Ibaraki is a special place. Just over an hour from Tokyo by train, it’s a perfect escape from the bright lights and fast pace of the big city. This is the agricultural heart of Japan, where hardworking farmers grow flavorful produce, deep-seated traditions lend themselves to fabulous festivals, and the natural scenery is something out of a movie. If you want to escape Japan’s typical tourist destinations in favor of a more authentic and local experience, the Ibaraki Prefecture needs to be on your list. With waves to surf, mountains to hike, shrines to visit, waterfalls to chase and amazing food to eat, what more could you ask for? Here are my top recommendations of things to do in the Ibaraki Prefecture.
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The best way to get to Ibaraki Prefecture
When I visited Ibaraki Prefecture, I took the Super Hitachi Express from Ueno Station in Tokyo to Mito, Ibaraki. The journey lasts 1 hour and 22 minutes and is an easy trip if you have the JR Pass (buy yours here). Alternatively, you can buy a one way or round trip ticket from Tokyo to Mito here.
Prefer to travel by bus instead of train? Traveling by bus will get you from Tokyo Station to Mito Station in 1 hour and 43 minutes. JR Bus Kanto is covered by a Japan Rail Pass or you can purchase tickets individually online or at a JR Expressway Bus window. Check the timetable or buy your tickets here.
Top things to do in Ibaraki Prefecture
1. Check out the famous torii gate in the Pacific Ocean
The Kamiiso-no-Torii is the outermost gate of the Oarai Isosaki-jinja shrine. The shrine was first built in 896AD, destroyed in the mid-1500s and rebuilt in 1690. The name of the gate is translated “gate at the beach of the gods,” and it’s said this is the spot where the gods came down.
If you visit on January 1, wake up extra early to watch the sun rise directly between the two arms of this gate.
Although it’s an incredibly Instagrammable spot, be sure to maintain your distance behind the stone marker. This area is sacred and it’s also known to have unforgiving currents and surprisingly strong waves.
2. Practice Shinto gratitude
In Japan, multiple religions have peacefully coexisted for more than 2,000 years. The main religions here are Buddhism and Shintoism. While many people know about Buddhism, less is known about Shintoism. I’ve been told that Japan has as many as 8,000,000 gods, including the newest one – a sweet potato god whose shrine is set to open November 23, 2019!
The basis of the Shinto religion is to notice the divine in nature and practice gratitude in all things. In a region this beautiful, there are reminders to be grateful all around you.
3. Enjoy a lunch that is out of this world good!
At Tsuki Cafe (tsuki means ‘moon’ in Japanese), you’re guaranteed an incredible experience from the moment you arrive. The cool sea breeze greets you in the parking lot, and the seats in this family-owned (and family-built!) restaurant look over the ocean – full of surfers catching a wave. The husband and wife team traveled around Japan looking for the perfect venue to open their restaurant and pottery business, and I can see why they decided to build here!
Choose from wood-fired pizzas, a selection of sushi or sushi bowls, salt-crusted fish, or a bento box if you’re lucky. They only make 5 per day, so get there early if you want to try one!
Choose a drink from the entry area, where a selection of handmade pottery sits waiting to be filled with mugicha (barley tea), green tea or water. The restaurant is open all summer long, but during the rest of the year, the couple who run the place make pottery. The pottery is sold or used as serving dishes at their restaurant.
I got lucky with a bento box and loved trying a selection of raw and cooked fish, rice with seaweed and tempura vegetables. Of course, we finished up with dessert, ordering everything on the menu! Their mizuyoka (sweet bean jello) is firm and pairs well with the blueberry cream cheese whipped cream on the side! And their cheese cake was really nice, too! Light and fluffy – not too heavy for the beachside venue.
4. Go crazy over anime in Oarai
In the town of Oarai, you can’t go far without noticing anime characters displayed on signs in shop windows. The anime “Girls und Panzer” (that’s tanks in German), is set in the town of Oarai. The creator of the anime has replicated the town from street signs to the shape of trees as the setting of the animated series. In it, high school girls in short skirts practice tank warfare as a sport.
The town of Oarai was heavily affected by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, and the revenue from the anime series has helped the town bounce back. From the shrine to the local coffee shop, you’ll see signs featuring the anime series everywhere!
Don’t miss the anime-decorated prayers at the Oarai Isosaki Shrine.
Be on the lookout for the themed race car in town, too!
Check out the trailer here:
5. Celebrate at a local festival
Because there are so many gods in Japan, it’s likely that you’ll visit during a religious festival! During these festivals, you’re sure to see men, women and children marching or dancing their way through town.
I had the honor of visiting Oarai during the Hassaku Festival and Isobushi Parade, held yearly on the last weekend of August. I wore the yukata (summer kimono), and learned a dance which mimics the movements of fishermen.
Chants of wasshoi from children who parade their school-made float through town ring out and the anime fans pull (yep- the floats are all man-powered!) a tank through town that “attacks” local buildings just like in the anime series. You can also see portable shrines, where the gods may be moved for the festival and driven through town.
6. Don’t forget to try the street food!
Festivals are a hotspot for street food. Throw all the Japanese rules about not eating and walking out the window… this is a time to let loose! Cool down with shaved ice and satisfy a sweet tooth with a chocolate-filled taiyaki.
Or have SOY much fun with a mitsudango soy bean dumpling, sweetened with soy sauce and sugar. The dumplings are chewy, like a cross between mochi and a bao bun, and the sauce is just sweet enough!
7. Visit the Fukuroda Falls
Winter, spring, summer or fall… you’re gonna want to visit this place every season! The four-tiered waterfall is absolutely breathtaking. Walk up a cool tunnel, and you’ll hear the falls before you see them. The rushing water is the definitely of a peace-filled kind of power.
After admiring the Fukuroda Falls from three levels of viewing platforms, head down to the suspension bridge to see the falls from another perspective. Tear your eyes away from the waterfalls and look in the river on the other side of the bridge. Remember what I said about power? Those GIANT boulders came down that “peaceful” waterfall.
8. Learn to make oyaki in an abandoned schoolhouse
The population in Japan is increasing in age, and less children means empty schools. The owners of Daigo Oyaki School decided to use this building to further education of adults and children in the kitchen! Get ready, because the Daigo Oyaki School is going to feed your creative side as well as your stomach!
Oyakis are a Japanese stuffed dumpling, created to preserve food in areas like Daigo, where winters are a frozen affair. Here, you can taste oyaki filled with locally produced ingredients like mushroom, cheese, red bean, radish, pumpkin, apple or eggplant. Or, you can join a class and learn how to make your own!
I made pumpkin and apple oyakis and loved trying out my kawaii artist skills. One went well… and one looks like a scary Hello Kitty. Thankfully, they all tasted great!
9. Eat lunch in a hand-built log cabin
Did you know that people can own a mountain? Well, it turns out, you can!
The couple that run Cafe Ayu Yumori own a mountain, and it’s from that mountain where all the wood for the adorable log cabin cafe is harvested. They cut down the trees, removed the bark, and over the course of 10 years, built the structure that’s standing today. The cozy cabin is decorated with Totoro statues, and visited by customers who are in the know about this word-of-mouth cafe.
And if that’s not impressive enough, the view is the reward for the winding roads you must drive to get to the cafe. Well.. the views and the coffee, lunch and selection of cakes!
10. Shop local at a roadside station
I thought something must have been lost in translation when I saw “visit a roadside station” on my itinerary. The Ibaraki Prefecture curated an incredible foodie itinerary for me… and then they included a highway rest stop?! In the US, rest stops are a place where you want to rest as quickly as possible. (Except for the gas station tacos in Dallas, but that’s another story.) But here in Japan, roadside stations are a culinary destination where foodies can find regional products and get great deals on local produce. And in a country where two melons just sold for over $45,000USD, any deal is a good one!
At Hitachiomiya Kawa Plaza, I oohed and ahhed over perfect peaches and $15USD cantaloupe. The Japanese take their fruits seriously and employ a sweetness scale, determined by a special light to decide whether the fruit is good enough to sell.
Outside Hitachiomiya Kawa Plaza, families swim in the river and fishermen cast a line. In the food court, you can buy lunch or delicious gelato… which brings us to our next awesome thing to do in Ibaraki!
11. Chill out with gelato
The creative (and super kawaii) team at Gelato & Smoothie are dreaming up unique gelato flavors using local ingredients. You might have guessed that you can find gelato flavored with local milk and green tea. But could you imagine an Ibaraki tomato and lemon gelato? What about gelato flavored with wild sesame harvested from the banks of the Kuji River? Other seasons bring corn or pumpkin flavored gelato. They’re giving Trento, Italy’s uniquely flavored gelato a run for its money!
Gelato & Smoothie is a shop that will keep you coming back for more, because the flavors are constantly changing.
I had the chance to go behind the scenes and see the gelato-maker in action. The base is Ibaraki milk from Mizuho Farm, mixed with seasonal ingredients.
Check out the cute video promoting the shop as you wait in line for your scoop (which is the most beautifully scooped ice cream ever). You can tell the team has fun with what they do, and their joy is evident in the product!
12. Eat a famous apple pie
Ibaraki is known for being an agricultural hub in Japan. The climate is perfect for growing, the soil is rich, and the produce is flavorful. The apples are no exception. It’s this high quality fruit that’s used in the famous apple pie from Daigo. Before you visit Fukuroda Falls, stop by this stand outside the Honen Mansaku ryokan and pick up your apple pie. It sells out, and I promise you won’t want to miss this!
The apple pie is sold piping hot and it’s best to eat right away. The apple filling is sweet and the flaky pastry is melt-in-your-mouth good. And it’s topped with a sweet apple glaze. It doesn’t get much better than this!
13. Learn how sake is made (and taste some, too!)
Kanpai! I’m sure you’ve tried sake while traveling through Japan… but do you know how it goes from being a grain of rice to the clear (or cloudy) beverage responsible for your hangover?
Pay a visit to Kikusakari, a family-owned business that’s been brewing sake since 1823. At this location, the master brewer is responsible for the process which will yield 50,000 bottles of sake. While I’ve learned all about the wine-making process and have visited dozens of beer breweries, the precision required for sake is next level.
From the percentage of rice that needs to be polished away, to the number of seconds the rice should soak in water, this is a process that’s measured on a micro scale. Steamed, rinsed and cooled rice is moved into a “sauna room,” where koji mold is added and a change in temperature could wreck the whole process. Yet again, the mixture is moved and the shubo (mother) is added to koji, steamed rice, yeast and water (in a similar process to making sourdough bread). The mixture is fed more koji, steamed rice, yeast and water over a 4 day period, and then it’s moved to a big tank to ferment for a month. After that… it’s ready to drink!
Love sake? Make a reservation at the on-site soba restaurant, where the menu is created to pair with Kikusakari sake!
Fun fact: Want to know if you’re buying new or old sake? When a new vintage is introduced, a new sugidama (cedar ball) is hung outside the front door of the brewery. If the ball’s green, you’re getting fresh sake. If it’s brown? That’s last year’s brew!
14. Be a beer brewer for a day
Kikusakari is one arm of the Kiuchi Brewery. Hitachino Nest Beer is the other. Their beer is exported globally and has been called some of the best beer in the world.
Want to put your own spin on a 190-year-old secret recipe? Join their beer making experience where you’ll go through the process of making beer and adding your favorite flavors before handing your brew over to the master brewer, who will complete the process. Then, 2-3 weeks later, your beer is bottled and shipped to your home. It’s a double bonus – you don’t have to put it in your suitcase, and your holiday gets an extension when a little bit of Japan arrives at your doorstep!
15. Sip coffee like a shogun
The last shogun is responsible for bringing coffee to Japan, and he was particular about his brew! While in Ibaraki, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Suzuki, founder of Saza Coffee. Mr. Suzuki is friends with the grandson of the last shogun, who graciously gave him the recipe and his blessing to share shogun coffee with the world.
The coffee is rich and strong, and when you order it at a Saza Coffee café, it comes in a golden carafe with a non-alcoholic Brandy sweetener. This is a must-try in Ibaraki Prefecture, where shogun coffee is a liquid link to the final shogun. Saza Coffee is being hailed as a frontrunner in the fourth wave coffee movement. This is your chance to be a trendsetter!
16. Marvel at the rice fields
There is no green like the green of a rice field. I learned a great saying while in Ibaraki. When the rice is heavy and ready for harvest, it bows. In a similar way, CEOs and leaders should be humble, realizing how much they have. What a great lesson in humility from a plant that feeds this nation!
17. Book a photoshoot at the most Instagrammable hotel in Ibaraki
Did you know that I used to be a wedding coordinator? That’s right – in a tiny town in Texas, I helped brides on their biggest day and I loved every second!
At Hotel Crystal Palace in Hitachinaka, the hotel was designed with weddings in mind and I loved every second of my stay there. If you’re planning your big day, the hotel offers a studio with more than a dozen backgrounds for wedding or engagement photos.
And if you’re planning your wedding in Japan, you can hold the big day in the stunning chapel next door and bring the party back to the Hotel Crystal Palace.
18. Try soy sauce ice cream
Kurosawa Soy Sauce Factory began as a grain distributor in 1905 and within one year, they were producing soy sauce in their warehouse. This family-owned business is now run by the fourth generation and 15 years ago, they expanded their products to include soy sauce ice cream.
Ok, it sounds weird, but hear me out! You’ve tried salted caramel ice cream, right? It works because it’s salty and sweet. At the first bite, I was unsure, but once I got over the initial “oh my gosh, it’s soy sauce” shock, I found that I couldn’t stop eating it. I’m usually a slow eater when it comes to ice cream, but I won the clean plate club at Kurosawa! In addition to soy sauce ice cream, they also offer a range of soy sauce pudding, soy sauce chiffon cake and miso pudding in the sweet department. In the savory range, you’ll find a soy sauce to pair with every type of dish!
19. Frolic in a field of kawaii flowers
At Hitachi Seaside Park, every season holds a new surprise. The park is comprised of 350 hectares (or roughly 654 football fields) worth of flowers, greenery, bike trails, a BMX course, an amusement park and so much more.
The sunflowers were in full bloom when I visited in August and I thoroughly enjoyed getting Instagram-girl lost in a field of sunflowers!
Next to the sunflower patch, a field of 350,000 zinnias add a pop of color to the park.
Perhaps my favorite part, though, are the nearly-neon green kochias. To quote Agnes from Despicable Me, “It’s so fluffy I’m gonna die.” Thirty-two thousand fluff balls cover the hill. So much fluff. In October, these fluff balls will transform from green to pink to brilliant red.
In spring, 4.5 million nemophila or baby blue eyes bloom on that same hill. Tourists come in droves to snap a photo with their favorite flower. And if you visit in late August, be sure to check out the kochia light up nighttime event!
The government owns Hitachi Seaside park, and it’s incredibly affordable at only ¥450 per person. With entry fees that affordable, you can enjoy all the onsite cafes, take a ride on the hop on, hop off seaside train, or rent a bike to explore the park.
Join a tour to Hitachi Seaside Park!
Book this tour for 10% OFF this very floral day! You’ll get a chance to see flowers at Ashikaga Flower Park and Hitachi Seaside Park on this day trip from Tokyo, complete with a BBQ lunch!
Book this tour which is another day trip from Tokyo to see Ashikaga Flower Park and Hitachi Seaside Park. The lunch option includes all you can eat from a choice of 130 different types of sushi, yakiniku and desserts.
20. Watch Japanese baseball
Where to stay in Ibaraki
Hotel Terrace The Garden
Just steps from the JR Mito Train Station, Hotel Terrace The Garden Mito is the ideal accommodation for your stay in Mito. From the moment you enter the hotel, you instantly feel ensconced in luxury, with a sprawling lobby and an impressive spiral staircase. The friendly staff at the front desk greets you and gives you your room key as well as a pass to enjoy breakfast.
I had the luxury of staying in a suite, and if I didn’t have a schedule full of so many fun things to do in Ibaraki, I never would have left the room! The deep soaking tub and a host of high-quality products were calling my name after an evening dancing in the parade.
Although Hotel Terrace The Garden Mito excels at big things like a comfy bed and a plethora of bathroom amenities, they don’t overlook the small stuff. In the room, you’ll find a cell phone, loaded with things to do in the area and an option to take photos that will be emailed to you.
At onsite restaurant, Il Bancale, you can choose local or Western options for breakfast. Whatever you choose, make sure your morning coffee is Saza Coffee!
Hotel Crystal Palace
My second night in Ibaraki, I moved to the Hotel Crystal Palace in Hitachinaka. Walking into the lobby, you’re greeted by the tinkle of wind chimes and an expanse of live plants.
At check in, I received my room key, breakfast pass, and a pass to the ramen bar, in case I needed a late night snack! I arrived in my suite to a kind welcome note and origami with sweet treats inside each paper crane!
Like Hotel Terrace The Garden Mito, Hotel Crystal Palace also offers a cell phone for guests’ usage.
The proximity to Hitachi Seaside Park makes it a fabulous choice for guests interested in visiting the famous park. And the special touches of comfort make it the best place to unwind after a long day of exploring. Put on the provided yukata for a trip to the sauna and hot spring bath, or stay in your room and take advantage of the delicious-smelling bath products and comfy bed.
Dinner with the city council and the inbound tourism task force
The evening I stayed at Hotel Crystal Palace, the Hitachinaka city council’s inbound tourism task force invited me to dinner. They asked me to share my experiences as a blogger, what I thought about travel in Japan and advice on promoting inbound tourism in Ibaraki Prefecture.
And they served the most delicious, beautiful food, specially curated with local products and foods they thought I’d enjoy.
Here are a few of my favorites:
When the evening ended, I was stuffed with food and excited for the future of Ibaraki. The leaders in the community are committed to making Ibaraki a destination for tourists from around the world, and I’m so glad they’ve trusted me to share a little bit of their lovely prefecture with you.
When you’re planning your trip to Japan, I hope you will consider Ibaraki Prefecture. Get away from the hustle and bustle and really relax on your vacation. Immerse yourself in the agricultural hub of Japan and get back to nature. When you go home, you’re sure to have stories to tell for years to come of the kindness of the people, the amazing flavors of the food and the beautiful nature of Ibaraki Prefecture.
Ibaraki Prefecture hosted me on this trip. All opinions are my own and I’d never recommend anything to you that’s not awesome!
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