By following Rt. 294 to the north of Mt. Tsukuba, you will come to Mashiko, and about 15 km to the southeast is Kasama. These two towns are the two major pottery centers of the Kanto area. The pottery made in this area is famous throughout Japan and its tradition is quite old. Both areas have excellent displays and shops, so if you are interested in Mashiko or Kasamayaki, this area is well worth a visit. There are also some beautiful temples in both areas; Saimyouji in Mashiko, and Sainenji in Kasama. The areas surrounding both temples are quite beautiful, and the trees in both are considered to be National Cultural Treasures. The drive to the Mashiko-Kasama area takes only about one hour to one hour and a half.
A great place to take the children is the "Yumoa" Ninja Village in Niihari at the base of Mt. Tsukuba. The road leading up to this giant jungle gym is about one kilometer west of the road leading up to the top of the mountain. The village can easily keep a child occupied for half a day, as it consists of a section of challenging jungle gyms and a giant maze. Another section is complete with a ninja museum and a ninja maze house full of secret corridors, etc., and a quaint shopping and eating area. The entrance price is a bit steep at ¥1,600 for adults and ¥1,400 for children, but it's a lot closer and cheaper than Disneyland, and guaranteed to keep the kids jumping and kicking for days. Watch out, a ninja could get you!
Nikko Edo Mura, by Nikko Park in Tochigi Prefecture, is a little farther away than most of the places mentioned here, but it is a worthwhile place to visit. Edo Mura is a trip back in time to the Edo period of Japan's history, with a theme park format. There are samurai walking the streets, and inside there are ninja shows, a re-creation of a red-light district, and a 3-D movie among other attractions. The cost depends on the number of attractions you plan on seeing; from ¥2,200 to enter the park to ¥3,700 for all of the attractions. If you plan on seeing it all, arrive early, and try and see the most popular attractions first. If it is too crowded, you may be denied entrance to the park or some of the attractions.
Next to Ajigaura Beach is the Hitachi Seaside Park (0292-65-9001), a relatively new park. It features a number of nice rides in a garden like atmosphere, and many enjoy renting bicycles or four-wheelers (pedal-power) (at ¥300/3hrs. and ¥600/hr., respectively) to peddle around on. The entrance fee is much less than Disneyland's at only ¥370 for adults and ¥80 for kids up to 14 (five and under are free). The twelve rides vary from ¥100 to ¥600 per ride, which does add up, but it is still quite reasonable, and kids under 5 ride free with an adult.
Flower Park, as its name implies, is wonderland of flowers that changes with the seasons. The most dazzling displays (such as tulips and azaleas) are already past their season, but the garden's main specialty is roses, which are just now coming into bloom. Likewise, Iris gardens are also coming into bloom in late May to early June.
This sedate park is quite crowded on the weekends and is a great place for a picnic lunch. The eating facilities are not so good, so be advised to take your own picnic basket. The entrance fee is ¥620 for adults and ¥310 for children, and is well worth it if you go on a nice day. You can easily spend most of a day strolling around and taking pictures.
During the festival time, potted and seedling roses will be on sale, with drawings for free rose bushes on weekends (50 on Saturdays and 100 on Sundays). On opening day, roses will be given to the first 500 people, and on Father's Day (6/18), roses will be presented to the first 100 father & child entrants. There will also be a concert by the Jieitai band on Sunday, 5/28.
Flower Park is located on the back side of Mt. Tsukuba, about a 30 minute drive from downtown Tsukuba. The easiest route to take to get there is to go out Tsuchiura-Gakuen Sen to the Route 6 bypass in Tsuchiura and turn left. Go up that for about 3 kilometers and turn left onto route 125 (the same exit that takes you to the Tsuchiura Kita Interchange on the Joban Expressway). A shortways up is a road called the "Fruit Line" that leads directly up to the road going over the mountain. Keep straight on this road, and you can't miss the Flower Park on your left about 4 km from the top of the mountain.
A recent addition to the attractions is the "Flower Slide", a long stainless steel trough that you slide down on a special sled. Great to sit on with your kids and enjoy a ride among the flowers. The Park is open from 9 am to 5 pm every day except Mondays. (If Monday is a holiday, then their day off is shifted over to Tuesday).
Lining the road outside of the park are roadside stands selling fresh strawberries and other fruits and vegetables. They may not be much cheaper than buying in a store, but they're worth checking out anyway.
If you've got the time, you can scoot on up that same road for another half hour and enjoy the sights of Kasama and its famous pottery.
Another great place to enjoy the seasonal plants and flowers is the Tsukuba Botanical Garden and National Science Museum (51-5159) located on Higashi Odori across from Tsukuba University. This complex consists of a large park-like area with numerous interesting plants, a large greenhouse with tropical plants and a botanical museum. This is a great place to go just to get away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. Walking down some of the back trails almost makes you think you are on a mountain trail miles from a city. A nominal entrance fee of ¥170 (¥50 for children) is charged, and it is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm, except Mondays and the day following a national holiday.
If animals are your thing, there are two good zoos in the area. One is the Tobu Dobutsuen Koen (Tobu Zoo Park). This is a combination zoo and amusement park about 90 minutes to the west of Tsukuba in eastern Saitama. Both the zoo and the rides are quite nice and fairly reasonable. If you go by car, it's probably best to go via Ishige and Sakai-machi and cross the Tone River at the Sakai Bridge. This road leads straight (more or less) to the town of Miyashiro where the park is. There is also a train station on the Tobu-Isezaki Line out of Kita Senju (which is also on the Joban Line going into Ueno), and thus can also be reached by train from Arakawaoki in a little over 90 minutes. Another zoo is located here in Ibaraki in the Hitachi area. This zoo is new and quite beautiful. It is not well known, so it isn't as crowded as other places.......yet.
There are numerous institutes that have interesting facilities that can be toured, but generally it is necessary to get permission ahead of time. This is not so difficult if you have a Japanese friend call ahead of time. One of the most interesting exhibit halls is the one at the National Laboratory For High Energy Physics (KEK, 64-1171). It is open from 9 am to 4 pm, except on weekends and holidays, but you need to call ahead and make arrangements.
The Tsukuba Space Center (52-2205) has some very interesting displays of space capsules, rockets, etc., that are also well worth a visit. While there is generally no problem getting in, security is quite strict at this facility, with certain areas off limits. Please keep this in mind, as you will be asked to sign in at the gate.
The Tsukuba Bach Grove "Baha no Mori" (47-8696) is located at the northern end of Tokodai in Tsukuba City. They have a fine pipe organ hall with frequent concerts and other cultural activities. This facility is definitely a must for music enthusiasts. They are closed on Mondays.
Yukari-no-Mori (47-5061) is a hold-over from Expo '85 days featuring camp sites, crafts workshops and an interesting insect museum. It is located just north of Tokodai and contains several paths through the forests.
The Ushiku Chateau Wine Cellars (73-3151) is another interesting place for a combination meal and tour. Ushiku Chateau was built in 1885, and extensive gardens and vineyards surround the large European-style main building. Inside are restaurants, a wine museum, etc., and outside are places for barbecues. In addition to other restaurants, huge wine casks have been converted into mini garden houses, and it is possible to have private meals inside these casks. The complex is located about 1 km north of the east exit of Ushiku Station.
Billed as the world's largest statue of Buddha (and perhaps of any kind), the 120 meter high Buddha dominates the horizon east of Ushiku. On any relatively clear day, it can easily be seen from higher vantage points in Tsukuba.
The statue is built in a similar fashion to the Statue of Liberty in New York, and, in fact is about twice the size (though the total height is not that much more, since its 20 meter base is not as high as that of "Lady Liberty").
The statue overlooks a huge garden area set off from the surrounding cemetery, and can be entered from the side opposite the Buddha. It costs ¥1000 per adult to get in, but this includes a ride to the top (actually shoulder level) and a walk through the elaborately decorated interior.
The view from the top is rather limited, as there are only narrow, inset slits through which to view the outside. The only pictures possible are with telephoto lens directly out from the windows. And since they ask that cameras not be used inside the"sacred" Buddha, you are pretty well limited to outside photos.
There is also a small petting zoo behind the Buddha adjacent to the complex (different entrance) where you can feed carrots to the rabbits and seeds to squirrels and chipmunks. A great way to introduce young children to "kawaii" (cute) animals.
The easiest way to drive to the Buddha is to approach it from the east side of Arakawaoki Station. The 4-lane road running south just east of the train tracks narrows into a typical back-country road. Follow this for about 6 km to the second major intersection and turn left. You can hardly miss it, a couple of km down that road and to the left.
The giant billowing sails of the "hoeisen" sailing ships are quite a site to see, and are the main tourist attraction on Lake Kasumigaura. The cities of Tsuchiura, Deshima and Tamatsukuri each sponsor the sailing of these grand ships (actually traditional "tug boats") on their own schedules. Tamatsukuri began their season in April and will continue to sail on weekends and holidays through Dec. 10 (tel 0299-55-3061).
The others, however, don't begin until July 21 for Tsuchiura and July 23 for Deshima, both ending in mid October. The Tsuchiura boat sails Fridays as well as the weekends and holidays (tel. 0298-21-4166) while the Dejima boat sails only on Sundays and holidays (tel. 0298-97-1111). The literature says that there are tour boats that go up close to the hoeisen for a good look, and so if you are interested, call ahead to check out the details.
An interesting play land for young children centering around miniature trains is located in Tsuchiura. Ranging from model steam locomotive (SL) to the modern "bullet train" shinkansen, children (and their parents, of course) sit on top of the miniature cars being pulled by the various trains around several loop courses including tunnels and bridges. It's a very nice outing for the little ones. It is only open on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, but on a nice sunny day, it's a great place to have some fun. Train tickets cost ¥200 (or 6 for ¥1000). During the winter months (through March), it is open from 10 am to 4 pm (open to 5 pm from April thru Sept.). It's located on the banks of the Sakura River to the north of Tsuchiura. To get there by car, drive towards Tsuchiura on Tsuchiura-Gakuen Sen and turn left at the first light before the Highway 6 bypass entrance. There is a gas station on the left at that corner (which is about 400 m before the bypass overpass). This road angles back to the left. Turn right at the second street and go across two bridges to the other side of the Sakura River. Turn left along the river. The park is about 500 m up on the right. The parking lot is located behind the park and is accessed via a road that veers off to the right shortly after crossing the river. Have fun! For more information, call 23-3106.
Going by the esoteric name of "A Museum" (another marvel of Japanese English, derived from "Amusement + Museum), this new complex promises to be well worth a visit after its grand opening on November 13 (Ibaraki Citizens' Day). Featuring a spacious museum with permanent displays of dinosaurs, mastodon skeletons and numerous aspects of the natural world, the museum will also feature a special display of a saber tooth tiger skeleton and a recreation of its world. These are on loan from the La Brea Tar Pits (George C. Paige Museum) in Los Angeles until January 16. The outdoors section of the complex features a nature trail surrounding a small lake, and numerous displays designed to help people discover nature. Equipment for nature observation is also available on loan.
The park and museum are open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. except Mondays. It is closed during the New Year's holidays from Dec. 27 to January 4. The entrance fee is ¥500 for adults, ¥300 for students, and ¥100 for children (¥200, ¥100 and ¥50 for the outdoor park alone). Further information can be obtained (in Japanese, of course) at 0297-38-2000.
To get there by car from downtown Tsukuba, proceed west on Tsuchiura-Gakuen Sen turning left when it dead ends. Follow this 4 lane road and turn right when it likewise dead ends into another 4 lane road. This will take you to the outskirts of Mitsukaido, where it dead ends into route 294. Turn left and proceed about 1.5 km, to the first traffic light, and turn right. This road is the natural extension of Tsuchiura-Noda Sen. Proceed 8.6 km down this road (through the town of Mitsukaido), and turn left onto Iwai-Noda Sen. "A Museum" is located about 4 km down this road a few hundred meters in on the left.
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