Narita International Airport, also known as Tokyo Narita Airport, is the most popular gateway to Japan, but in reality, it is not in Tokyo at all. It is a 60-minute express train ride (80-90 minute bus ride) outside of Tokyo in Chiba Prefecture. If you are stuck by Narita Airport, because of a long flight connection, there is still lots to do. Sakura City is a twenty-minute taxi or train ride (JR or Keisei lines) from Narita Airport. Overflowing in history, it is renowned for its well restored former samurai residences and the National Museum of Japanese History, whose exhibits reveal the story of Japan from archaeological discoveries to modern times. From an artistic perspective, Sakura boasts two distinctive art museums: Sakura City Museum of Art and Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art. The former was previously the Sakura City branch of Kawasaki Bank and its entrance way is a prefectural cultural property. It displays work by local artists from Sakura and Chiba's Boso Peninsula. The latter museum is heralded for its rich collection of European masters, including: Rembrandt, Renoir, Monet, Chagall, Picasso and Braque, as well as 20th Century Japanese sensei, such as Korin Ogata.
Samurai History and Residences
In 1610, Doi Toshikatsu, the Roju or Chief Advisor to the second shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, began constructing Sakura Castle and its surrounding town. Today the castle is in ruins, but its structural remains and its dry moat are the cornerstone of Sakura Castle Park. The park is also famous for its June flowers – magnificent ajisai or hydrangea and its nine-thousand irises in 46 varieties, which bloom around the main pond.
East of the Castle Park is Sakura Samurai Street. Here you will find five well-maintained Samurai residences -- the largest number collectively still-standing in Kanto (Greater Tokyo area), where the street view has not changed since the Edo Period. These houses have indicative thatched roofs and earthwork barriers for their defense. Three of them, Kawara House, Tajima House, and Takei House, are opened to the public. Because these three houses differed in rank and value of fief, you can get an idea of the variation of the lives of samurai by comparing them. Kawara House, built in the early 19th Century, is the oldest of the three open houses, and it belonged to one of the highest ranking samurai of the time.
On nearby Kaburagimachi street, is Hotta House (10 am – 4:30 pm, Tues-Sun). It was built in1890 by Masamoto Hotta, the last feudal lord of Sakura, when he moved from Tokyo after the Meiji restoration. Made in traditional Japanese tatami-mat/shoji-screen style, it is a complex of five wooden buildings with tiled, hipped roofs, along with a storehouse and a gate-keeper's lodge. The complex is designated an Important Cultural Property of Japan. Its grounds, known as Sakura Garden, were created by Ito Hikoemon, a famous Meiji Period gardener. The garden is acclaimed as one of the best scenic views in Chiba Prefecture, and is always open to the public.
You will need three hours to fully appreciate the National Museum of Japanese History. (I didn't and I'm sorry about that.) This is an excellent introduction to Japan before you set out on your grand national exploration. You will see more than 200,000 artifacts with your complimentary English-language audio guide (free only to foreigners), and you will learn about the emergence of Japanese culture from the Paleolithic age to the present. The history of a nation and its people unfold through objects of daily life: from Jomon pottery (12000 to 300 BC) to painted Edo Period shoji screens, depicting Japan's relationship with foreign countries during the 18th Century; from replica masted ships, used in the Kashima nagashi ceremony in Akita Prefecture to banish misfortune to the spirit world; to a scale model of a real Western-style school house in Yamanashi Prefecture circa 1875, when the silk and iron industries began driving Japan's Meiji Period economic growth; to the “war and peace” life and culture of the 1930s to 1970s, as conveyed through real publications and video news footage of the day.
If you have time, go on to the Sakura area art museums, but if not, head over to Narita City or back to the airport to catch your flight.
April 17, 2014