Natto and nature in central Kanto
Full of interesting sights, Ibaraki prefecture should natto be underestimated.
Ibaraki Prefecture is Japan’s no.1 producer and consumer of natto or fermented soybeans, a sticky and stinky staple of the national diet that has been baffling foreign tastebuds for centuries. But fermentation isn’t Ibaraki’s only attraction; it’s also the birthplace of aikido, the site of the seasonal Fukuroda Falls and the plum-filled Kairaku-en, one of the world’s biggest Buddahs and the highest bungee jump in the country. The eastern seashores are lined with great surfing spots; from Oarai you can also catch the overnight ferry all the way to Hokkaido.
Just northeast of Tokyo, the prefectural capital of Mito city is best known for Kairaku-en Garden, rated in the top three most beautiful Japanese gardens. With more than 3,000 plum trees it’s understandably a popular place to view the plum blossom as winter turns to spring, but it’s just as much of an enjoyable stroll around the tranquil hillside setting during the rest of the year. The annual umeshu (plum wine) festival is a chance to sample this deliciously sweet beverage from brands across the country. Mito is also where you can get your fill, or not, of fermented soybeans in any of the friendly restaurants across the city which offer full-course natto meals
For an odd but rewarding combination of hiking and science, head to Mount Tsukuba in the center of the prefecture. On the way up, visit the Tsukuba-san shrine to make offerings to the god of matchmaking and marital harmony. In the shadow of the mountain, the sprawling Tsukuba Science City is home to more than 200,000 researchers and students gathered together in the name of scientific discovery. Visit the Tsukuba Expo Center or the Tsukuba Space Center, and take a tour of the laboratories across the development.
The breathtaking Fukuroda Falls in northernmost Ibaraki flow across tiered levels which transform with the seasons. There’s camping, fishing, hiking and hot springs in the surrounding region of Oto-Kuji too. Towards the coast, Oarai is an attractive beach resort that draws big crowds in the summer. There’s a little-known car ferry service running from Oarai to Tomakomai in Hokkaido taking about nine hours – a route less traveled between Honshu and the wild northern island.