in Japan
while moving between main shrine and temporary shrine during a festival.

Small paper lamps which is carried by the people who accompany the float procession during the grand festival.

The floats seen from the second floor of the Float Hall.

As times went by, these "dashi" become more and more beautiful, bigger and taller in size as the brewers began to compete with each others in terms of their decorations and the claim superiority in its size. The brewers also kept in touch with people in other parts of Japan and adopted different culture from every part of Japan. This made Sawara Festival to become more and more gorgeous every year. Today, Sawara Grand Festival (佐原の大祭) which has a tradition of about 300 years, is called one of the three major float festivals in Kanto region (for some reason, in Japan they always list top things in threes). This festival is held twice a year - in the summer festival, 10 floats are operated on Onogawa's east side region; while 14 floats are operated in Onogawa's west side region in autumn.

The summer festival is called "Honjuku Yasaka Shrine's Festival" held for three days on the second or third weekend in July, and the  autumn festival is called "Shinjuku Suwa Shrine's Festival", also held for three days on the second weekend in October. Sawara is divided into two parts - Honjuku on the eastern part and Shinjuku on the western part, by a river called Onogawa river.

A panoramic photo of the grand festival, taken during the special anniversary year, which featured all 24 floats.

Some of the materials on Sawara's float festival, which has been designated as an Important Intangible Folk-Cultural Property.

Musical ornaments such as drums and pipes as well as wooden float sculptures are on display.

There are various dolls, skillfully carved by a group of craftsmen that decorate the top of the floats.
 These dolls, usually measuring about 4 to 5 meter-tall, were derived from the folk tales in the olden days.

Black-and-white photos of the "dashi" taken during the festivals in the olden days. 

The town area called Honjuku, which supports the summer festival includes, Honhashimoto, Kaminakacho, Shimonakacho, Yokaichiba, Tajuku, Terajuku, Niijuku, Hamajuku, Araku, Honcho, Konkawagishi, and Funado. The other area called Shinjuku, which supports the autumn festival, includes, Shinhashimoto, Wakamatsucho, Minamiyokojuku, Shimowake, Kamishinmachi, Shinmoshinmachi, Kitayokojuku, Nishisekido, Higashisekido, Shinuwagashi, Nakakawagishi, Shitagashi, Tanaka, and Yokokawagishi. Each of these blocks owns its proudest festival float.

On festival days, town people pull the floats not only through broad streets but even narrow lanes that could allow it to go through. The floats are all decorated with elaborate carvings on four sides and with a set of tall figure on the top floor. The amazing feature of the festival is the festival music - "Sawara Bayashi", played by music players firmly sitting on the rails of the float. This music, said to date from 400 years ago, is now designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Asset. There is also a dancing team called "Tekomai", performed by young girls drawing the ropes attached to the float, which is a spectacular view worth watching.

 A huge Japanese carp or "koi", made of straw, which will decorate the top of one of the float from Yokaichiba (八日市場) area.

After dark, the best view of the festival is enjoyed on both sides of the Onogawa River. The lit-up floats and figures reflected in the river will be seen swaying on the surface of the water. In the years of good harvest, people are likely to adopt ingenious programs in addition to the ones of the usual year.

There is no written record about the origin of this festival. However, according to "The History of Sawara City", Shinjuku Shrine's festival is believed to have started in 1721. It says that Uno Gonnojo, the 4th head of village (called "nanushi"), took responsibility to organise every procedure with the festival in that year. Unfortunately, any documents about Honjuku Yasaka Shrine's Festival is said to have been lost in a fire. The whole procedure to administer the festival is traditionally decided by a meeting on July 1st (known as "shochokaigi") on the Honjuku side, and on September 1st (known as "hassakusankai") on the Shinjuku side.

Make sure you catch this unique festival, considered the highlight of the year in Sawara.

Suigō Sawara Dashi Kaikan (Float Hall) (水郷佐原山車会館)
Address: 3368 Sawara-I, Katori City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan (within the proximity of Yasaka Shrine grounds) (千葉県香取市佐原イ3368) (八坂神社境内)
Opening Hours: 09:00 - 16:30 (09:00 - 20:30 during the summer festival season)
Closed: Every Monday and Year End and New Year holidays (open every day during the Iris Festival and national holiday)
Admission Fee: 400 yen (adult), 200 yen (elementary and junior high school students) (special discounts for group more than 15 people and set tickets).
Website: (Japanese only)
Tel: 0478-52-4104
Parking: Available
Access: From JR Sawara Station (JR Narita Line) (about 90  minutes from JR Tokyo Station), walk for 15 minutes; Car: 10 minutes from Higashi-Kanto Expressway Interchange・Sawara Katori IC

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Modern Japanese Cuisine At Chiyofuku

"A deep respect for Japanese tradition"
Chiyofuku of Sawara

The entrance to Chiyofuku that welcomes diners into this classy restaurant.

A simple sliding wooden door before we step into this restaurant.

The opportunity to broaden my palate a bit is one of my favourite aspects when I travel to far-away places. It is during these times I get to try something that I could probably never replicate in my own kitchen. It is those culinary experiences that had me steadily loving Japan more and more.

Our trip to Sawara, we were brought to a post restaurant in the middle of Sawara town to have our lunch. Chiyofuku is an elegant restaurant housed in an Edo-era building, which serves modern Japanese cuisine. This restaurant is run by a local revitalization group of volunteers, "Burekimera", that tries to reproduce Japanese history and culture through Japanese cuisine.

The highly original cuisine shows a deep respect for Japanese tradition while infusing novelty into the "washoku" or Japanese cuisine. Surrounded by many historical buildings that still remain along the street, putting a foot into this restaurant makes you feel as if you are brought into the Edo era. In this restaurant, which is reproduced to resemble an Edo-era mansion, diners will be able to enjoy their meal in an environment which brings newness and at the same time, nostalgic memories.

Diners will get to enjoy new Japanese cuisine on stylish and modern seats.

Great Japanese hospitality awaiting everyone who has the chance to dine here.

And the Chiba Kun Ambassadors were lucky to have a rare opportunity to try out the food in Chiyofuku (photo credit: Tooru Ishikawa).

Main, consisting of from top left in clockwise - sashimi, assorted vegetable tenpura, miso soup, rice topped with flavour anchovies, pickles, soy sauce (for sashimi), boiled vegetables (pumpkin, aubergines, carrots, bamboo shoots), sweet corn, eda-mame beans, smoked salmon, tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette).

Last but not least, mochi with red bean paste.

What I like about the red bean paste, or Azuki bean paste is the fact that the flavours are light and not overly sweet. Taking the slightly cold red bean paste with the soft and chewy mochi (Japanese rice cake) creates a nice contrast in textures. This sweet treat was certainly the perfect way to wrap up a wonderful meal.

This restaurant which can accommodate up to 70 people at one time, is especially popular among tourists. It is certainly a perfect place for family and friends, or evening date with your special ones, so make it a point to drop by this restaurant if you happened to be in Sawara.

Sawara Chiyofuku (佐原千よ福)
Address: 1720-1 Sawara-i, Katori City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan (千葉県香取市佐原イ1720-1)
Opening Hours: 11:30 - 15:00 (last order 14:00); 17:00 - 22:00 (last order 21:00)
Closed: Monday (following day if Monday is a national holiday)

Cruising Time: Approximately 50 minutes.
Reservation: Available
Website: (Japanese only)
Tel: 0478-52-1611
Parking: Available
Access: From JR Sawara Station on JR Narita Line (about 90  minutes from JR Tokyo Station), walk for 12 minutes; Car: 30 minutes from Higashi-Kanto Expressway Interchange

Monday, July 14, 2014

Kato-zu's 12 Bridges Boat Ride

"No, no, no. Never. 
I have never fell into the water"
reply from the lady
on the "sappa-bune" boat

The platforms for the boat rides along the 12 bridges in Kato-zu area.

First, we get our tickets here.

Sawara is a little town in the Katori district of Chiba prefecture, about 70 km northeast of Tokyo. A town full of old world charm, Sawara is often referred to as "Little Edo". Recognised by the Tokugawa Shogunate as a distinct area, Sawara was led by a new merchant class that self-governed the area about 300 years ago. The Tone and Ono rivers that connected and facilitated business between Edo and Sawara, also facilitated daily cultural exchange between them. The Sawara community, supported by a growing river-based commerce, continued to grow in sophistication that drove a greater demand for higher culture.

Located within the proximity of Sawara, the northeastern part of Chiba Prefecture and the southern part of Ibaraki Prefecture region was recognized as Suigo Tsukuba Quasi-National Park in 1969. This area, called "suigo" (riverside district), has been changing its shape of land through time under the natural effects of water. The waterfront, ruffling in good harmony with the tide of the water from river, lake and sea, is certainly a great place to get away from the daily stress of work.

Cute cartoon cushion of the greedy cat, to offer a more comfortable experience in the boat.

The lady signalling us to tug our seat-belts as we were taking off very soon.

Beautiful hydrangeas and sakura trees along the waterway.

The 12 bridges will be visible once we take the left turn here.

That is the first of the 12 famous bridges of Kato-zu area.

One word - simply breathtaking (photo credit: Tooru Ishikawa).

There is one area, called Kato-zu, which is located in a vast paddy field zone in the south of the Suigo Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden. One of the most popular sightseeing spot here is its 12 small bridges across the small streams. In the old times, this area used to have a lot of narrow and short bridges over a network of streams for the convenience of the village people. Boat rides along this waterways that run criss-cross, used to be the main mode of transport for the people who lived in this area. There are 12 small bridges along the main waterway, that connect the houses on both sides.

Visitors can get a superb close-up views of the waterside. by taking a ride on flat-bottomed sampans, called "sappa-bune" (さっぱ舟). These boats are skillfully oared by local ferry women in traditional costumes, which allows visitors to enjoy the breathtaking view of the irises and hydrangeas through the narrow waterways. This boat ride is commonly known as the "Kato-zu Jyuni-kyo Fune-meguri" (加藤洲十二橋舟めぐり). The name of 12 bridges (Jyuni-kyo) comes from the fact that the amount of the bridges was twelve (Jyuni).

It looks a little bit like the floating market in Thailand, doesn't it?

Lets take a closer look at what's on offer.

There are several grocery shops along the waterway, and visitors can stop by to grab some souvenir home.

Besides the hand-made handkerchief, key chains, and various other beautiful souvenirs for visitors, there are also local snacks like home-made mochi dessert.

And it was time to head back home. Thanks a lot for the wonderful ride.

The boat ride starts at a short pier set at the side of "Lake Yoda Ura" next to the Aquatic Botanical Garden. However, the boat rides are seasonal and the best time to go is in May and June, when the irises and lotuses are in full bloom.

 Took a photo with two of the ladies. The one on the left made sure she pose with the "peace" sign hahaha! 

12 Bridges Boat Ride in Kato-zu Area (加藤洲十二橋舟めぐり)
Address: 1837-2 Ogishima, Katori City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan (千葉県香取市扇島1837-2)
Opening Hours: Not fixed
Cruising Time: Approximately 50 minutes.
Ticket: 6,500 yen per boat (one boat fits up to 5 people; for more than 5 people, 1,300 yen per person).
Website: (Japanese only)
Tel: 0478-56-2280 (Oku Suigo Kanko Kyodo Kumiai; 奥水郷観光協同組合), 0478-56-0183 (Yodaura Kanko Kumiai; 与田浦観光組合)
Parking: None
Access: From JR Sawara Station (about 90  minutes from JR Tokyo Station), take the Kantetsu Kanko Bus via Yodaura  towards Itako for 25 minutes, then get out at the Suisei Shokubutsuen  Iriguchi bus stop, and walk 5 minutes (during the Blood Iris Festival  time, there is a shuttle bus); Car: 30 minutes from Higashi-Kanto Expressway Interchange

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Iftar With Marina Mahathir In Tokyo

 I am dying for someone to go to my Dad to say, 
"How does it feel to be Marina's Dad?"

on question about her relationship
with Dr. Mahathir

Malay Asian Cuisine, a Malaysian restaurant which was opened early this year and recently officiated by Tun Abdullah.

I first come to know about Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir through her bi-weekly column in The Star newspaper when I was in high school. At the same time, I also enjoy reading her articles on her blog at Rantings byMM. This bubbly, vivacious woman has no problem talking freely about sex, drugs or religion. That was more than a decade ago. Last night, I was lucky enough to join about 80 other Malaysians for a buka puasa (breaking fast) and dialogue session with this towering Malaysian at Malay Asian Cuisine, in Shibuya, Tokyo.

So, who is Marina Mahathir? Below is an excerpt of her biodata, taken from the website of Sisters in Islam (SIS), whom Marina is one of its Board Members since 2009.

Cute orange elephant and Mandarin duck at the reception.

The proboscis monkey, which is the Visit Malaysia Year 2014 mascot.

Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir began her career in advocacy in the HIV/AIDS sector. A graduate of the University of Sussex, she was president of the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) for more than a decade, and was also chairperson of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF). Through her work with the MAC and MAF, Marina came into contact with numerous vulnerable groups, such as the transgender community, drug users, sex workers, migrant workers and people with HIV. After leaving her position as MAC president in 2006, Marina went on to focus on issues related to Islam and gender. She was voted into SIS’s Board in 2009. 

Marina is also a prolific writer and has contributed regularly over the past two decades to Malaysian English-language daily The Star. Her current column, Musings, runs fortnightly on Wednesdays. She is also a popular blogger and her writings have also appeared in numerous other print and online publications. Marina is co-executive producer of the award-winning young women’s television series, 3R - Respect, Relax, Respond. She also co-produced the critically and commercially acclaimed Malaysian film Gol & Gincu, released in 2005, and which went on to spawn a successful television series.   

Marina is the daughter and eldest child of Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

And so, we were there for this rare event with our special guest - Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir.

Marina with Siew Fong, who was the main organiser for the evening.

Marina arrived at the restaurant just before seven, and the first thought I had when I caught the first glimpse of Marina was, "Wow, Marina is so beautiful with her sweet smile, greeting each and everyone there". She seems unpretentious and utterly ordinary. Light chattings continued for a while, followed by the buka puasa sessions.

The menu for the night was one of the best I have had in any Malaysian restaurants in Tokyo. One plate set of our national dish - nasi lemak with rendang ayam, ikan bilis sambal, hard boiled egg, ayam goreng, samosa, sotong sambal. And we also have keropok, acar, banana cake, bubur cha cha as side menus. The ikan bilis sambal and fried chicken was simply out of the world.

The menu of the evening. One word - fantastic!

Once everyone was full, the event officially kicked off with a brief introduction of our special guest by Iqbal, followed by a short (10-seconds) self-introduction by everyone there. Finally, it was the climax of the evening - the dialogue session with Marina, who used to spend 2.5 years in Kobe, Japan in 1987. She started of her speech with, "Minasan, konbanwa".

To summarise her talk, Marina basically talked about the civil society movements in Malaysia, anecdotes of her involvements in various non-govenrmental organisations (NGO), how these movements and organisations raised funds to repair a Catholic cemetery in Kuantan, helped to introduced a Protestant church and Catholic church to work together, the recent issue about the soup kitchen in KL, the introduction of the Wall of Hope for MH370, her participant in BERSIH, how she felt about the current state of education in Malaysia, her relationship with her Dr. Mahathir, her hope to reclaim back Malaysia for Malaysians, etc.

Marina in action, speaking her minds out on various issues.

A candid expression of Marina taking a question during the Q&A session.

Here are some interesting quotes from Puan Marina on the evening:
A couple nights ago, the PM and the FT Minister, and the Women's Minister, who actually started it all, went on a SURPRISE tour of the streets - soup kitchens. Must have been terrifying for them; such alien territory.

Apparently, the PM Tweeted up like, "Wow, the poor really appreciate the soup kitchen." And someone said, "Well, duh...."

I think at the moment, we have a big issue in leadership; as if we don't have one.

The fact that you can even have the discussions is wonderful. It doesn't matter if you disagree or it gets really heated. The fact that you can have it is wonderful; because at home we can't. We really can't. 

Somebody had the idea to bring flowers along (to the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Klang). It wasn't my idea, I just went along. And turned out to be my picture on the front page, handing out these flowers.

After that, we thought, hey look, there are things that Malaysians can do, which are very simple, which represents a different face of Malaysia. Instead of seeing these angry faces all the time, spewing really a lot of hatred, we (Malaysians for Malaysia) wanted to present a different face. So, we started something called "A Walk in The Park".

We got Marina a little present - a cute Wajima nuri (lacquer art from Wajima, Noto Peninsula, Ishikawa)
and two small cute plates with gold fish and water ripple pattern.
In the mainstream national  school very near where I live, the kids, when it comes to sports, they are stereotyped and they cannot get out of the stereotype. They are told to play games according to their stereotype.

So, the Malay kids play football, the Chinese kids play basketball, the Indian kids play hockey.... How to win, like that?
And they wonder why they never win anything. They are not choosing by talent, they are choosing by race. Gosh... You always thought the Brazilians all can play football, right? And now we know they don't necessarily (referring to the 1-7 semifinal lost to Germany). I've been watching a little bit... I know where to hit where it hurts.
Our secondary school kids are in the same level as the primary school kids in Vietnam. It's incredible.
She (Marina's second daughter) started looking at everyone (within few months of enrolling into her school), in terms of what race and what religion they are. And she wanted to know, always.

In the end, we took a very difficult decision, which was to take her out there. The day I had to take her out, I actually cried. I felt so sad because I believed in the (education) system so much and it was really disappointing.

But there are problems with international school too, because it's simply not Malaysia enough.
Her Malay isn't very good. I don't think any of those kids can even name the 13 states in Malaysia. And that is very sad.

 Marina's Tweet on the event on her Twitter at @netraKL.

In many of the (court) cases, if someone overstepping, making a mistake, and overstepping, and then having too much ego to want to step back. And that (Borders bookstore manager, Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz pending court case) is a very typical of a lot of cases that is happening in Malaysia these days, where people (the authority) have made a mistake; they know they have made a mistake but they can't backtrack because they feel that they will lose face. It is all terlanjur sangat dah; cannot pull back already.
If you tell me that it will only gain traction if I talk about it, you are dis-empowering yourself, and that's the problem. Because we keep wanting to put power in the hands of a few, whereas the power is among everybody, it's in everybody. So, everyone needs to take responsibility for their own cause.
Malaysians really got to learn that democracy is not every five years. It is not something you just do every five years. It has to be an ongoing, living process, all the time, all the time.
My husband (Tara Sosrowardoyo, a renown Indonesian professional photographer) blames it (failed in their application to get a Malaysian PR) on me going to BERSIH twice.
I think what we really want is for some sort of sense of rationality, calmness and civility to come back to Malaysia because we cannot carry on like this.
Sleep! And being with my family. (on question about what Marina does to unwind herself)

What's my favourite book? Well, you know, it takes me forever to finish a book because every five minutes, and then I'm asleep.
Actually I think the best way to relax is to turn off Facebook, turn off Twitter.
I was brought up by my father to think, and I think if I didn't think, he would get mad with me. So, it's not been an issue for us. It's been less of an issue for us, than it has been for everyone else.

I get all sorts of nasty things, like, "How can you be like that?" (and I go) "Yea...? (what would you expect?)"

We are so similar. We are both opinionated, we both read a lot, we are concerned about issues; so I think we are very similar. The fact that we have different approaches to things, to me is normal. So it is not an issue at all, we have no problems, we have dinner together, we go on holiday together. It's not such a big deal, but it is a big deal for other people.

They get really like, "Huhhhhh, awat dia buat macam tu???"
I remember once, I just started at the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC), few years in and I had an interview with a business newspaper. We were supposed to talk about the business on running an NGO. And this guy came in, obviously very resentful of having to come and interview me because I'm not some hotshot business person. When he came in, and he sat down, and the first thing he said was, "How does it feel to be the PM's daughter?" And I said, "Get out".
Why? You all have to run home is it? (on calling a close to the dialogue session)

Marina actually left a comment on my Facebook personally. This tells you so much what this towering lady is made of.

I tell you one funny story. My brother, Datuk Mukhriz, he was the Deputy Trade Minister, had a meeting with some foreign trade minister from some other country. And this foreign trade minister said, "Haiz, you know the problem is with my sister. You know, she works in NGO and she's always you know, saying things that are a bit difficult for me and all that". And my brother (Datuk Mukhriz) goes, "I now how that feels".
Malaysians, no matter how far away, or how long they stay away from home, there's a string there that is attached to home. And occasionally that tucks back.
I think, you know, Insha'Allah, one day, I think we will get Malaysia back, but it needs to have everybody working towards it.

It was a great pleasure to meet Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir in person and listening to her inspiring speech.
She is simply a down-to-earth person and there's never a lack in smiles on her face.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Suigo Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden

"This garden boasts the largest collection 
of iris in Asia"
Suigō Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden

 The entrance of Suigō Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden.

During the early months of summer in June, it is the season of iris, a species of flowering plants with showy flowers. It takes its name from the Greek word for a rainbow, referring to the wide variety of flower colors found among the many species. Iris is more commonly known in Japanese as ayame (菖蒲). The first tour of Chiba Kun Ambassadors took us to the city of Katori, which sits in the northeast part of Chiba Prefecture. Tone River flows just to the north, and it is the border between Chiba and Ibaraki prefectures.

The first stop we made was Suigō Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden (水郷佐原水生植物園), a beautiful spot that makes the most of the water and greenery of Suigo Tsukuba Quasi-National Park. Opened in 1969, the garden's approximately 6 hectares of land are covered with what is said to be the largest collection of irises in Asia - 400 varieties of 1.5 million irises bathing the park in purple. This garden is also best known for its rich variety of lotus collection, comprising more than 300 varieties of lotus; the largest in Japan. The irises are at their best in June, and the lotuses in August.

 A platform where wedding ceremony is performed every summer.  The newly weds will strode through the waterways in a boat 
 in full Japanese wedding costume after leaving the platform. It is romantic and historical.

 A path that cuts across the garden where you can enjoy the panorama view of the irises growing along the waterways in the center of the garden. 

 There were beautiful irises in yellow, blue, purple and white.  Red, pink and white water lilies (30 kinds, 5000 plants) float on the water.

The irises were classified and identified carefully with beautiful wooden labels written in kanji characters and with Japanese pronunciation beside it.  

 In the centre of the garden, numerous bridges arched over the waterways for easy access and viewing of the beautiful irises. 

 From late April to June, visitors to this garden get to board the boat, shaped like a bamboo leaf, 
 for a little scenic cruise along the Suigo waterway that winds through the garden.  

The boats are tended by strong older women who were so friendly and ready to tell you many stories about the town. 

One photo on the wooden bridge overlooking the waterway and garden in the background.  

The Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden is the most exquisite Japanese iris garden in Asia. 100,000 blue flags (Iris versicolor) and 50,000 Rabbit-ear irises (Iris laevigata) bloom on the garden in April and May, followed by the flowering of Japanese Irises. Different varieties of irises with chic names like Fujibakama and Dainagon bloom in white, purple and yellow in their various zones. The collection included 400 kinds of the Edo, Higo and Ise iris groups and visitors are overwhelmed at the vastness of 1.5 million flowers in bloom.  In cultivating its irises, the garden maintains technical ties with Nanjing and Wuxi in China.

The Iris Festival is held in this garden throughout the month of June every year. Unfortunately, it was already the last day of the festival during our visit. So, most of the irises had dried off and we did not get to see the garden at its best time. However, we managed to get see some of the lotus flowers which have started to bloom. In July, lotus flowers take the stage. Over 300 types of lotus are grown here, including a small lotus seldom seen in Japan. There are many rare types, and you can enjoy as many colors of lotus as your heart desires. Visitors can also try drinking Japanese alcohol using a lotus leaf as a utensil and drink through the long lotus stem.  This natural utensil is lovingly called the "elephant's nose cup".

 Further at the back of the garden has a large lotus collection, said to be the largest in Japan.

 Many of the lotuses have been donated by Nanjing and they bloom in white, red, pink and yellow during July and August. 

Very rare kinds of lotuses such as the Chiben (lotus with many flower heads) can be viewed here. The best time for viewing the lotus is in the morning (photo credit: Tooru Ishikawa). 

 With Southeast Asian beauties - May (left) from Myanmar and Tiari (right) who hails from Bali, Indonesia. 

 An unexpected visitor on the lotus pond (photo credit: Tooru Ishikawa). 

In addition to iris and lotus, early May is the best time to see its wisteria flowers with their subtle fragrances. The elegant wisteria flower, that bloom dripping long flowers, are usually held on the first 10 days of May. The 13 wisteria flower trellises form a 100-meter long tunnel, and is indeed a masterpiece. Anyone would be surprised by its huge size.

There are souvenir shops selling biscuits, mochi and Japanese sweets in the iris shape, and several eateries that offers hot noodle, soba and curry rice.During the Iris Festival time, there are also massive stands and nurseries were set up in the parking lots showcasing the varieties available. Visitors can grab some irises of exceptional beauty and unusual colors from the shops to be brought back as souvenirs.

 The group photo of Chiba Kun Ambassadors at the garden (photo credit: Madoka Usui). 

Suigō Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden (水郷佐原水生植物園)
Address: 1837-2 Ogishima, Katori City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan (千葉県香取市扇島1837-2)
Opening Hours: 08:00 - 18:30 during the Iris Festival (hours vary in other seasons)
Closed: Every Monday and Year End and New Year holidays (open every day from May to August) )
Admission Fee: 700 yen (during the Iris Festival from the end of May to end of June), 500 yen from May to August (excluding the Iris Festival time), 200 yen other times.
Website: (Japanese only)
Tel: 0478-56-0411
Parking: Free (700 cars, 40 buses) 
Access: From JR Sawara Station (about 90 minutes from JR Tokyo Station), take the Kantetsu Kanko Bus via Yodaura towards Itako for 25 minutes, then get out at the Suisei Shokubutsuen Iriguchi bus stop, and walk 5 minutes (during the Blood Iris Festival time, there is a shuttle bus); Car: 30 minutes from Higashi-Kanto Expressway Interchange