1. Get A History Lesson at Kodokan Mito Han School
Established in 1841 by Daimyo Tokugawa Nariaki, the Kodokan Mito Han School taught feudal lords and their children and served as the boyhood home for Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun of Japan. Nariaki believed that his school should not only teach fighting techniques but also literature and medicine. At this school, you can see the classrooms where the lords studied, the grounds where they sparred, and the family’s living quarters. At the end of the tour, tourists have the chance to see a small museum of relics and photos of the school during its glory days. The school doesn’t provide an official tour for visitors, but there are guided videos English speakers can download to their smartphones that explain the details of each room.
Just a five-minute walk from the Kodokan Mito Han School’s front gate takes you to the campuses of the local elementary, middle, and high school, which stand where the Mito Castle once did. Surrounding the schools is a recreation of what Mito Castle’s walls would have looked like!
2. Lost in The Great Garden Kairakuen
Kairakuen is one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens. Unusually, Nariaki opened this garden to the public because—true to Ibaraki philosophy—he believed in equality among lords and commoners. Nariaki designed the garden in harmony with yin and yang principles, so visitors could reflect on both the darkness and lightness of life.
Entering the Kobuntei Front Gate, you’ll find yourself shrouded in the shadows of the bamboo forest. Historically, Nariaki harvested the bamboo for food, as well as to make archery bows. The winding path then takes you to another forest of cedar trees that stretch taller than houses. As you make your way to the “yang” side of the garden, you pass by the Kobuntei building where Nariaki once entertained guests, and travelers can enjoy tea ceremony on the first weekend of every month. The yang side also holds Nariaki’s famous plum trees which bloom in early spring. Tokugawa Nariaki loved plum trees because their blossoms are the pioneers of spring, as they bloom before any other flower, and plum fruits are easy to preserve for times of famine.
Today, the garden has around 3,000 plum trees of 100 different varieties. If you miss the plum blossoms, don’t worry! Kairakuen features other seasonal flowers like cherry blossoms, azaleas, wisteria and more. Venture to the edge of the park’s cliff to see a superb view of Lake Senba below. Including the lake, it’s said that Kairakuen is the second-largest city park in the world behind Central Park in New York City!
3. Get Some Sunshine at The Oarai Isosaki Shrine
The shrine itself is particularly popular with fans of the anime show Girls und Panzer. True to form, you will spot several Ema (small wooden plaques with prayers written on them) featuring drawings of some fans’ favorite characters. However, the most popular site for travelers isn’t the shrine itself, but the Torii Gate which sits on a reef in the nearby Pacific shore. On New Year’s Day, locals and residents of neighboring prefectures flock here to witness the year’s first sunrise as it lights up the shimmering water.
You might see fishermen standing on the reef trying to bring in their catches, but visitors should not try to traverse the reef for a photo-op. The waves here are strong and the reef is slick. Some visitors who try end up falling and getting injured. Worst case scenario, they may even be swept away. A better and safer summer beach destination is located a little further down: Oarai Sun Beach, which is famous for surfing, swimming, and other water sports. It’s also known for being the town's “lovers’ lane.” You can settle down at the fishing port to have lunch, situated between Oarai Sun Beach and the Torii Gate.
4. Observe The Beauty of Hitachi Seaside Park
One of Ibaraki’s most popular destinations is Hitachi Seaside Park. You must visit this fantastic site at least once (or twice) in your life! The park’s 350 hectares (864 acres) include flower gardens, cycling roads, nature preserves, and a carnival! Hitachi Seaside Park is most famous for its display of 4.5 million Baby Blue Eyes (nempholia) flowers in spring.
If you can’t visit during this annual event, the park offers flower displays year-round including summer cypress, narcissus, rape blossoms, and more. If you get tired of walking through many miles of the park, rest your tired feet by hopping on the park’s very own Seaside Train to enjoy picturesque views from your comfortable seat.
5. Make Your Own Pottery at Craft Hills Kasama
Start your tour of Craft Hills Kasama with an exhibition of celebrated artist Matsui Kosei’s ceramic works. Matsui used two types of clay to create delicate, yet durable, marble-patterned ceramics in the neriage style. From here, you can venture to a shop selling works by local artists.
Kasama’s shop prides itself on encouraging young artists to find their own style, and each table holds a completely different visual style of pottery. From traditional sake glasses to fantastical figurines to statues that seem to move, you can find any sort of handmade sculpture to your liking.
6. Ride Along Tsukuba-Kasumigaura Ring Ring Road
Cyclists and fishermen rejoice! Tsukuba boasts the famous Ring Ring Road which circles a large lake in the middle of the city. Tourists can rent bikes from a shop and set out on a short ride. The cool winds from the lake and the smooth roads make this the perfect place to train for the Ironman Triathlon or take a family ride through the famous sites along the way.
For sports enthusiasts, the entire course takes you 180 km (112 miles) through mountains and to the ocean with lots of places for rest and food along the way. For families, you can ride to parks, shrines, or see sailboats. Check your maps carefully before you go! The lake widens and narrows in some areas, and if you take the wrong side of the road you could miss your destination. If you don’t have the energy for cycling, there are plenty of sightseeing boats on the lake to take you around.
7. Get A View at Ushiku Daibutsu
Finish your tour in Ushiku to see Ibaraki’s famous Great Buddha statue. This Buddha stands on a pedestal, and you can see each carefully crafted detail from the feet below to the towering head above. For comparison, the more internationally famous Great Buddha of Nara is 15 meters (50 feet) tall, and Ushiku’s Great Buddha stands at 100 meters (330 feet). The Great Buddha of Nara could sit in the palm of the Great Buddha of Ushiku’s hand!
Stepping onto the grounds, you can see a flower garden, a small animal park, and statues along your path. Like the Statue of Liberty, you can go inside the Buddha and visit different floors for worship, as well as one floor that boasts a spectacular view.
The first floor is the World of Infinite Light and Life. The lights suddenly went out except for one streaming beam, and an announcement was made that explained we could blind ourselves to worldly desires and live in the light of wisdom. On the second floor, World of Gratitude and Thankfulness, you can make a copy of your very own sutra thanking Buddha.
On the third floor, the World of the Lotus Sanctuary, you’re surrounded by approximately 3,400 gold statues of Buddha each inscribed with the name of a deceased person. Monks pray over and bless these statues every day. Finally, on the top floors, you can get a panoramic view from 85 meters (280 feet) up. The view reaches all the way to Tokyo, and you can see SkyTree from here.