Mito, Ibaraki's Art Tower
There’s an old joke that says, “Ibaraki is the 47th most interesting prefecture in Japan… out of the 47 prefectures in Japan.” Yet, if this is really true, I cannot imagine what makes this prefecture uninteresting! A few weeks ago, in collaboration with All Japan Tours and Ibaraki Prefecture’s Department of Tourism, I had an opportunity to explore everything Ibaraki has to offer for travelers. Before my stay I wasn’t sure what to expect. I only knew Ibaraki on a casual basis—as the place where some of my friends live, or the place where I might have gone to a wedding once. In truth, I imagined the most interesting thing for travelers might be staying on a farm and experiencing rural Japan. However, by the end of my trip I was moved not only by how exciting Ibaraki is, but also by the amazing people!
During my trip, I learned that Ibaraki is definitely not Japan’s most boring prefecture. Rather, the people there are the humblest in all of Japan. As pottery artist Kouji Masubuchi told me, "Ibaraki is a very flat area while other places in Japan are mountainous. The land makes the people from here value equality above all. No one needs to fight to get on top of any invisible hills, and no one dares to. When Ibaraki’s people talk about their hometowns, they’re more likely to shrug off their accomplishments because they don’t want to seem like they’re bragging." Yet, Ibaraki is teeming with accomplishments, and its inhabitants have every right to brag. On behalf of this incredible prefecture I’m going to boast a bit about the top 10 things to do in Ibaraki.
Living Quarters of the Tokugawa Family
My tour started in Mito, the capital of Ibaraki, at the Kodokan Mito Han School. Established in 1841 by Daimyo Tokugawa Nariaki the Kodokan Mito Han School taught feudal lords and their children, and served as the boyhood home for Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun of Japan. Nariaki believed that his school should not only teach fighting techniques but also literature and medicine. At this school, you can see the classrooms where the lords studied, the grounds where they sparred, and the family’s living quarters. At the end of the tour, I had the chance to see a small museum of relics and photos of the school during its glory days. The school doesn’t provide an official tour for visitors, but there are guided videos English speakers can download to their smartphones that explain the details of each room.
Tip: Just a five-minute walk from the Kodokan Mito Han School’s front gate takes you to the campuses of the local elementary, middle, and high school, which stand where the Mito Castle once did. Surrounding the schools is a recreation of what Mito Castle’s walls would have looked like!
The Kodokan Mito Han School isn’t the only legacy of Tokugawa Nariaki. A short drive over takes you to….
Kairakuen's Azaleas in Bloom
Kairakuen is one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens. Unusually, Nariaki opened this garden to the public because—true to Ibaraki philosophy—he believed in equality among lords and commoners. Nariaki designed the garden in harmony with yin and yang principles, so visitors could reflect on both the darkness and lightness of life. Entering the Kobuntei Front Gate, you’ll find yourself shrouded in the shadows of the bamboo forest. Historically, Nariaki harvested the bamboo for food, as well as to make archery bows. The winding path then takes you to another forest of cedar trees that stretch taller than houses.
As you make your way to the “yang” side of the garden, you pass by the Kobuntei building where Nariaki once entertained guests, and travelers can enjoy tea ceremony on the first weekend of every month. The yang side also holds Nariaki’s famous plum trees which bloom in early spring. Tokugawa Nariaki loved plum trees because their blossoms are the pioneers of spring, as they bloom before any other flower, and plum fruits are easy to preserve for times of famine. Today, the garden has around 3,000 plum trees of 100 different varieties. If you miss the plum blossoms, don’t worry! Kairakuen features other seasonal flowers like cherry blossoms, azaleas, wisteria and more. Venture to the edge of the park’s cliff to see a superb view of Lake Senba below. Including the lake, it’s said that Kairakuen is the second-largest city park in the world behind Central Park in New York City!
From here, we got back in our car to….
Oarai Isosaki Shrine's Torii Gate at Sunrise
Our next destination took us to the neighboring coastal city, Oarai, which is famous for Iwagaki (giant oysters). First, we went to Oarai Isosaki Shrine. The shrine itself is particularly popular with fans of the show Girls und Panzer. True to form, we spotted several Ema (small wooden plaques with prayers written on them) featuring drawings of some fans’ favorite characters. However, the most popular sight for travelers isn’t the shrine itself, but a Torii Gate near the shrine which sits on the reef in the nearby Pacific shore. On New Year’s Day, locals and residents of neighboring prefectures flock here to witness the year’s first sunrise as it lights up the shimmering water.
You might see fishermen standing on the reef trying to bring in their catches, but I don’t recommend visitors trying to traverse the reef for a photo-op. The waves here are strong and the reef is slick. Some visitors who try end up falling and getting injured. Worst case scenario, they may even be swept away. A better and safer summer beach destination is located a little further down: Oarai Sun Beach, which is famous for surfing, swimming, and other water sports. It’s also locally known as “lovers’ lane.” We settled down at the fishing port to have our lunch, situated between Oarai Sun Beach and the Torii Gate.
Tempura-style Giant Oysters Set Meal
In English, Ka-chan no Mise can be translated to “Mama’s Shop.” The shop is located near the port and fish market, and the chefs are all wives of fishermen, so you’re sure to get the freshest homecooked seafood here! Note that this shop is extremely popular among locals and the line to get inside sometimes wraps around the block! Yet, you may not have to wait as long as you think; the shop serves meals quickly, and customers are aware that others are waiting. It took us about 10 to 15 minutes from entering the line to being served our food. My set came with two giant fried oysters, rice topped with baby sardines, miso soup, six pieces of raw fish, and pickles. I was surprised at the large portions and couldn’t finish despite skipping breakfast that morning! True to the name Mama’s Shop, I felt like my own mother was shoving food in front of me insisting that I was too skinny!
Tip: If you don’t have the time or patience to wait, Kachan no Mise is located directly across from a small market area lined with family restaurants and small booths that are happy to grill up fresh seafood of your choosing.
We tried our best to walk our heavy meals off as we went to our next destination.
Left: Mentaiko Rice Ball. Right: Mentaiko Soft Serve Ice Cream.
Mentai Oarai Park is a pollack roe factory turned theme park where you can learn about and taste seasoned pollack roe. The first part of the tour takes you down a long, dark hallway designed to reflect the depths of the ocean. You almost feel like you are underwater as you learn about different types of pollack, and how to determine the difference between high-quality and low-quality roe. Turning the corner leads you to the factory’s observation windows. 100 employees qualify, clean, and package 5,000 kg (over 1,000 lbs) of roe every day. The tour ends in a combined small supermarket and food court where you can shop for snacks to take home, sample raw roe, and enjoy typical treats like pollack roe rice-balls, or unusual ones like roe ice cream!
Note that pollack roe is quite different from caviar. Pollack roe glows in a brilliant red, retains a salty flavor, and has an extra spicy kick! As strange as it might sound, I highly recommend the pollack roe ice cream where salt, sweet, and spice create a perfect treat to take the heat off.
Feeling a little sluggish, bellies full to the brim, we journeyed on to the day’s main event.
Baby Blue Eyes Flowers
One of Ibaraki’s most popular destinations is Hitachi Seaside Park. You must visit this fantastic site at least once (or twice) in your life! The park’s 350 hectares (864 acres) include flower gardens, cycling roads, nature preserves, and a carnival! Hitachi Seaside Park is most famous for its display of 4.5 million Baby Blue Eyes (nempholia) flowers in spring. If you can’t visit during this annual event, the park offers flower displays year-round including narcissus, tulips, rape blossoms, and more. If you get tired of walking through many miles of park, rest your tired feet by hopping on the park’s very own Seaside Train to enjoy picturesque views from your comfortable seat.
Mr. Masubuchi (right) Standing Outside of Kozan Gama
The next morning we went to Kasama City, famed for its pottery and ceramic artists. First, we went to a shop called Kozan Gama where I sat down with owner Masubuchi Kouji who taught me about pottery and Ibaraki itself. Masubuchi is half businessman, half teacher, and all artist. Kozan Gama isn’t your everyday pottery shop. Typically, pottery shops house 2 or 3 artists in residence, but Kozan Gama is home to 7 artists including 3 traditional craftsmen certified by the Japanese government! As a result, Kozan Gama can handle bulk orders from restaurants and hotels as well as individual’s custom designs. I got a taste of the famed humility of Ibaraki’s people when Masubuchi mentioned that he’s Kasama City’s first certified traditional craftsman as an aside before showing us around his warehouse.
Masubuchi takes in apprentices from all over the world, and most have gone on to have successful careers after studying at Kozan Gama. As an artist, Masubuchi never wants to feel constrained by his materials. Despite Ibaraki’s rich, naturally occurring soil, Masubuchi uses as many as 17 different soil types from all over Japan to make diverse clays for his ceramics. One artist at Kozan Gama described another unique feature of the shop: everyone uses traditional techniques to create modern designs. Our tour of the warehouse took us by kilns, unfired creations, and three artists carefully putting finishing touches on pots and plates. Finally, we ended in the sample room where Masubuchi joked that chefs and hotel owners spend countless hours trying to decide among the shop’s numerous dishware designs.
Each wall was lined from floor to ceiling with tableware and every sort of kitchen vessel you could imagine – even dishes I had never seen! Tucked away in a corner, a large frame with a hand-written certificate jutted out.
“Isn’t that an award from the Emperor?” one of my guides exclaimed.
“Oh yeah, it is,” Masubuchi said as he shrugged, and turned to gesture us towards a collection of tea cups.
Without question, a trip to Kozan Gama is so inspiring that you might want to try making pottery yourself. And you can at our next stop!
An Artist Creates Pottery on the Fly
Our tour of Crafthills Kasama started with an exhibition of celebrated artist Matsui Kosei’s ceramic works. Matsui used two types of clay to create delicate, yet durable, marble-patterned ceramics in the neriage style. From here, we ventured to a shop selling works by local artists. Kasama’s shop prides itself on encouraging young artists to find their own style, and each table holds a completely different visual style of pottery. From traditional sake glasses to fantastical figurines to statues that seem to move, you can find any sort of handmade sculpture to your liking.
We didn’t have time to experience making pottery on our own, but we could watch one of the resident artists at work. From one slab of clay, and within just a few minutes, he created a sake set, a plate, a mug, a bowl, and a water glass. His expertise astounded all of us, but I felt most travelers could not come close to his level of mastery in one short pottery lesson. Then, the managers of Crafthills Kasama directed my attention to the works of past students. I couldn’t believe it! These weren’t your elementary-level pinch pots, just expertly-crafted and perfectly practical wares. Here, you really can learn how to make you own pottery that you’ll be happy to serve to your guests.
But by now, we were out of time. So, we rushed to the car to drive to the next town, where we could take in a bit of exercise.
Cycling on a Sunny Day in Tsukuba
Cyclists and fishermen rejoice! Tsukuba boasts the famous Ring Ring Road which circles a large lake in the middle of the city. We rented bikes from a shop and set out on a short ride. The cool winds from the lake and the smooth roads make this the perfect place to train for the Ironman Triathlon, or take a family ride through the famous sites along the way. For sports enthusiasts, the entire course takes you 180 km (112 miles) through mountains and to the ocean with lots of places for rest and food along the way. For families, you can ride to parks, shrines, or see sail boats. We even saw some recreational fishers along the banks of the lake catching bass. Check your maps carefully before you go! The lake widens and narrows in some areas, and if you take the wrong side of the road you could miss your destination. If you don’t have the energy for cycling, there are plenty of sightseeing boats on the lake to take you around. After a quick picture, we returned our bikes and headed to the final stop before my train back to Tokyo.
We finished our tour in Ushiku to see Ibaraki’s famous Great Buddha statue. I could see its head poking out from the trees well before we arrived at the parking lot. This Buddha stands on a pedestal, and you can see each carefully crafted detail from the feet below to the towering head above. For comparison, the more internationally famous Great Buddha of Nara is 15 meters (50 feet) tall, and Ushiku’s Great Buddha stands at 100 meters (330 feet). The Great Buddha of Nara could sit in the palm of the Great Buddha of Ushiku’s hand!
Stepping onto the grounds, you can see a flower garden, a small animal park, and smaller statues along your path. Like the Statue of Liberty, you can go inside of the Buddha and visit different floors for worship, as well as one floor that boasts a spectacular view. The first floor is the World of Infinite Light and Life. The lights suddenly went out except for one streaming beam, and an announcement was made that explained there we could blind ourselves to worldly desires and live in the light of wisdom. On the second floor, World of Gratitude and Thankfulness, you can make a copy of your very own sutra thanking Buddha. The third floor, the World of the Lotus Sanctuary, you’re surrounded by approximately 3,400 gold statues of Buddha each inscribed with the name of a deceased person. Monks pray over and bless these statues every day. Finally, on the top floors you can get a panoramic view from 85 meters (280 feet) up. The view reaches all the way to Tokyo, and you can see Sky Tree from here.
My time in Ibaraki was unfortunately cut short as my scheduled train arrived. On my way back to Tokyo, I wondered how I’ve missed out on such an awe-inspiring place in the time I’ve lived in Japan. I can’t wait for my next opportunity to spend time in Ibaraki and see what else this exciting place has to offer!