Living in Tokyo can be a stressful business. When I lived there a number of years ago, as much as I found the vibrancy of the city thrilling and the fast-paced lifestyle enthralling, there were plenty of times when it became too much.
So, those weekends when one could escape from the urban dirge and embrace more cultured and relaxing pursuits, became all the more precious as time went on.
Although Tokyo has plenty of things to do, people often forget about the other less urban parts surrounding it that are also teeming with things to do. One that is sometimes overlooked however is the neighbouring Prefecture of Ibaraki.
Located some 45 minutes to the north-east of downtown Tokyo, Ibaraki, much like neighbouring prefectures Saitama, Chiba, and Kanagawa draws much of its population from the millions of people who commute into Tokyo every day for work.
Despite its close proximity however, Ibaraki and its people have a character and local culture that is quite different and distinctive from Tokyo.
One of the first things you’ll notice as you head out to Ibaraki from Tokyo is the Tsukuba Express rail line that takes you there. But where does the name Tsukuba come from? It’s actually named after Mount Tsukuba, the highest point in the prefecture and a place of great natural beauty and visitor interest. Mount Tsukuba is one of the few mountains in Japan that was not bourne out of a volcano. Instead the mountain is composed primarily of granite and is actually a major source of some of the finest granite available, not just in Japan but around the world.
The mountain is known well to Japanese and affectionately referred to as one of the greatest mountains in Japan. It’s twin peaks, the highest of which has an elevation of 877 meters, gives a beautiful overview of the whole Kanto region from its summit, incorporating the Tokyo Skyline, parts of Chiba and Saitama Prefectures and on a clear day even as far south as Mount Fuji in Shizuoka.
Often considered something of a sacred place, especially in the Shinto faith, the mountain was first referenced in classical literature in the year 710 AD. A Shinto shrine, from several hundred years ago remains there to this day. The aforementioned dual peaks of the mountain also play into this myth and legend. The mountain peaks are worshipped as male and female gods of Shinto and as such visiting them and giving offerings to them is said to bring good fortune to couples and families. This tradition continues to this day.
On an aside, I guess that’s one of the things I really love about Japanese people, they manage to strike that fine balance of having a place for faith and belief in their lives without being beholden to any of its more dangerous, dogmatic or disruptive elements. The likes of America, Israel and Saudi Arabia would do well to learn from this example.
The mountain is accessible by either a ropeway, cable car or a good old fashioned hike up the hill. Along the way you will find various attractions, gift shops and of course the aforementioned shrines at the top, devoted to each of the partner gods.
Of course it’s not only religious history and culture that takes centre stage in Ibaraki Prefecture. The animal and plant worlds play a big part too. So, no visit to the area is truly complete, without paying a visit to the Ibaraki Nature Museum.
Given its close proximity to the ocean and the huge amount of tectonic activity in Japan down the centuries, Ibaraki is something of a proverbial gold mine for fossils, particularly the marine variety.
Ammonites, Ichthyosaurs and history’s most successful creature in terms of endurance, the humble Trilobite all feature prominently in what is a fascinating collection of marine artifacts from the Mesozoic Era, some 300 million years ago.
And it doesn’t stop there, of course after this age of marine life came the dinosaurs! Again, Ibaraki and the surrounding regions are a veritable treasure trove of such items, with everything from the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex, to the mighty Triceratops to the diminutive Compsognathus, a dinosaur no bigger than a chicken and an early forerunner to modern birds. A note to visitors, the museum is open from 9:30 to 5:30 every day, except Mondays when the museum is closed. Admission is ¥530 for adults, ¥330 for high school students, ¥100 for primary and middle school students. For outdoor facilities only, admission is ¥210, ¥100, and ¥50. During special exhibitions, admission is ¥720, ¥440, and ¥140.
So, you’ve had your fill of culture and beauty, nature and history, what better way to round off your day in Ibaraki than with a touch of sport? Last year an old superpower in Japanese soccer returned to power after a period of dormancy, clinching their 8th J League Title and their 4th Emperors Cup, (not bad when you consider the competitions have only been going about 25 years).
That team was Kashima Antlers, Ibaraki’s finest. The name antlers is actually taken from the English translation of the team’s city name, Kashima, which means “Deer Island”. Their stadium, the Kashima Soccer Stadium is one of the biggest in the J-League, with a capacity of almost 41,000.
The stadium was upgraded to its current, futuristic format in 2001, ahead of the 2002 World Cup which Japan hosted alongside regional rivals South Korea. Today, it remains one of the most attractive, atmospheric and just generally spectacular stadiums in Asia, and is well worth a visit when you are in town, especially if it happens to be a match day.
Overall, Ibaraki is a pretty interesting place, with a unique blend of the modern and the ancient, the aesthetic and the atmospheric. Be sure to stop by next time you are in Japan!