[From September Issue 2013]
Ibaraki Prefecture is located in the northeast of the Kanto region, with its eastern flank facing the Pacific Ocean. The inland area is abundant in nature and Mito City, located in the center of the prefecture, boasts a number of historical assets. To the south is the university town of Tsukuba City, one of the leading centers of technology in Japan. Though many people say “Ibaragi,” the correct way to pronounce it is “Ibaraki.”
The capital of the prefecture, Mito City, thrived in the Edo period (17th – 19th centuries) as a castle town run by the Mito Tokugawa family (relations of the Tokugawa shogunate), one of the top three branches of the Tokugawa family. MITO Mitsukuni, second in charge of the Mito Domain, is well known by Japanese because of the popular historical TV drama “Mito Komon.” Affectionately known as Komon-sama within Ibaraki, bronze statues of this familiar figure can be seen in front of train stations and at other locations. The Mito Komon Festival is held in early August every year.
Designated as one of the three great gardens of Japan, Kairakuen is a historic garden opened in 1842. One of its main attractions is 3,000 plum trees of 100 species, and in spring it’s bustling with crowds. In addition, against the backdrop of Lake Senba, you can enjoy its vistas of blossoms and greenery that change according to the season. Mito is also a mecca for artists from both home and abroad. Curated by OZAWA Seiji, the Mito Geijutsu-kan (Art Tower Mito) has a symbolic 100-meter-tall tower. The museum houses a concert hall, a theater and a modern art gallery, allowing visitors to experience different forms of art.
Kasama, to the west of Mito, is known for Kasama-yaki pottery. To get to Kasama Geijutsunomori Park from Kasama Station, take a stroll down a street lined with cafes and galleries displaying the work of Kasama-yaki artists. Within the park is Kogei no Oka (Crafthills Kasama), where you can try your hand at pottery making, as well as the Ibaraki Ceramic Art Museum. A visit to Shunpuu Banri-So is also recommended. Moved from Kamakura and rebuilt here, it’s the former residence of the artist KITAOJI Rosanjin. Its gardens are also a delight.
Tsukuba is another side of Ibaraki; home to research institutions covering various fields from astronomy to agriculture, it’s a town on the cutting edge of science. In order to stimulate people’s intellectual curiosity, 50 research institutes hold science tours that allow visitors to have a look around and get a hands on experience. At Tsukuba Space Center, you can visit the Astronaut Training Center and the control room for “Kibo,” Japan’s first manned space laboratory. Another popular spot is Science Square Tsukuba, where you can encounter the most advanced robots.
Science tour buses that connect one institution with another run on Saturdays, Sundays, national holidays (except during the year-end and New Year holidays) and other special days. Buses depart from the Tsukuba Center (Tsukuba Station) Bus Terminal. A 500 yen ticket for an adult gives you unlimited bus rides for the day. After the tour, you can stay at Mt. Tsukuba Hot Spring. With cable cars running up the majestic form of Mt. Tsukuba, it’s possible to enjoy an easy hike.
Tsuchiura, situated to the east of Tsukuba, faces Kasumigaura, the second largest lake in Japan. It flourished as a castle town in the Edo period, and on Nakajo-dori Street traces of these old days remain. At Kijo Park, located where Tsuchiura Castle used to stand, a gate built in the early Edo period can be seen. At Kasumigaura, sailboats are in service from late July till late November. On the lake, the sight of white sails billowing in the wind is strikingly beautiful.
There are a number of attractive towns along the Pacific coast. Kashima, home to the J. League team Kashima Antlers, boasts not only a stadium but also the Kashima Soccer Museum, a popular place with fans. Believed to have been built in 660 BC, Kashima Shrine is not to be missed. Dedicated to the god of war, the shrine was venerated by samurai governments in the Edo period, and today athletes are amongst its visitors. The shrine buildings are all important cultural properties of Japan.
With its beaches and outlet malls, Oarai, to the north of Kashima, is a resort area. Aqua World Ibaraki Prefectural Oarai Aquarium is home to about 580 kinds of creatures. It keeps over 50 species of sharks, including the largest species in Japan. Crossing Naka River, you will come to Nakaminato fishing port. At Nakaminato Fish Market, you can enjoy dishes of fresh seafood at reasonable prices.
The Hitachinaka Seaside Railway Minato Line, a local line stopping at Nakaminato Station, still uses trains from the Showa era (1926-1989) that only have one carriage. This peaceful train journey through the countryside has recently been attracting some attention. Hitachi Seaside Park, a government-managed park built on the seashore where you can enjoy vistas of fields of seasonal flowers throughout the year, covers an area of 190 hectares.
The route running from the Isohara coast at the northern end of the prefecture along to the Izura coast makes for a fantastic drive. Standing beside green pine trees and blue sea, the red-walled Izura Rokkaku-do retreat was designed by artist and philosopher OKAKURA Tenshin in 1905. Washed away by the tsunami in the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, it was rebuilt in 2012. Kitaibaraki is known for anglerfish fishing, and the fish is often eaten in a nabe (hot pot). Between November and March is the best time to eat. The fish contains ingredients that promote beautiful skin.
Situated on the border between Tochigi and Fukushima prefectures, Okukuji Prefectural Nature Park contains numerous sightseeing spots. You can look at the beautiful V-shaped gorge that the Ryujin River runs through, and then cross the pedestrian-only Ryujin Great Suspension Bridge, which passes over the Ryujin Dam. At a height of 100 meters and a length of 375 meters, the bridge is breathtaking. Counted as one of the three best waterfalls in Japan, Fukuroda Falls are beautiful waterfalls made up of four sections, through which the water flows down. Izura, Fukuroda and Daigo are also hot spring resorts.
When it comes to gourmet food, Ibaraki is known not only for its seafood, but also for other famous food brands. In terms of meat, there is tender Hitachi beef, healthy and richly flavored Okukuji shamo (gamecocks), and the finely textured, supple Rose pork. Soba noodles, known as Hitachi aki-soba, are also widely produced. Kenchin soba, a combination of those noodles and kenchin-jiru soup, is a local dish of Ibaraki. Nattou, or fermented soybeans, from Mito make a good souvenir.
Ibaraki is easily accessible from the Tokyo metropolitan area. From Ueno you can get to Mito by JR Joban Line Limited Express in 65 minutes. It takes about 45 minutes to travel from Akihabara to Tsukuba with a Tsukuba Express rapid train. If you take an expressway bus departing from Tokyo Station, it takes roughly two hours to arrive at Kashima-Jingu Station. If you’re using the JR train network, you can take a Sobu Line rapid train from Tokyo and transfer to the Narita Line at Narita; the whole trip takes approximately two hours and 20 minutes.
Text: YAMAZAKI Yuriko