An Overnight Trip from Tokyo in Historical Itako, Ibaraki
Itako is a small town in Ibaraki Prefecture known for its pretty waterways and annual iris festival, and its location less than two hours from Tokyo makes it a wonderful weekend getaway from the metropolis. Itako can also be visited in a day from Narita Airport. The most convenient way to get there from the airport would be to rent a car; that will give you the most time to see the sights as well as the most flexibility.
If you don’t want to rent a car or don’t have an International Driving Permit – or perhaps you’re from North America and simply don’t want to deal with the terror of driving on the opposite side of the road – cycling can be a great way to get around in good weather. City bicycles can be rented at the Tourist Information Center in front of Itako Station for 500 yen per day. (Note that availability is not guaranteed.)
So, what things are there to see in and around Itako? Read on for a list of top attractions. Or, jump down to dining options or how to get there.
Suigo Itako Ayame-en, the city’s beautiful iris park
In May and June the irises come into bloom – close to a million of them, in nearly 500 varieties – and Itako’s charm reaches its peak. The Suigo Itako Iris Festival is held between late May and late June, and during this time the city celebrates its heritage by leading couples through the traditional wedding customs of the area. Roads are a relatively recent development here, and until then the townsfolk got around by boat. New brides on their way to formally join their husband’s household were no exception, and were escorted in boats through the canal.
Today this local tradition has grown popular with couples from all over Japan, including even some non-Japanese couples in recent years. Visitors to Itako during the iris festival should definitely try to catch a glimpse!
Even if you’re not a newlywed you can still enjoy a boat ride on a traditional Japanese sculling oar boat (1000 yen per adult, with children half price) during the Suigo Itako Iris Festival. Outside of the festival period there are longer tours, of varying lengths and cost, that take you under twelve different bridges.
Isoyama-tei is a gorgeously renovated traditional home originally built in 1899. Today it serves as an event space, a café, and even a Japanese-style accommodation. There are three tatami rooms along with a modern kitchen, bath and bathroom. Although the rooms cannot be booked individually, Isoyama-tei is ideal for larger groups that would like to experience the feel of a Japanese inn while enjoying the privacy of a small house.
During the iris festival the departure point for the yomeiri-bune boats carrying new brides is right across from Isoyama-tei and the Tsugaru Domain site.
Tsugaru Domain site
During the Edo period, when Itako was an important transportation hub for shipping rice and other goods to the capital from the northern provinces, the Tsugaru Domain (also known as Hirosaki Domain, and roughly corresponding to present-day Aomori Prefecture) had a storehouse here next to the canal.
Today the site has been redesigned as a central community space, with occasional exhibits on display, such as one for the Japanese Doll’s Festival (Hina Matsuri).
This relatively unknown Zen Buddhist temple is believed to have been founded in the year 1185 by Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the Kamakura Shogunate. It’s not flashy or large, but worth a stop on a tour of Itako for history buffs. Choshoji was probably founded in the hopes that prayers for success in war would be granted, although you’d never guess that while standing in the temple’s quiet and peaceful grounds. Like many outdoor settings in Japan, it’s especially picturesque in the spring, when the sakura trees bloom in beautiful pinks and whites, and in the fall, when the leaves on the momiji (maples) have turned colorful hues.
The temple’s main building, or hondo, was unfortunately damaged in a recent typhoon and is in need of repair, but it still stands as a great example of the zenshuyo architecture associated with Zen Buddhism. Of special note are its thatched hip-and-gable roof (a style called irimoya-zukuri) and its shingled mokoshi, or pent roof. Next to the hondo is the temple’s bell tower. The bronze bell housed here was donated in 1330 by Hojo Takatoki, one of the last rulers of the Kamakura Shogunate, and is a designated Important Cultural Property.
Choshoji can be reached on foot or bicycle from Itako station. (See more information about Choshoji, and map.)
Aiyu Sake Brewery
This local brewery’s name is written using the characters for love (愛) and friendship (友). They have been making sake here in Itako since 1804, and offer free tours to visitors. Tours are unfortunately only given in Japanese, but if you have a guide or other Japanese-speaker who can translate, it’s really fun to see the equipment they use and learn about the steps involved in producing sake. (Tours should be booked in advance. Booking information can be found on their website.) For many years Aiyu Sake Brewery have also been making the sacred sake presented to nearby Kashima Shrine.
After the tour be sure to spend some time in their shop sampling the sake and snacks they have to offer.
Kashima Shrine is an important Shinto shrine whose history begins in the year 600 BCE. That’s Japan’s Yayoi period! This year is also when Japan’s first emperor, Jinmu, is said to have ascended the throne. Kashima Shrine is an enormous complex with several buildings of significance, all enclosed by a forest of tall Japanese cedar (sugi).
The very first thing you’ll notice upon arriving at Kashima Shrine is its torii gate. Or perhaps you won’t really notice it at all if you’ve grown used to seeing these gates at Shinto shrines all over Japan. The torii gate marks the entrance to the shrine and within is thus considered sacred ground. To show respect, bow once in the formal Japanese style before passing through. Kashima Shrine’s torii gate was formerly made of stone, but this was destroyed in the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and has been replaced with one made of Japanese cedar wood.
The next marker along the shrine approach is the Romon gate. This “tower gate” was built by an early Tokugawa daimyo in 1634, and is considered one of Japan’s three greatest. Past this on the right is the main sanctuary and prayer hall, built in the same architectural style as Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. Continue along and you’ll enter a wide path lined with tall Japanese cedar trees. This is the approach to the inner shrine, called Okunomiya.
Volunteer guides can give you a tour of Kashima Shrine in English for free, but this should be arranged ahead of your visit. (Only a limited number of the volunteers are proficient in English, so it definitely pays to inquire early.) Tours are generally available between 9:00 and 11:30am, but with an advance reservation they may be able to accommodate groups later in the day as well.
Kashima Furusato Guide reservations: 0299-82-7730 (although the tour can be given in English, it’s best to ask a Japanese speaker to make the reservations)
The closest train station to Kashima Jingu is the eponymous JR Kashima-Jingu station, reachable from Itako in about 10 minutes on the Kashima Line.
Lapoppo Namegata Farmer’s Village and the Sweet Potato Museum
For a change of pace and chance to breathe the fresh country air while getting close-up to a Japanese farm, head to Lapoppo Namegata Farmer’s Village in the city of Namegata, north of Itako. There are numerous outdoor activities to enjoy, from harvest tours and tractor tours to glamping (pampered camping). Available options vary depending on the season, but there are events and activities year-round.
Also here is the Yakiimo Factory Museum, an interactive factory tour of sorts dedicated to sweet potatoes – the first of its kind in Japan. Namegata has not been immune to the declining population trend in rural Japan and many schools have closed in recent years, but one silver lining here is that they were able to use an empty school for the Yakiimo Factory Museum. The result is creative and amusing – it really feels like a Japanese school whose curriculum revolves around sweet potatoes! Admission to the museum is 900 yen for adults; 700 yen for children over four.
When you get hungry, the pasta, pizza and buffet lunch at “Farm to the Table,” located on the second floor of the school building, is a great option. A variety of delicious snacks and local produce can be purchased at Farmers Marche, the shop on the first floor.
Other stops in Itako
If you are seeing Itako by car or bicycle, one stop you could make is at Hakucho no Sato, literally “Village of Swans.” It’s a spot on the shore of Kitaura Lake, full of ducks, gulls, and at least some of the time, swans. The swans can be found here in the winter months between November and March, but depending on the time of day you visit – and perhaps a bit of luck – they are sometimes out of view.
For souvenir items and local gourmet snacks to bring home, consider stopping by Michi no Eki Itako. What is a “michi no eki?” you ask? They’re basically rest stops that have shopping (and sometimes a food court), and can usually be found near major highway interchanges. Ibaraki Prefecture produces more melons than anywhere else in Japan, and I decided to try a round, melon-flavored baumkuchen. It did not disappoint!
Food and dining in Itako
Surrounded on three sides by freshwater and a stone’s throw from the Pacific, Itako is known for its seafood, with unagi (grilled eel) being a particular specialty. Although sadly eel can no longer be found swimming in the town’s waterways, Itako still knows how to prepare this delicacy to perfection. One top recommendation is Kinsui, a family-run restaurant that’s been in business for over fifty years. An order of unaju, unagi over rice in a beautiful lacquered box, comes with nutritious kimosui (eel-liver soup). Kinsui is a short walk from Itako station and has spacious seating.
For other seafood, you might try Shinya, which serves Japanese-style course meals. Although a little bit of a walk from the station area, it’s a great place to experience Japanese fine dining for a reasonable price. Shinya is also open for lunch.
Getting to Itako, Ibaraki
From Tokyo: Comfortable buses leave from Tokyo Station’s Yaesu South exit, dock 9 (the “Kashima-go”). Tickets can be purchased from the “Expressway Bus Ticketing Area” in the same area. For more information as well as a map, see the Tokyo Station Expressway Bus Terminal website. These buses will take you as far as the Suigo Itako Bus Terminal, which is not adjacent to Itako station, so to get to the station you must either take a taxi, take a city bus, or walk.
From Narita Airport: There are several car rental companies that operate at Narita Airport. Driving to Itako from the airport takes about 30 minutes. It’s also possible to take the train to Itako station, a journey of approximately 80 minutes; from Terminal 1 or 2 take any train to Narita station, and from there take the JR Kashima Line to Itako.
For more help planning a trip to Itako, be sure to visit their official tourism website, VisitItako.com.