Located just two hours by train from Tokyo, the small and unassuming town of Ashikaga in southern Tochigi prefecture is home to Japan’s first academic institution. Ashikaga Gakko, or Ashikaga School, lies in the heart of Ashikaga. It is surrounded by cobblestone roads that will deliver you to old Japan as you approach the famed torii gates adorning the entrance of the institution. Ashikaga Gakko makes a perfect day trip for travelers staying in Tokyo given its close proximity to the city, and is the perfect sight to see for anyone with a tight budget and a desire to experience Japanese history and culture.
The school is said to have been established in the 9th century, although there is some controversy around this date as records do not affirm any information on the school’s foundation before the year 1410. In 1432, Deputy Shogun Uesugi Norizane aided in the expansion of the institution’s library by importing many Chinese texts and appointed a Buddhist monk to run the school. Some 3,000 students from all over the Japan were studying subjects such as Chinese medicine and Confucianism by the year 1550. Several years later, the famed Roman Catholic missionary, Saint Francis Xavier, noted that Ashikaga Gakko was eastern Japan’s largest and most famous university.
The school was disestablished in 1872, just after the Meiji restoration, and efforts to preserve its grounds did not begin until 1981. Today, the school is open to the public after having been restored over the course of several years. It closes on the third Monday of every month and during the New Year holiday season, but is otherwise open for viewing.
What to do
Stroll the beautiful gardens of the institution’s campus and learn about the pioneering history of the school. You can pick up an English information pamphlet from the front desk when you buy a ticket. The ticket varies but never costs more than 400 yen. If you have studied Japanese in the past, you can test your skills by taking a Kanji test in the main building. The area around the school is also very beautiful and worth exploring. This is a great spot to view the cherry blossoms when they bloom in April.
Where to Eat
Just beside the school, Southwest Paradise offers a unique take on Southwest American food. If you are looking for new eating experience then this restaurant is highly recommended. It is affordable, has a great atmosphere, and fantastic food.
There is, however, no shortage of restaurants in the surrounding area if traditional Japanese food is more to your liking. By taking an immediate left out of the station you will find some small restaurants just before the bridge. Each is delicious and more than reasonably priced, with dishes ranging from ramen to katsudon.
From Tokyo, take the Shinkansen to Takasaki, and then transfer onto the JR Ryomo line to Ashikaga station. A cheaper and only slightly longer option would be to take the JR Utsunomiya line to Oyama. Then, transfer to the Ryomo line and take it to Ashikaga station.
From the station, walk left and then cross the street at the 7-11. Once you cross, walk left a bit more until you reach the cobblestone road with the statue of Confucius. If you follow this road it will lead you to the entrance of Ashikaga Gakko.