As we didn’t do enough driving the day before, we decided another 117 miles was in order. We were driving from Fukushima down to Ibaraki prefecture, outside of Tohoku. We had some stops planned on the way, and didn’t need to get to Mito in Ibaraki during day light, so we could take our time.
We started the day by taking a walk through the area of Aizuwakamatsu we were staying in. It was a sleepy town at 7am as we barely saw anyone else. The area had a number of old buildings still standing, as well as some cute shrines, and a gorilla…
Our first stop along the way was the city of Shirakawa which lies on the border of Fukushima and Tochigi prefectures. Shirakawa was known as the gate way to the north, and historically stood between the shogun controlled south, and the wild north! Shirakawa is has two big festivals each year, a lantern festival in summer and a daruma festival in late spring, neither of which we would see. We were stopped in Shirakawa for two things, daruma and castles. We stopped at Komine castle just before 12. The car park was almost completely empty!
Like many castles in Japan it was a stronghold during the Boshin war, and was attacked during the battle of Aizu, which ended up in the destruction of the castle in Aizuwakamatsu. This castle fell to the Meiji government too and sustained damage. What remained of the castle and it’s walls were pulled down when the feudal system was abolished and became a park for the public.
The castle was rebuild in 1991, although it was damaged again during the 2011 earthquake. The castle park was vast, featuring open grassy areas alongside manicured trees. You are able to go inside the castle, and we were told there was nothing to pay. The inside had been faithfully restored in the traditional way, featuring lots of big wooden beams. As will all Japanese castles the stairs were steep, but the views were beautiful.
The grounds were really beautiful, with lots of maple and sakura trees sporting red leaves. The castle must be stunning in the spring when the red leaves are replaced by fluffy pink blossoms! Overall it was a cute little castle to visit. It seemed that local people were still using the grounds as a public park, as there were many groups entertaining small children on the grass areas outside the main castle keep.
Our next stop was for a little retail therapy, and more specifically a trip to Uniqlo. We drove to a nearby shopping area, got some clothes from Uniqlo (with tax free) before grabbing some food based supplies and getting back on the road. We next stopped at a michi no eki in Tochigi prefecture, which we had crossed into after leaving the castle. We had a beautiful walk through the rice fields with the sun low in the sky. One thing I love about the Japanese countryside are the small farmsteads many families hold. We saw an old couple harvesting their crops, and met a cut little dog out for a walk.
We had named our Japanese in car Sat Nav Sharon (our Google maps lady is called Barbara). Sharon had a bit of a sense of humour and loved sending us along narrow roads between rice fields for no good reason! She avoided any main civilised roads as much as possible, and so the rest of the day disappeared whilst we were truly experiencing rural Japan. When we finally popped back out into civilisation the sun was setting over the urban sprawl.
We were back in a city again! Since travelling through Tohoku we hadn’t seen a big, bright Japanese city since we landed in Tokyo. Mito in Ibaraki is quite an urban hub, being so close to Tokyo. We walked through the town to Royal Host for dinner, and booked our Shinkansen tickets for two days time in advance (making sure to get space for our luggage!).
After dinner it was early to bed, early to rise!