Old-world charm in a new age

JAPAN - With the world’s best sushi restaurants (among other things) only about an hour’s train ride away, it’s easy to be tempted to head straight for Tokyo when you land at Narita Airport. But give the neighbouring prefectures of Chiba and Ibaraki a chance and you’ll be surprised at how much both have to offer. They possess a skyscraper-free old-world charm that’s a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Forget peak hour commuter jams. The roads are relatively clear at all times and most attractions are within a short distance of each other, making both prefectures ideal for a leisurely self-drive family holiday.

Some of Chiba’s tourist sights are practically at Narita’s doorstep, a mere 20- to 30-minute car ride away. The Museum of Aeronautical Sciences (www.aeromuseum.or.jp) is just south of the airport.

When done checking out the models, simulators and other exhibits – the latest of which is the nose of a Boeing 747 through which visitors can climb into to check out the cockpit – you’re welcome to sit back in the viewing gallery to watch planes take off from Narita, complete with “live” commentary from the control towers.

A short drive away is the Naritasan Sinsyoji (www.naritasan.or.jp) temple. Founded in 940AD, it has more than 1,070 years of history and is one of the biggest and most popular in Japan. On New Year’s Day, it welcomes up to three million worshippers.

Outside it is a narrow street lined with stalls on both sides selling souvenirs, the most popular of which is a pickled cucumber snack.

If you’ve worked up an appetite from all that walking in the 20 ha Japanese garden behind Naritasan Sinsyoji, be sure to drop by any of the restaurants serving grilled unagi (eel) with rice on the same tourist stretch. If you can stomach the sight of where your meal came from, you can watch live eels being slaughtered on the spot – by a nail driven through their heads – outside some eateries.

Also close by is Boso-no-mura (1028 Ryukakuji, Sakae-machi, Inba-gun, Chiba), an Edo period theme park modelled after a local village. It’s so authentic that countless TV dramas and films have used it as a set. Many traditional businesses – dying trades such as candle-making, paper-making and blacksmith-ing – are still operating there.

To witness another profession that’s going the way of the dodo, head to Takaraya Restaurant (www.takaraya.awk.jp), one of the few establishments licensed to have geisha entertainment on-site. Established in 1897 and now run by a mother-and-daughter team, it’s known for its juicy clams and fresh vegetables harvested from Kisarazu, a port town famous as a source of seafood.

If you want entertainment while dining, Takaraya can arrange for geisha who will sing, dance and play games like Scissors-Paper-Stone. They will also engage in friendly rounds of “butt wrestling”, in which two opponents stand back to back and use their behinds to rear-end the other person, with the first one to lose his/her footing being penalised. It’s all good, clean fun.

Be sure to book earlier; geishas are in demand, and only 13 work in the area now, down from 200 during their heyday, when it was the dream of many girls to become a geisha.

For even more wholesome family entertainment, look no further than Mother Farm (www.motherfarm.co.jp), a petting zoo and animal theme park four times bigger than Tokyo Disneyland. Located 300m above sea level, the air is exceptionally crisp and on a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance. In the summer, it opens its orchard so visitors can pick strawberries, tomatoes and blueberries; visit in the autumn for kiwis but don’t leave without trying the delicious soft-serve ice cream made from milk fresh from the cows there.

When it’s time to call it a night, wind down in the tranquillity of the five-star Kamogawakan Resort and Spa Hotel (www.kamogawakan.co.jp). The ocean-front luxury ryokan is a short walk from another family attraction, Kamogawa Sea World, and is built in the traditional sukiya (refined) style of Japanese architecture.

Chiba’s neighbouring prefecture Ibaraki is equally enticing with the same mix of tradition and modernity. It’s home to the tallest bronze Buddha statue in the world; at 120m, it’s three times the height of the Statue of Liberty.

Step inside the Ushiku Great Buddha (2083 Kuno-cho, Ushiku City) and travel up to its chest level at 85m for the observatory, where the Tokyo Skytree is visible on a clear day.

Giving Chiba’s Museum of Aeronautical Sciences a run for its money is Ibaraki’s Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (www.jaxa.jp), where the Tsukuba Space Centre conducts its research and space development and visitors can explore life-sized satellites and rocket engines.

Photography buffs will want to check out Mount Tsukuba, which changes colour from dawn to dusk. The locals call it “the purple peak of Kanto”. At 877m above sea level, it is also the spot – on clear days – from which to catch views of Mount Fuji to the west.

The spectacular Fukuroda Falls (3-19 Fukuroda, Daigo Town) is another must for shutterbugs. When the winter becomes too harsh, the entire falls freezes and Mother Nature turns it into a pure rock-hard white surface which more adventurous visitors will take to for a spot of ice-climbing.

At the Kuroda Apple Orchard (4445 Konamase, Daigo Town), visitors can try their hand at apple picking. Over 80 species of apples are grown here, with the peak season for harvest falling between July and November. Each tree bears about 1,000 fruit.

En route to Narita, stop by the award-winning Kiuchi Brewery (www.kodawari.cc) which has a 190-year history of producing some Japan’s finest sake. The brewery is also behind the craft label Hitachino Nest Beer, which has won numerous prizes and is available in several high-end Japanese restaurants and supermarkets in Singapore.

Right next door is the Kura + Soba Nakaya (1257 Konosu, Naka City), a restaurant converted from the brewery’s old warehouse serving artisanal handmade buckwheat noodles. Try the sake soba which is cooked with sake, not water.

With all that Ibaraki and Chiba have to offer, we’ll certainly drink to that.

dylantan@sph.com.sg


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