In the days
Of the ancient gods,
A mere seedling
This pine must have been.
Taking a break from a busy daily routine, Tokyo folks may discover a quiet and historical city in Ibaraki prefecture that can offer a bundle of surprises, enough to fill a pleasant day’s journey or a weekend sojourn. Just 70 km from Tokyo, about an hour and 15 minutes by car or bus, or an hour and 40 minutes by train (less with the Narita Express) from Tokyo station, Itako city is easily accessible as well from Narita airport by train in 40 minutes. It historically served as an important waterway connection between the old Edo capital and the northern region. Its prosperous canals and lakes, being the Lake Kasumigaura (second largest lake in Japan next to Lake Biwa), Lake Kitaura, Lake Sotonasakaura, Hitachi-Tone River, and Maekawa River were major port routes for transporting rice and other cargo to and from Edo and Tohoku region. Without land transportation in the olden days, townsfolk principally moved around on the sappa boats with lanterns that guided them at night. Today, you can witness this traditional lifestyle of boat traveling during the Suigo Itako Ayame Festival held every year in late May to June, when brides in their customary white wedding attire “uchikake” are seen on such sappa boats, escorted by boatmen and women to meet their grooms.
Called “Yome-iri-bune”, the old tradition of brides riding on boats to meet their grooms had been an ancient wedding custom in Itako up until the 1960s. To illustrate and continually propagate this eventful practice, Itako holds the yearly Suigo Itako Ayame Festival, which attracts enormous crowds from the Kanto region, eager to book the bridal boats paddled by boatmen wearing traditional attire. Ayame signifies the approximately one million iris blooms of 500 species, which scatter all over the fields during this season, painting a truly romantic wedding scene. During the festival, one can also enjoy the ayame iris dances and rowboat sightseeing, as well as listening to a recording of famous singer Yukio Hashi's song “Itakosa”. Experiencing the boat ride on the Maekawa River was quite refreshing and nostalgic, especially upon realizing that the same sappa boats were used by brides during the Edo era. Although the riverbank views are now lined with modern-constructed houses, one can absorb the deep tradition of yesteryears and be entranced by the beauty of the rows of cherry blossom trees and sprinkled flower varieties throughout the entire park.
Just a mere 7-minute walk from Suigo Itako Ayame Gardens towards Inariyama Park and three minutes by car from Itako station, this Zen temple is an important religious site in Itako, dating from 1185. Built by Minamoto Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate, Choshoji Temple greets you from its huge wooden gate from the Edo period, covered with thick cherry blossoms trees during spring and brilliant red maples in autumn. Walking up to the main temple, instantly, one is impressed by the preserved thatched roof and simple architecture. Some remains of the typhoon devastation can also be seen from the damaged doors. One of the notable structures is the bell tower with a wooden base. The copper bell is believed to have been originated in 1330. There is also an enclosed garden beside the main hall blooming with plum and cherry blossoms.
For a taste of local delicacies, it would be worthwhile to pass by the historical Aiyu Saké Brewery in Itako. About 20 minutes on foot or four minutes by car from Choshoji Temple or Itako station, this brewery has been serving local saké to the local folks since 1804. It is especially proud of the quality of its clear water, which flows from one of the seven wells “Ou” surrounded by the famous lakes Kitaura and Kasumigaura. The founders of Aiyu Saké Brewery have long abided by the spirit of love “ai” and friendship “yu” and have adopted this ideology into their label “shikaikeitei” or the unity of four brothers of the sea, symbolizing the four major seas of Japan (Sea of Okhotsk, Pacific Ocean, East China Sea and the Korea Strait). We joined the saké brewery tour (only in Japanese), which, through the help of an interpreter, clearly explained the step-by-step saké making process from milling, washing, soaking, and steaming of rice, to koji or mold making, fermentation, moromi or the fermented mass, pressing, filtration, and finally the storage stage. The factory reveals massive tanks that are said to supply saké to the nearby shrines, especially the important cultural asset Kashima Shrine. Due to the popularity of the bridal boat festival in Itako, saké from this brewery also serves the wedding ceremonies held during this festive occasion. The shop sells the brewery’s prominent flavors: the Aiyu Junmai Daiginjo Bizen Yucho, which has won several awards, pure rice squeezed liquor, raw saké, the special Aiyu Yomeiribune made for the bridal boat festival, plum wine and many others. There are also various local pickles, sweets and dried fruits for tasting and purchase. What a more perfect way to simmer down from a full day tour than to sip some delicious saké before heading to your hotel for the night’s rest.
This exquisite accommodation in Itako, about 7 minutes by car from Suigo Itako Bus Terminal, is highly recommendable for a memorable Japanese traditional stay. The 120-year old building used to be a private house, and has now been well preserved and beautifully renovated without tarnishing the classic ambience. It consists of three separate tatami mat sleeping areas, including the main reception room. The specially handcrafted woodwork on the interior walls and windows are particularly charming. Experience a truly traditional home with futon mattresses, oshire sliding door cabinets, fusuma sliding doors, classic furniture, and the exterior engawa (extended corridor attached to the exterior of the house) where you can sit while viewing the spacious garden with a poetically positioned maple tree. The bath, toilet, and kitchen are all modernized with complete amenities, including a coffee machine. Wi-Fi is also available.
Hakucho no Sato Swan Lake
After a restful night, passing by Lake Kitaura in the morning to catch a glimpse of swans and ducks flying over the lake or flocking on the shore can be an exhilarating way to begin the day. Lake Kitaura is about 15 minutes by car from Itako station, and here, from late November to early March, about 50 swans of various species, such as mule and whooper swans are said to be spotted. We were greeted by a throng of ducks on the lake and on the shore being fed by bird lovers. You can spend hours just watching and sketching them while breathing the fresh air from the huge lake.
Apart from rice that enjoys a robust production in Ibaraki, Itako is also known for special delicacies, such as unagi eel, which was believed to have been quite abundant around Lake Kasumigaura. The Kinsui eel restaurant close to the Hitachitone River and merely nine minutes on foot from Itako station, has been serving one of the best eels in Itako for more than 50 years. The eel cut is thick and has a sweet and salty taste. The restaurant also has a private room, and is managed by very friendly owners. Shinya restaurant is another recommendable stop in Itako city for delicious sushi. About 13 minutes on foot from Itako station, this restaurant echoes the Japanese traditional setting. There are several private rooms for a varied number of people, as well as a sushi counter. A small Japanese pocket stone garden with a bamboo fence enhances the traditional feeling. For dinner, we enjoyed sumptuous sashimi, shellfish, tofu, and buttered scallops for appetizers, and tempura, chawan mush (steamed egg custard with shiitake mushrooms, kamaboko fish cake, some vegetables, and gingko nuts, all served in a ceramic cup), and the Edomae nigiri sushi plate house specialty.
As we continue the gourmet route, stepping a bit out of Itako city to the adjacent city of Namegata in south central Ibaraki, which was also a historical town from the Edo period, the Namegata Farmer’s Village makes for a delightful lunch stop especially for families. Buses depart from the Itako bus station terminal headed directly to the facility in 35 minutes. By renovating a closed elementary school, an agricultural glamping and sweet potato factory museum site was developed. Homemade sweet potato workshops are also conducted, as well as hands-on farming experience and handicraft classes for all ages. You can try strawberry, citron and vegetable picking in the Royal Farm and visit their Farm Bakery and Farmer’s Kitchen. Children can also ride on a tractor and tour the enormous farm. We were escorted around the Sweet Potato Museum, which was quite educational and activity-filled, walking through the step-by-step potato making process. The classrooms of the old elementary school were used to showcase the exhibits and installations. Abiding by its slogan “farm to table,” the facility boasts of its restaurant buffet meal, which promotes the fresh vegetables harvested in the farm, and on the ground floor, is a huge souvenir shop of all kinds of sweet potato confectioneries you can think of.
For a last cultural stop before leaving Ibaraki, it would be worthwhile to visit this cultural heritage site. Just 20 minutes by car from Itako station, Kashima was developed during the Nara period, and is fundamentally known for the Kashima Shrine, established around 600BC during the reign of Emperor Jimmu. It is especially noteworthy for being one of the only three major shrines in Japan (apart from Ise Shrine and Katori Shrine) to be bestowed with title “Jingu” (shrine) by the Imperial Court. The shrine is dedicated to Takemikazuchi-no-Okami, the Shinto god of thunder and war and martial arts. Just a short 10-minute walk from Kashima Jingu station, the shrine begins its tour from the towering Otorii stone gate originally constructed of stone, which unfortunately collapsed during the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake. What we see today is a completely restructured gate made of cedar wood. From here, we walk through the Romon red tower gate, constructed by Yorifusa Tokugawa in 1634, which is also regarded as one of the Three Great Tower Gates of Japan and an important cultural asset. Beyond this gate, the shrine surroundings reverberate a powerful sensation amidst the tall, huge and ancient trees, all covering 740,000 m2 of land. The Haiden worship hall guarded by an enormous sacred tree said to be 1200 years old, and Honden main sanctuary are located on the right side of the Romon gate, which are among the known power spots of Kashima Shrine. The architecture of the Honden sanctuary is absolutely beautiful in bright colors, with gold-leafed beams, and a thatched roof, built in the same construction style as the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. Walking further in the deep forest, we pass the Shikaen or deer garden where we can spot many deer. The long approach from the entrance gate leads to the rear shrine Okunomiya, another known power spot. In contrast to the Honden, its architecture is of simple unpainted wood. This divine shrine was dedicated to Ieyasu Tokugawa in 1605. Deeper into the woods, we finally reach the famous keystone, considered to be a magical rock slightly buried under the ground, which as the legend tells, holds a catfish deep under the ground to prevent it from creating an earthquake. If you succeed in throwing a coin on its sunken top, your dream is said to come true. The Mitarashi Pond, another power spot on the opposite end of the keystone, also offers captivating beauty, and is used for purification ceremonies.
There are, indeed, rich secrets tucked in the vicinity of Itako city. If you especially love the rivers, the city is a simple and refreshing escapade away from the hustle and bustle of a crowded metropolis.
Access from Tokyo Station to Itako
Kanto Tetsudo bus, JR bus, or Keisei bus bound for Kashima Jingu. Get off at the Suigo-Itako Bus Terminal.
Kanto Tetsudo bus or JR bus bound for Hasaki. Get off at the Suigo-Itako Bus Terminal.
Kanto Tetsudo bus bound for Hokota. Get off at Itako Station.
By renting a car from Narita Airport