Located at the edge of the Kanto region facing the Pacific, Ibaraki prefecture is known for its Capital Mito city, Hitachi seaside park and its double-peaked Mountain Tsukuba. In this blog post, we’ll take an unfamiliar route to Itako, Namegata, and Kashima.
In Japan, Itako city is well known for its Iris garden in Suigo Itako Ayame Park, where a million irises bloom between Late May and June. Local tourists particularly enjoy walking along its pathways surrounded by a variety of purple, yellow and white irises. Foreign tourists may not have heard of this town but during the Suigo Itako Iris Festival, it is quite popular for local tourists to enjoy a serene boat ride on a traditional Japanese Ro-scull boat. Also during the Festival, the Yomeiri-bune known as a Bride-carrying-boat is a popular nuptial photoshoot for couples who are inspired by Itako’s old wedding tradition during the Showa period. It depends during your visit if you can catch a sight of a bride garbed in traditional Japanese Kimono on the ro-scull boat.
Getting there from Tokyo Station is about a 2-hour bus ride to Itako station which will cost around 2000JPY at the time of writing. The bus going to Suigo Itako terminal runs more often than the direct bus to Itako which you can board at the dock no. 9. Then from the Suigo Itako bus terminal, people can ride the local bus line Jingu – Ayame – Shiraho line for 200yen. They don’t have seat reservations so you can just go to the ticket counter and buy tickets or use a commuter IC card (Suica or Pasmo). The Tokyo station expressway bus terminal is just outside the Tokyo station Yaesu South exit, turn right and their ticket counter is just across the dock number 9. Then in Itako station, the Itako Ayame park is conveniently a 3-minute walk from there.
If you’re coming from Narita airport it is recommended to rent a car to explore these towns in Ibaraki. From terminal 1 and 2, you can find several car rental companies here with English sites.
From the park, you can cross the bridge over the canal to the Tsugaru Domain building and storehouse. They have seasonal exhibits there and during our visit, it was the Hina Matsuri display. The site is actually a remnant of Itako’s history as a transportation hub back in the Edo period. Itako connects commercial areas from northern Japan to the Edo capital such as the Tsugaru Domain.
Right across the street is the Isoyama-tei, a Japanese Meiji era house built in 1899 and one of the tourist spots in Itako for day-trippers. If the house is not booked for the night, this house turns into a Japanese cafe, serving coffee and tea. It was recently renovated and opened last August as a ryokan.
If you’re someone who likes the Japanese house experience but also likes the convenience of a modern house, then you might consider staying at the Isoyama Japanese Private house.
Back when there were no roads in Itako, locals used the canals to get around but now visitors can opt to rent bicycles at the Tourist Information Center right beside the Itako JR Station. From the station, you can choose to cycle around town or take the 10-minute walk to another hidden gem of Itako.
Designated as one of the important cultural properties in Japan, Chosho-Ji Temple was built in 1185. The temple was established by a prominent Samurai, Minamoto no Yoritomo, during the time he consolidated his own vassals in the Kanto area to pray for his victory in battles ahead. He eventually became the first Shogun, the Head of Samurai in Japan. Interestingly, the kanji for Choshoji (長勝寺) implies his story, 長(Long) 勝(Victory). Aside from its colorful history, the temple is also a sight of beauty during the autumn foliage and Sakura season.
Having about 5 river systems in Ibaraki, it is well known for its high-quality rice. Brought by the abundance of water and rice, this prefecture has the most number of sake breweries in the Kanto region. 20 out of the 42 Sake breweries in this prefecture provide tours and sake tasting. One of those 20 happens to be just 18 minutes away from the Choshoji Temple.
Aiyu Sake Brewery in Itako has been brewing sake since 1804 and they use the mineral-enriched sacred water from the Ou Shrine. A practice they kept since the Edo period. The name Aiyu has the Kanji characters equivalent to “love” and “friendship,” something the company strives for. Hence, they are offering free tours in their brewery and sake tasting. However, they require advance reservation via phone or through their website.
If you’re up for some bird watching, Itako also has a popular site for Swans during winter and other bird species all year round. It was in the year 1981, when the first 6 swans landed on this side of the Kitaura lake and every year their number increased. Nowadays, they have about a hundred swans arriving every winter. During our last visit in February, there were no swans but we were able to see different kinds of ducks and Japanese black tailed gulls.
Walking and biking around Itako should require a lot of energy and the best way to fill your stomach with, is Itako’s fresh seafood.
Unagi is the most popular dish in Itako aside from sushi due to its proximity from the Kasumigaura lake. In fact, if you look around Itako for Unagi restaurants you’ll probably come up with more than ten. Out of all those restaurants, let me just suggest Kinsui which is a family owned restaurant and has been serving unagi to locals and tourists for 50 years. It is also quite convenient for it’s a 3-minute walk from the Suigo Itako Ayame park.
If you are looking for a more filling option, then Shinya is a relatively affordable Sushi restaurant. They’ve been in business since 1908 and have 5 different types of private rooms for families and for bigger groups. I wouldn’t recommend this for picky eaters or people with seafood allergies but if you’re looking to have a taste of Itako’s premium ingredients and experience the skills of Itako’s chefs then by all means, pick their Kappo/Kaiseki style multi-course meal. It will take you more or less 13 minutes to walk from Itako JR Station but relatively close by bicycle or car. They also have free parking but they’re closed every Wednesday.
If you happen to drive or take the bus going back to Tokyo and plan to have a last minute souvenir shopping, then you might as well visit the Michi no Eki or Itako’s road station which is a 15-minute walk or a 5-minute drive from Suigo Itako bus station.
The Namegata Farmer’s village is Ibaraki’s very own 70 acre agricultural theme park which is perfectly situated on fertile soil between the Kitaura and Kasumigaura lakes. Among the many activities you and your family can do here is visit the Yaki-imo Factory Museum. It’s a fun way to learn about sweet potatoes and get a glimpse of their factory which used to be an elementary school. Visitors can also do some shopping in the same building, where all produce comes from the very same farm. After some shopping you can head to the second floor where you can enjoy an affordable meal with salad and a drink bar. They also offer some glamping experience at the farm where you can cook freshly harvested vegetables. Some city locals become royal farm owners club members there and plant their own crops which will then be harvested and sent to them in the city.
Best way to get there is by a car which is an 80-minute drive from Tokyo but if you’re comfortable to take a bus, it’s a 35-minute bus ride from Itako JR station to the lake echo bus stop. The bus stop is conveniently a 1-minute walk to the Yaki-imo Factory Museum.
The home of J league’s Kashima Antlers is a 2-hour bus ride from the Tokyo station and one of the venues for the 2020 Olympics. It is famous for its ancient Kashima Jingu shrine, believed to be established in the same year the first ever Emperor was enthroned in 660 BC. One of the highlights of touring this shrine is learning about the Deity Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto and his legendary stone.
Their sacred deers and cedar trees are also a must see. During our visit, the shrine was not crowded but every new year festival, about 600,000 people gather in the shrine. This shrine is frequented by locals as a place for worship and throughout its long history, it has been worshipped by warriors, aristocrats, soldiers and now athletes. They have volunteer english guides available from 9:00 – 11:30 AM who can teach you all about the proper conduct in a sacred ancient shrine, the history, and legends about Kashima but you will have to book it in advance. Our guide for that day was Kimihara-san who was incredibly informative and friendly.
Majority of the people looking for an excursion outside of Tokyo overlook Ibaraki because its towns and attractions are not visible online. It is truly one of the hidden towns of Japan that foreigners are yet to discover. So I hope this post helped or inspired your travel plans in Ibaraki.