USHIKU, Ibaraki - “There’s nothing to see here” was the typical response I got when I told a local I’d come for sightseeing.
And they were right. For visitors, the Ushiku Daibutsu Buddha statue silhouetted against the sky east of the city on a gentle hill is the sole attraction. There’s almost nothing else to see in Ushiku.
Yet the 120-meter statue, completed in 1993 after a decade of construction, is the tallest bronze statue in the world.
Its magnificence was overwhelming, though the winter landscape was stark, the 20,000-square-meter flower garden beneath the statue empty of blooms. The only other activity was a performing monkey doing acrobatics. I felt wistful, nostalgic.
Next I headed to Chateau Kamiya in the heart of the city, home to the magnificent brick remains of Japan’s first true winery, founded in 1903. Alas, I could not go inside, as the Chateau is still undergoing repairs from damage sustained in the Great East Japan Earthquake.
So I ducked into an unagi eel restaurant along the national highway near Ushiku Pond. This stretch of highway is known as Unagi Road for being the birthplace of unadon—a bowl of rice topped with grilled eel.
I ordered unaju—again, grilled eel on rice, but served in a lacquer box. The paper cover for the chopsticks helpfully explained how the pond, and town, got its name.
Apparently, a local monk had become so lazy he turned into a cow. Mortified, he decided to drown himself in the pond. The chief priest tried to stop him by grabbing onto his tail, but the tail came off and the water swallowed his ponderous body. Since then, the pond has been called “ushiku-numa,” meaning cow-swallowing pond.
The pond is a quiet expanse of water with a peaceful shoreline path. The few dead leaves that remained on the trees rustled in the wind as the water reflected the rays of the setting sun.
Nothing to do? It’s too beautiful and nostalgic to leave.
Home to kappa
Artist Usen Ogawa (1868-1938) loved the Ushiku area, and many of his signature drawings of the kappa, mythical water-dwelling creatures, were made here.
Unlike more obviously imaginative depictions, Ogawa’s frolicking kappa seem to be based on something real.
Ogawa’s artistic touch must have been strongly influenced by the pond, a favorite place he had lived near since childhood.
Ungyotei—Ogawa’s home until his death—sits on a hill near the pond. The simple, austere structure brings to mind the artist’s name, Usen, which is composed of the kanji for potato and money, expressing the idea that one is all right as long as one can afford potatoes.
It is nice that Ushiku is not touristy and maintains a tasteful atmosphere.
Take Yamaichi Miso, near the Ushiku Daibutsu, for example. This small shop is the city’s only miso factory. It ferments local rice and soybeans in huge barrels made of Japanese cedar more than 100 years old.
“We make miso for soup that can be eaten every day,” said Takamasa Tsuboi, 35, the third-generation proprietor.
Kiyori, a soba restaurant, opened four years ago in an antique home. It grinds only enough high-quality buckwheat in a stone mill for 15 customers on weekdays and 30 on weekends. At night, owner Masao Arima, 40, cooks for only one group of guests on a reservations-only basis.
“I want my restaurant to have a subdued environment where customers can feel the seasonality of what I serve,” he said.
The modest nature of Ushiku is well-represented by these two places.
Ushiku Station can be reached in less than an hour from Ueno Station in Tokyo on the JR Joban Line. Ushiku Daibutsu is a 25-minute bus ride from Ushiku Station.
For more information, contact the Ushiku City Tourism Association at (029) 874-5554 or visit www.ushikukankou.com/