Tochigi #5: Mashiko Pottery (益子焼)

My sincerest apologies for the long wait for a new post. I’m afraid that I wont be much better at updating from here on out, but I shall try not to let too much longer go between posts!

Tochigi’s 5th postcard depicts the kilns of Mashiko, a small town famous for its pottery. I’ve never been, but recently Japan Guide published a piece on Mashiko in their Chotto Zeitaku series, which I thought would be fun to share with you. Since the article does a fabulous job of explaining the pottery and the town itself, I will let it speak for itself. Without further ado, please click here for more on Mashiko and the pottery experience!

Tochigi #8: Kegon Falls (華厳ノ滝)

Nikko is one of Tochigi Prefectures most famous locations for good reason… the splendid shrines and temples, the cooler temperatures even in summer, and gorgeous fall colors make it a popular place for both Japanese and foreign tourists to visit. I’ve already done a post on the Irohazaka, or the colorful winding road that leads from the shrines and temples of Nikko up to Oku-Nikko, home of nature and Kegon no Taki, the Kegon Waterfall.

Along with Fukuroda Waterfall in Ibaraki Prefecture (also a postcard), and Nachi Falls in Wakayama Prefecture, Kegon Waterfall is considered one of the three most beautiful waterfalls of Japan. Its almost 100 meter falls can be seen from a free viewing platform or a paid viewing platform, and in all seasons. In winter, the waterfall often freezes solid!

I visited Kegon no Taki many years ago during the cherry blossom season. Unfortunately, spring is actually probably the most unattractive season in the area, as the snow has already melted, but the trees haven’t turned green yet. At that elevation, there weren’t any cherry trees, so everything just looked bare and brown. But you could see the waterfall really clearly! I’d love to go back one year for fall colors, but since everyone else in Japan tends to have that same plan, it can be the most crowded season then as well. Maybe summer, like it is pictured in the postcard, is best!

Kegon no Taki

Tochigi #2: Three Wise Monkeys (三猿)

These should look familiar! Tochigi’s 2nd postcard today is of the Three Wise Monkeys, demonstrating the principles of “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil”. This famous carving can be found in the ancient city of Nikko, where the shrines and temples have been worshiped in for centuries. The most famous of these is Toshogu Shrine, the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. You can read more about him here. The monkeys can be seen with a trip to Toshogu, but the other shrines and temples of Nikko are also not to be missed. You can read more about Toshogu here and here.

I have visited the shrines and temples of Nikko just once although I’ve been to the area a couple of times. My first visit was truly magical, and I was able to see the famous monkey carving, as well as several others in the area. It seems as though every building in Nikko is elaborately carved and painted, and I can see that postacollect probably had a hard time choosing what to depict in the postcard! Although the monkeys are perhaps most famous, my favorite carving in Nikko was the sleeping cat. Anyway, here are some pictures of the carving, alas with no postcard to compare!

A roof top in Toshogu

The monkeys up close

And close enough to the postcard, cute monkey omikuji bought at the shrine!

Nikko is close enough to Tokyo for a day trip, but to truly appreciate its size and beauty I wholly recommend staying the night. Still, any glimpse of this beautiful area is worth it!

Strawberries Part 1: Tochigi #1 – Strawberries (いちご)

It’s gotten cold here recently, and snow has started falling in many places across Japan, including, to my utter surprise, in my area as well. (It’s too early! I’m not ready for winter!) One thing I look forward to in the winter season is the strawberries. These berries brighten up the winter season, and are added into cakes and sweets all winter. My favorite strawberry treat is called a “daifuku”, a whole strawberry wrapped in tasty mochi with red bean paste. I can’t resist these.

There are two prefectures who reign supreme in strawberry production, Tochigi and Fukuoka. We’ll look at Fukuoka next post and focus on Tochigi for this one. Strawberries in Japan are grown November to May, although increasingly they are available in the off-season as well. Tochigi’s most famous style is called “Tochiotome” and were developed in 1996. Living in the Kanto region as I am, these are the easiest to find at local grocery stores.

In fact, I went yesterday and bought a few packs for science! Let’s take a look:

Mmm strawberries

I bought the cheaper ones, so they aren’t necessarily Tochiotome, but they are definitely from Tochigi!

My mini postcard posing with the strawberries

And just for fun!

I also bought a pack of Fukuoka strawberries, so tune in to next week’s post to see the face off between the two! Meanwhile, I’ve got some strawberries to eat.

By the way, strawberry picking is a popular activity in the winter, and there are places all over Japan to pick besides Tochigi or Fukuoka. If you’re in Japan during the winter and have some time, why don’t you soak in the winter sunshine, pick some strawberries, and have a fun day out in the country? Here is a great list of places in the Kanto region you can pick at: click here.

2015.01.20: I’ve found a great video on Strawberries in Japan, including Tochigi’s and Fukuoka’s famous brands. It’s a bit long, but worth a watch for those with the time. It is from NHK’s BEGIN Japanology video, and you can watch it here.

Tochigi #4 – Ashigaka Gakkou (史跡足利学校)

I’ve been focusing a lot on Tochigi lately, and here is yet another Tochigi postcard, this one featuring the famous Ashikaga School in Ashikaga, Tochigi.

Ashikaga Gakkou is Japan’s oldest university, most likely founded in the ninth century, then restored in 1432 by Uesugi Norizane, who imported many Chinese books and brought the school to it’s highest prestige. During the Meiji Period, the school came under the management of Ashikaga Prefecture (now Tochigi Prefecture), and the school was disestablished and half used for an elementary school. Finally in the 1980s the elementary school was moved and restoration work began. This restoration took 10 years to complete, but result in the beautiful wood buildings tourists can see today.

The postcard depicts the middle gate of the school, called the “School Gate”. The kanji depicted are the Chinese characters for “School”, which was simplified in Japanese to “学校”.

The School Gate

Tickets and pamphlets

Restored building from the inside, looking out to the garden

Some pretty fall colors of red, yellow, and green in the school grounds

Restored wooden building from the outside

A Meiji Era building housing the Library and Historical Archives

The Ashikaga School can be reached on either the Tobu Isesaki Line to Ashikagashi Station or the JR Ryomo Line to Ashikaga Station, then on foot about 10-15 minutes. Hours are 9-5 April through September, and 9-4:30 October to March. Closing days are the third Monday of every month (or the following Tuesday if Monday is a holiday), and during the New Year from December 29th to the 31st. Entrance fee is 420 yen for adults, and 210 yen for High School Students. Junior High School age and younger get in free. There is an English pamphlet available, but little English signage. You can find out more information about visiting the schhool and other Ashikaga City attractions from the Ashikaga City page here.

Tochigi #3: Gyoza (餃子)

I had a huge crisis deciding which Tochigi post to write first. On one hand, the fall colors of Nikko are probably pretty much over by now, and I wanted to post about the colors when you could still see them, but on the other, the Gyoza festival was last weekend and it is definitely over even though I’m posting about it now. Decisions, decisions. I finally went with Irohazaka since you can only see fall colors for a short time, but can eat Gyoza any time.

So now, let’s talk about gyoza! Gyoza (also called dumplings or potstickers) are indeed originally from China but carry a unique flavor that is popular all over the country. Tochigi Prefecture’s Utsunomiya City is doing its best to be called the “Gyoza Capital of Japan”, and there is a gyoza restaurant on every corner. There is also a fun Gyoza Festival held the first weekend of November every year, where you can try gyoza from restaurants all over the city.

I’ve always been a big fan of gyoza, and visited the Gyoza Festival in Utsunomiya two years ago, at the same time I went to see the fall colors of Nikko.

Gyoza and postcard

Entrance to the festival

Trying some different types of gyoza at the festival

If anyone is interested in more information about the festival, you can read my trip report about it here on Japan Guide, and the official Utsunomiya Gyoza website is here (Japanese only).

Happy Gyoza Eating!

Tochigi #6 – Irohazaka (いろは坂)

Lots of the postcards represented in the collection are seasonal, whether they’re depicting a once-a-year festival, a product that is harvested during a certain time, or flowers that have a growing season. Some have general seasonality, or don’t have anything specific that gives me a time period to say one season or another, but I’d say the majority of cards do. But what surprises me about the collection is that only one postcard features what I consider to be one of the highlights of Japan: fall colors, called “kouyou” here.

Just one! Okay, I know the cherry blossoms are better known (and you can bet I’ll be having a posting ball with that once spring comes), but I’d think the fall colors would have a little bit more representation!

So the one card that depicts the beautiful reds, oranges, yellows, and fading greens of fall is Tochigi’s sixth and most recent postcard showing the winding road of the Irohazaka in famous Nikko. The two roads that make up the Irohazaka connect lower Nikko with the higher elevated Okunikko, and have a fabulous and fun 48 hairpin turns together, hence the name “Iroha” which comes from the name of the Japanese alphabet which has 48 characters plus “zaka” for slope.

There’s not a place where you can see the roads as depicted on the cards, but an observation plateau on the upward road does give some views of the road curving down. We visited Nikko and Okunikko one busy fall weekend two years ago, and it was as crowded as it could be. Cars were taking a good three hours to make it up what should normally take maybe 20 minutes… luckily, we were on a motorcycle and could bypass a lot of the traffic, but it was still bad. We skipped the plateau in order to make it up to the top as soon as we could, but we did stop to see the waterfalls on the way down, so here are some pictures of those:

I have mostly videos of the crowds on the up road, this is the only picture, but those cars are stopped.

Beautiful colors on the way down!

The two waterfalls together

By the way, I would wholly recommend going to Nikko during the fall colors, but not on a weekend as the Irohazaka can get unbelievably backed up. If you must go, try to go up as early as possible; down’s usually not as bad. You can read more about the Irohazaka over at Japan Guide here, as well as the most recent report of the color status at Nikko here. Colors are early this year, so go soon if you’re going!