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Follow me to Mito and Oarai: A daytrip to Ibaraki

Follow me to Mito and Oarai: A daytrip to Ibaraki

For many years, Ibaraki Prefecture (茨城県 Ibaraki-ken) has held the notorious reputation of being the “Least Attractive Prefecture” in all of Japan. This largely stems from an annual popularity survey conducted by Tokyo-based think tank Brand Research Institute, in which Ibarak—though they did manage to trudge their way to 46th place during this year’s survey—has consistently been ranked in last place out of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

 

Ask the average person what’s there to do in Ibaraki, and you’ll probably get Hitachi Seaside Park as your sole answer. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

The irony of being the “Least Attractive Prefecture”, however, is that it can inadvertently make you attractive. Nothing quite gives a location an aura of mystique as being ranked at the bottom for several years in a row, and fervent travellers such as myself have taken it upon ourselves to discover the hidden appeals of Ibaraki, and try to understand why it seems to be so unpopular. With the help of the 3-day JR TOKYO Wide Pass, today I will attempt to disprove the so-called notion that Ibaraki has nothing going for it.

 

Starting out the day

An overview of my itinerary for the day in Ibaraki. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

Right off the bat, Ibaraki should already have a plus in the attractiveness department due to its close proximity to Tokyo. Using the Limited Express HITACHI and TOKIWA, it is possible to reach Ibaraki’s capital city of Mito (水戸市 Mito-shi) in as little as 90 minutes from Tokyo Station (東京駅).

 

A rest stop outside of Mito Station with a plaque detailing the city’s history with paper lanterns. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

Upon my arrival at Mito Station (水戸駅 Mito-eki), I first made a beeline for the station’s tourist information centre, in order to plan my itinerary for the day. The kindly lady at the counter assisted me by recommending a walking route to the pride of the city, Kairakuen (偕楽園), as well as listing several restaurants in the area that served a delicacy of Ibaraki PrefectureHitachi Beef! She also passed me an English-language walking map of the city, which contained several interesting tidbits about Mito City as well as souvenir recommendations.

 

Lake Senba

Several species of ducks and swans make Lake Senba their home in the winter. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

Kairakuen is slightly less than a kilometre from Mito Station and can be accessed via the local bus network, but we were told by the information counter to take a leisurely hour-long walk there instead via the southern edge of Lake Senba (千波湖 Senbako), which bordered the garden.

 

A pair of black swans coming by the edge to say hi. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

Lake Senba is a simple, man-made lake which effectively functions as a public park for Mito City, featuring a jogging path and several cafes. Despite its austere setup, however, the lake turned out to be a really picturesque and entertaining diversion on the way to Kairakuen thanks to its large and varied bird population. On any day one may find ducks, pigeons, egrets and swans nesting along the shoreline or paddling through the waters. I was even lucky enough to run into a pair of rare black swans, feeding on plants next to the jogging path!

 

Lake Senba (千波湖)
Address: Senba-cho, Mito, Ibaraki 310-0851
Nearest station: Kairakuen Station (偕楽園駅) / Mito Station (水戸駅)
Access: 1-minute walk from Kairakuen Station (in operation only during February and March), or a 15-minute walk from Mito Station

 

Kairakuen

Despite coming at a “down” season in December, there were still plenty of beautiful autumn colours at the entrance to Kairakuen (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

Alongside Kenrokuen (兼六園) in Ishikawa Prefecture and Korakuen (後楽園) in Okayama Prefecture, Kairakuen is considered one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, built by lords of the Edo Period (1603–1868). Unlike the other two great gardens which were built as private property, however, Kairakuen was always meant to be accessible to the public, as referenced by its loosely translated name “Garden Enjoyed by Everyone”.

 

What the plum orchard looked like when I visited versus what it should look like in February. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq & IBARAKIGUIDE.JP)

 

The defining feature of Kairakuen is its vast orchard of 3,000 plum trees, which enter full bloom from February through March every year. The trees were unfortunately barren as I visited in the winter, however, but that did not stop me from enjoying the other traits of the garden such as its beautiful cedar forest and bamboo grove. I also paid a visit to the core building of the garden, Kobuntei.

 

Kobuntei

For an additional ¥200, you can enter the royal refuge of a former daimyo. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

Kobuntei (好文亭) was a villa built by the lord of Kairakuen at the time, Tokugawa Nariaki (徳川斉昭), as a refuge for him and his family to relax and entertain guests. On top of being a classic example of traditional Edo-era architecture, almost every tatami room in Kobuntei is themed after a type of flowering tree, painted and preserved beautifully on bamboo paper walls.

 

I counted 11 different screens spread throughout the villa, representing the blooms of the various seasons. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

There is also a staircase in the main building which leads to a small 2nd floor, which served as the waiting room of the samurai attendant, as well as a larger 3rd floor  designated as the artists’ room. From here you can get a beautiful view of Kairakuen and Lake Senba, as well as access to a wooden wall carved with hundreds of obscure kanji, meant to help poets come up with rhymes for their writing.

 

The view from the top floor of Kobuntei. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

There is also a cafe housed within Kobuntei serving artisanal sweets and tea to customers with a perfect view overlooking the plum orchards of Kairakuen. Unfortunately, as I had already decided on my lunch plans for the day, I didn’t get a chance to try out the cafe menu.

 

Kairakuen (偕楽園)
Address: 1-2 Tokiwachō, Mito, Ibaraki 310-0033
Nearest station: Kairakuen Station (偕楽園駅) / Mito Station (水戸駅)
Access: 1-minute walk from Kairakuen Station, or a 15-minute walk from Mito Station
Opening hours (Kairakuen): 6am–7pm (Mid-February to 30 September), 7am–6pm (1 October to mid-February)
Opening hours (Kobuntei): 9am–5pm (Mid-February to 30 September), 9am–4:30pm (1 October to mid-February)
Admission fee (Kairakuen): ¥300 (Adults), ¥150 (Children)
Admission fee (Kobuntei): ¥200 (Adults), ¥100 (Children)
Tel: +81 29-244-5454

 

Hitachi Beef (Restaurant Iijima)

The same lord who built Kairakuen also started the black cattle farm which laid the foundation for Hitachi Beef! (Image credit: photoAC)

 

After spending a leisurely morning at Kairakuen, I was hungry and ready for some lunch. Ibaraki is home to several types of unique local cuisine, such as sweet potatoes and natto, but as a lifelong fan of Japanese wagyu I had my sights set on one food in particular—Hitachi beef (常陸牛 Hitachi-gyū)! In order to get my fill, I boarded a taxi from the park for a short 10-minute ride to Restaurant Iijima (レストランイイジマ), one of the most popular local purveyors of Hitachi Beef.

 

A venerable restaurant that offers a wide range of menus centred on Hitachi Beef steak, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki, and hamburgers. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

Established in Mito City since 1979, Restaurant Iijima has maintained a reputation as one of the most venerable western-style restaurants in Ibaraki, specialising in Hitachi beef cuisine. Every aspect of this 100-seater restaurant oozes class, from the smartly-dressed staff to the elegant fine-dining interior. They even have an English website, in-house menus, as well as some staff who are fluent in English to cater to their overseas clientele, which by its own merit already makes this place an easy recommendation for tourists visiting Mito City!

 

The area where I was seated + a preview of my order (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

Upon my arrival, I was extremely fortunate to find that they had a table for two available, as due to their popularity they highly recommend reserving a seat in advance (either online or by phone). They have a vast menu to choose from, ranging from ¥2,500 for their standard lunch set to extravagant Hitachi Beef special platters which could hit upwards in the tens of thousands in yen. I decided to go for a middle ground and splurge on myself with a 5-type Hitachi Beef platter for ¥8,500.

 

It tasted like five pieces of heaven. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

I’ve had the privilege of sampling several kinds of high-tier Japanese wagyu in my life, including the esteemed Kobe Beef and Noto Beef, and I can safely count Hitachi Beef amongst their ranks as some of the best beef I’ve ever had. While its delicious flavour was not as intense compared to the other types of wagyu beef, I found the meat to be unbelievably silky and tender. Every piece of beef on my platter was prepared immaculately, and every bite was a juicy piece of heaven.

 

Restaurant Iijima (レストランイイジマ)
Address: 2-251-10 Miwa, Mito, Ibaraki 310-0911
Nearest station: Akatsuka Station (赤塚駅)
Access: 10-minute bus ride from Akatsuka Station
Opening hours: 11am–9:30pm (Daily, Last order: 8pm)
Tel: +81 29-252-8115 (Reservations highly recommended!)

 

Back to Mito, over to Oarai

A banner with many of Ibaraki's mascots I caught on the way back to Mito Station. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

After my decadent meal, as I had only a few hours worth of daylight left to spend in Ibaraki, I had to weigh my options. Normally, most visitors would opt to visit the highlight of Ibaraki Prefecture, Hitachi Seaside Park (ひたち海浜公園), which could be reached from Mito Station in as little as 40 minutes by train. As December is one of the only months in the whole year that the park was in low season, however, I opted instead to travel to a different Ibaraki sight I had only seen in photographs before: the Kamiiso-no-Torii Gate (神磯の鳥居) in Oarai Town (大洗町 Ōarai-machi).

 

Ōarai Station (大洗駅 Ōarai-eki)  is only a 15-minute train ride away from Mito Station via the Kashima Rinkai Tetsudo Ōarai-Kashima Line (鹿島臨海鉄道大洗鹿島線). Since this train is not covered under any JR Pass, I had to pay a ¥330 fare.

 

Walking to Oarai Isosaki Shrine

The front facade of Ōarai Station was just a prelude to what’s to come. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

Oarai is a small, quiet little fishing town with a few ocean-centric attractions including its seafood, beaches, aquariums, and aforementioned torii gate. The gate is part of the Oarai Isosaki Shrine (大洗磯前神社 Ōarai Isosaki Jinja), which can be reached via a 10-minute taxi or bus ride, but I chose to walk the distance instead thanks to the sight that greeted me upon my arrival at the train station.

 

I legitimately believe I saw more anime standees than real people as I walked the streets of Oarai. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

As it turns out, Oarai also happens to be the setting of the popular anime Girls Und Panzer (ガールズ&パンツァー Gāruzu ando Pantsā), and many locations in the town have been featured prominently in the show. As a result, the town has become something of an anime pilgrimage location for fans of the show, and it appears that the locals have embraced that image rather fiercely. It was a rather surreal experience to walk through this unassuming fishing town and find nearly every storefront along the way decorated in paraphernalia and character cut-outs from the anime.

 

Kamiiso-no-Torii

Torii gates are said to be the boundary between the physical and spiritual realms, and this one is big enough to drive a whole bus through. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

After an hour of walking (and stopping to double-take at the sheer number of anime girls along the way), I finally made it to Oarai Isosaki Shrine, just in time to catch the sunset. The entrance to the shrine area proper was marked with one of the largest stone torii gates I had ever seen, with an even bigger one peeking just around the corner at a second entrance. As the actual shrine itself closes early at 4pm and sat at the top of a small hill, however, I opted to pass on climbing the steps to see it and followed the shoreline instead to find my true destination.

This gate is said to stand upon the spot where the gods first descended and created the country of Japan. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Of the many torii gates that comprise the Oarai Isosaki Shrine, the Kamiiso-no-Torii gate is by far the most iconic. A solitary stone gate, standing on a rock jutting out of the shoreline, propped against a view of the Pacific Ocean. Views of the gate are especially stunning during sunrise, as the sun appears on the eastern horizon to bathe the gate in red. This makes the Kamiiso-no-Torii an especially popular site to visit for Hatsuhinode (初日の出), or the first sunrise of the New Year.

 

I spent an hour waiting for the waves to crash to get that perfect Hokusai-worthy shot, but I guess I’ll just settle for this. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

I arrived at the viewing deck for Kamiiso-no-Torii just in time to catch the sunset. While admittedly nowhere near as impressive as catching it during the sunrise (since the sun is now on the opposite side of the view), it was still an incredibly relaxing spot to bring an end to the day, with a few other visitors lounging around the site having drinks, chatting, and taking photographs.

 

Oarai Isosaki Shrine (大洗磯前神社)
Address: 6890 Isohama-cho, Oarai, Higashiibaraki-shi, Ibaraki 311-1301
Nearest station: Ōarai Station (大洗駅)
Access: 15-minute bus ride from Ōarai Station
Opening hours: 5:30am–6pm (April–September), 6am–5pm (October–March)
Tel: +81-29-267-2637

 

Oarai-t, it was nice to Mito you, Ibaraki!

A Pokémon decal put up at Mito Station as part of Japan's 150th anniversary of railway celebrations. (Image credit: JR Times / Afiq)

 

As a somewhat veteran traveller of Japan at this point, I found it incredibly refreshing to still be able to discover new things and come across unexpected gems from a quick side-trip out of Tokyo. While Ibaraki may not have the glitz and glamour of tourist-popular prefectures such as Kyoto or Hokkaido, in my opinion that reputation makes it the perfect antidote to travel fatigue from chasing the big, busy attractions.

 

Mito Station can be reached from Tokyo Station via the HITACHI and TOKIWA trains on the Joban Line (70 minutes, ¥3,890). This trip can be covered by the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), and the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area).

 

Header image credit: JR Times / Afiq

 

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