Samurai towns, vegetable picking & a peek into Hell: Chiba, an underrated place between Tokyo & Narita Airport

If you're looking for a trip a little off the beaten path.

Ashley Tan | August 23, 2020, 03:41 PM

Japan is every Singaporean's go-to holiday destination.

Perhaps not just Singaporeans, as Japan is supposedly the number one country where most people would hope to visit after the Covid-19 pandemic.

With its sumptuous cuisine, clean streets and charming mish-mash of traditional and modern cultures, what's there not to love?

Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are some of its most popular cities, but if you've already checked the Glico Running Man, Fushimi Inari shrine and streets of Akihabara off your list, where to head to next?

You can try out a less travelled and off the beaten path and check out Chiba prefecture for your next trip to Japan.

Chiba? Where's that?

The average tourist might not have heard of Chiba before.

The prefecture is actually located next to Tokyo, and is where Narita International Airport can be found at.

You've been flying and travelling in and out of Chiba and you didn't even know!

Chiba is the sixth most populous prefecture, and is also where Tokyo Disneyland is situated at.

One rather interesting factoid is the shape of the prefecture.

If you squint a little at the map, the prefecture actually resembles the side view of a dog, with the north-west point of the prefecture being the tip of its nose.

Photo from mapsofworld.com

Which is how the mascot of Chiba arose, Chi-ba Kun!

This picture probably makes it a little bit clearer.

Photo from Japan Chiba Guide

You might be pleased to know though, that Chiba is more than just its unconventional geographic shape and quirky mascot.

The prefecture also boasts unique food, stunning scenery and beautiful architecture.

Here are just some of the attractions to jot down for your future itinerary.

For the history buffs

Naritasan Shinshoji Temple

I travelled to Chiba in December 2019, towards the end of autumn, and one of the first few places I visited was Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, a sprawling complex located in Narita City, not far from the airport.

The temple complex, which has stood for over a thousand years, features a variety of temples and pagodas with incredible traditional architecture.

Entrance fees, at ¥1,300 (S$16.85), are pretty affordable as well.

A large fountain in front of a pagoda even made for a particularly Instagram-worthy moment. I was lucky on that day, and even managed to spot a mini rainbow forming from the water's spray.

There's also a serene park with wistful gardens, ponds and bubbling streams you can stroll through and admire the colours of fall.

If you're feeling peckish next, head over the Naritasan's Omotesando (or shopping street), which is lined with restaurants, craft and souvenir shops.

There, you can find one of the prefecture's specialty food—Unagi.

They're so famous for it, you can watch chefs skilfully demonstrating stripping and slicing the eels right in front of your eyes.

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You can find more information on how to get to Naritasan Shinshoji Park and Temple here.

Boso No Mura Open Air Museum

If you truly want to go back in time and immerse yourself in the history of 1600s Edo period, head to Boso No Mura Open Air Museum.

The charming place replicates a typical village from the Edo period, and comes complete with merchant houses, shops and farms.

Visitors can participate in workshops held inside these traditional buildings to paint your own mask, decorate candles, and bake senbei rice crackers.

Step inside the small wooden buildings, let go of your tourist bindings, and envisage what it's like to be a simple merchant free of the modern trappings of capitalism and technology.

All you need to care about are whether your vegetables are growing well daily.

And what trip to Japan is complete without some cosplaying?

A small shop outside the museum, Cosplay Annex, rents a range of costumes to visitors. What sets it apart though, is the availability of samurai and ninja costumes, aside from the typical kimonos and yukatas.

If you want to channel your inner action hero, you get to wield a sword too (albeit a fake one).

For those who still prefer the more feminine outfits, you can opt for a flowery, embroidered hakama.

At the time we visited the museum, it was completely empty, which gave us free reign to frolick around, pose and take as many photos as we wanted.

The entrance fee is also a very inexpensive ¥300 (S$3.89). English guides can be booked for free, but be sure to do so in advance, as the guides work at the museum on a volunteer basis.

Sawara

Sawara was personally, my favourite destination out of all the places I visited in Chiba.

This rustic and quaint little town is full of Edo period charm, and its most outstanding feature is a delightful canal running through the middle of Suigo district.

The town is also known as "Little Edo", for its preservation of historical buildings from that era.

In the late 1500s, the town used to be inhabited by rich merchants and samurais who used the water passageways as a mode of transport.

Famous cartographer Ino Tadataka, who completed the first map of Japan, took up residence in Sawara in the 1750s. Visitors can even take a look at his house which has been well preserved through the years.

Stroll through its streets and you'll notice the distinctive olden-day architecture.

The canal is also flanked by quirky shops and hidden alleys which you can explore.

Aside from modern cafes and restaurants (the restaurant at Hotel Nipponia serves fantastic French cuisine made with local products), there are shops that sell traditional goods like sweet cakes, crackers, bamboo items and souvenirs.

The tourist information centre is run by a genial old Japanese man, and has a small area where visitors can try their hand at calligraphy.

One especially pleasant place was this rest point—the entrance is marked by a big red umbrella.

There are seating areas members of the public can occupy for free, and another larger cozy seating area on the second level.

There's also a souvenir shop and a tiny cafe inside.

When we arrived, a group of Japanese men was sitting on the cushions, chit-chatting and drinking tea. It made for a very homely feel indeed.

Sawara's definitely something to include in your Chiba itinerary, and if the above reasons aren't enough to convince you, the place has annual festivals like the biannual Sawara Matsuri where floats parade through town.

You can find more info here.

For the nature lovers

Yoro Valley

If you're not a city gal or lad, fret not. Chiba boasts its own spectacular nature areas too.

Yoro Valley is one such place, with its famous Awamata Falls.

The valley is particularly striking in autumn, where the trees turn a vivid shade of orange. Perfect for those landscape shots.

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日本🇯🇵千葉 養老渓谷粟又の滝 Japan🇯🇵Chiba Awamata Falls in Yoro Valley🍁🍁 Healed by the sound of water🍀 ・ #日本 #千葉 #養老渓谷 #粟又の滝 #ダレカニミセタイフウケイ #ダレカニミセタイケシキ #紅葉 #マイトリ #マイトリップ #旅に出たい #旅したくなるフォト #旅好きな人と繋がりたい #写真好きな人と繋がりたい #japan #chiba #yorovalley #awamatafalls #autumnleaves #lovers_nippon #amazingjapan #japantrip #japanfocus #retrip_nippon #phot_jpn #japantravelphot #place_wow #wonderful_places #genic_trip

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Le roadtrip terminé et bien installés dans le workaway, nous en avons profité pour visiter la préfecture de chiba ! 🏞️ Notre premier arrêt a été la vallée de Yoro dans le "Yoro keikoku okukiyosumi prefectural national park" 🏞️ Cet endroit regorge de randonnées en tout genre et de toutes longueurs! Malheureusement pour nous, les dégâts d'Hagibis étaient encore présents et certains passages étaient donc bloqués 🏞️ Ça ne nous a pas empêché de profiter et de voir des décors à couper le souffle ! 🏞️ Place maintenant aux fêtes de fin d'année, on attends bien au chaud dans notre chalet le passage du Père Noël ! 🏞️ Et vous, qu'avez vous prévu pour ces fêtes de fin d'année ? 🏞️ #japanexplorer #japon #japan #日本 #pvtjapon #pvtistes #whvjapan #whv #pvt #destinationjapon #photographeamateur #passionphoto #japanadventures #daily_photo_japan #hiking_my_life #hikinggram #yorovalley #chibaprefecture #japangram #japan_inside #landscapephotography #hikingdaily

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The falls lead to a rushing river flanked by rock paths visitors can stroll along or simply sit and relax on.

Explore the various walking trails and get your dose of tranquility along the way.

Be careful though, for some paths are pretty slippery when wet—I nearly lost my footing quite a few times.

Mt. Nokogiri

Mount Nokogiri is another nature site you can check out if you're looking for breathtaking views of the city from up high.

The mountain is named after a traditional Japanese saw, nokogiri, due to its jagged cliffs and rock formations.

The cliffs are made of granite, and its stones have supplied the building blocks for numerous iconic statues in Tokyo.

If you'd rather work for the views, you can hike up the mountain, or if you're lazier like me, there's a scenic ropeway up to the top, which is 329m above sea level.

The ropeway costs ¥500 (S$6.48) for a one-way trip, and ¥950 (S$12.31) for a round trip.

Unfortunately on the day we visited, the mountain was covered in thick fog, and this was the view we were met with at the summit. The persistent drizzle wasn't helping any, either.

SAD.

If you're there on a good day though, here's what some of the views, and your photos, could look like.

This Jigoku Nozoki—also known as View of Hell, or Hell Peek Point, IS a lookout point from which you can look down and see the whole of Boso peninsula and much of Tokyo Bay.

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Nokogiriyama.

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The name, likely derived from the sheer drop below, seems rather at odds with the place's scenic views.

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When you get a view like this, after climbing in the super hot Japanese summer it's worth all the pain! #summer #hiking #adventure #nokogiriyama #hikinginjapan #trekking #japanesesummer #ilovemountains #chiba #japan #awesomeearth #wonderful_places

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At the foot of the mountain is the giant daibutsu, or Buddha statue.

This statue is the largest one of Buddha in the whole of Japan, measuring at 31.05m from top to toe.

It's also centuries old—it was first constructed in 1783 and was subsequently restored in 1969.

Photos absolutely do not do justice to the sheer scale of the monument.

Entrance fees to view the Buddha are ¥600 (S$7.78) for adults and ¥400 (S$5.19) for children.

For families

Ponpoko Village

If you're looking for an educational, yet potentially back-breaking activity to occupy your kids for a few hours, Ponpoko Village in Kisarazu is the one to choose.

This quaint little farm grows purely organic vegetables, and is run by a father-son duo.

The farm grows over 60 types of vegetables per year, differing between seasons.

Guests can pick their own veggies, and barbecue them on the spot. Remember to bring your own dressings.

During our visit, Mikami-san and his son surprised us with two huge platters of vegetables freshly harvested merely an hour before we arrived.

The carrots were sweet and the lettuce crunchy, and Ponpoko Village doesn't use any pesticides so you can rest assured that these snacks are tasty, nutritious and safe.

We even got to try some extremely saccharine sweet potatoes, roasted on the spot.

You can make bookings via their Instagram or Facebook. And don't worry about the language, Mikami-san has a handy translating device, and the farm is familiar with foreign guests.

Here are just some of their many guests showing off their freshly plucked veggies.

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2020/2/2 今日のぽんぽこ村 暖かい1日でしたね〜前日の様な強い風もふかなくてポカポカ陽気でした(≧∇≦) 今日もリピーターのお客様をはじめ、とびっきりの笑顔に包まれましたーありがとうございました😊 アップが遅くなりゴメンなさい💦まさかの寝落ちとか言えな、、、(T . T) 私も楽しかったですーまた気軽に遊びに来て下さいね♪♪───O(≧∇≦)O────♪ #ぽんぽこ村 #農業公園ぽんぽこ村 #木更津 #千葉 #アクアライン #収穫体験 #収穫 #食育 #笑顔 #笑顔が一番 #笑顔が人を幸せにする #笑顔が元気の源 #笑顔満開 #ありがとうございました #また気軽に遊びに来てね😁 #まさかの寝落ち #ゴメンなさい

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Tokyo German Village

Now Tokyo German Village might seem like a bit of an oddity.

En route to the village, there was nothing except darkness and a few buildings, before you abruptly stumble upon this glittering landscape.

The theme park, which in other seasons typically displays fields of flowers aiming to replicate a rural German landscape (hence its name), is transformed into a bright sea of lights during its winter illumination.

The various coloured lights are even arranged in such a pattern that when viewed from above, paints a gigantic design.

Every year, a new theme is introduced for the designs.

This place is perfect for families and couples alike, as there are plenty of light fixtures and sculptures for photo opportunities.

Some of these are even interactive as well. This rocket ship sculpture has a button you can press, which sets off a voice-over of a countdown and sound effects of a ship blasting away.

One light fixture I found the most interesting was that of a dragon. Visitors could pick up a sword in front and slash at the dragon to "kill" it, and the sculpture would respond with flashing flames and dragon roars.

Tickets are typically around ¥1,500 (S$19.44).

Narita Dream Dairy Farm

Last but not least, the Narita Yume Bokujo (Narita Dream Dairy Farm) definitely makes a perfect destination for a family outing.

The 30ha farm spreads out across wide-open fields and boasts numerous family-friendly activities to keep you and your little ones occupied for a full day.

The farm has a whole range of domestic animals, and is almost sort of like a huge petting zoo cum resort.

One pen holds lumbering cows which you can stroke over the fence, and scheduled milking sessions take place nearby so visitors can get a peek as to how this activity is carried out in real life.

A huge fenced up area holds countless free-roaming goats, sheep and chickens, which you can feed with some hay bought from a stall.

Be careful though, the animals can get pretty rambunctious in the presence of food and may swallow you up in a mass of fuzzy wool.

There are also pony rides, a guinea pig petting zoo, a rather odd duck race (you have to see it for yourself), and go-kart area.

When we visited the area, kids were screaming and gallivanting everywhere—you can tell how much fun they were having.

Several greenhouses are situated inside the farm complex too, and you get to pluck basketfuls of strawberries and vegetables like carrots and radishes.

Do note though, that this requires you to fork out around ¥1,700 (S$22.04) for a 20-minute harvesting session.

The farm also produces its own dairy products, which are then used for its food and other snacks at the various restaurants and souvenir shops.

We tried the milky ice cream, a specialty at the farm, which used fresh milk from the cows there. Very thick and creamy.

Entrance into Narita Dream Dairy Farm costs around ¥1,400 (S$18.15) for adults and ¥700 (S$9.07) for kids. You can find out more information here.

Do note, this is not an exhaustive list of attractions in Chiba. There's plenty for everyone to do, and even city-loving folks can while their time away at the malls in Narita City.

There is some beauty though, in the prefecture's less populous rural areas and attractions, with its rich history and lush scenery.

Excited to head to Chiba already?

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Top photo and all other photos by Ashley Tan