If you are looking for ideas for day trips from Tokyo that are off the beaten path, then you should definitely check out Itako City in Ibaraki prefecture. Itako is actually less than one hour from Narita Airport and can be easily accessed from Tokyo station by bus in under two hours. Although Itako is quite well known among Japanese locals, for non-Japanese tourists it’s still very much a hidden gem where you can enjoy spending time in a small city and have a more local, authentic experience.
Itako City is particularly beautiful to visit during May and June as this is when they hold the annual Iris Festival, and hydrangeas are also in full bloom during this time. However even outside of these months, there’s plenty to see and do to fill a whole day. Check out the one-day itinerary below for a fun-filled day to include a traditional boat cruise, baking traditional Japanese senbei crackers, a visit to a Buddhist temple and tasting local sake!
Itako City Itinerary
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Day Trips from Tokyo: Itako City, Ibaraki Prefecture
09:10 AM Depart Tokyo Station by bus for Itako City
Getting to Itako City by bus is easy and takes under two hours from Tokyo Station or 30 minutes from Narita Airport. You can check the bus timetable here. Payment can be made using your IC card and the fare is around 1,800 yen one way.
10:35 AM Arrival in Itako & Traditional House Visit
Itako City was one of the most popular sightseeing spots for Japanese people during the Edo period and was known especially as a geisha town that rivaled Kyoto.
If you are visiting Itako City during May or June, then your first stop should be the Iris Garden which is particularly popular during this time. This festival is the city’s highlight of the year, and during June you can also see hydrangeas in full bloom. Spend some time viewing the flowers and taking photos before heading over to one of the piers for a sightseeing boat cruise.
Isoyamatei is a historic house that is open to members of the public to visit. The house was built during the Meiji period in 1899 and is an interesting example of traditional Japanese architecture. The house is available to view without an appointment and is staffed by city workers who can show you around.
11:30 AM Itako City Sightseeing Boat Cruise
One of my favorite activities in Itako City was taking one of the sightseeing boat cruises available to tourists. The city has 20 historic bridges in total, and this sightseeing cruise takes in 12 in around one hour. The cruise takes place around the Lake Kasumigaura area, which is the second-largest lake in Japan.
The highlight of this experience for me was actually our guide and the boat captain, Setsuko Takada. Setsuko-san doesn’t speak English, but I can guarantee that if you are lucky enough to be her passenger then you’ll spend the whole cruise with a smile on your face.
During our boat ride, I had no idea of the potential perils that lay ahead during this tour. Setsuko-san entertained us with tales of bass fish jumping into the boat causing passengers to panic and rock the boat uncontrollably, falling vegetables and fruit from trees that often hit passengers on the head, and snakes that try to climb aboard. As we neared the end of our journey, Setsuko-san even sang the official Itako City song for us!
To rent a boat for 70 minutes costs 7,000 yen (for up to five people). There are cheaper courses available for shorter periods, for example, 30 minutes costs 5,000 yen. The boats operate from 9 am to 4 pm daily and you should expect it to be busier during the May and June periods during the festival season. You can find further information on the website here.
My Kyoto Bucket List
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1:00 PM – Tonkatsu Lunch at All About Kura
Itako is famous for its fresh eel dishes so if you are a fan of seafood then that would be my top recommendation. However, as I don’t really eat it, I went to All About Kura for lunch, a cozy restaurant housed in a converted vegetable storehouse. Here I enjoyed the best tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) that I have eaten in Japan. This is no small achievement as I have lived in Japan for 3 and a half years and tried a lot of tonkatsu, but the pork was so juicy and the breadcrumbs so crispy and golden that I could have easily eaten a double size portion!
2:30 PM – Visit Senbei Shop and Chosho-ji Temple
After lunch take in some more of traditional Japan with a visit to the Nishikura senbei shop and Chosho-ji temple.
Senbei are traditional Japanese rice crackers and a popular snack here. At this small family-run shop, you can watch as the staff bake the senbei by hand, and even have a go at baking them yourself. Be warned that the grill is extremely hot, so you may want to try this activity during the winter only. Afterward, you can purchase different varieties of crackers as souvenirs for your family and friends.
Next to the senbei shop is Chosho-ji temple. This small temple is pleasant to stroll around (particularly after a big lunch!) and is home to cherry blossoms during the spring and vibrant red maple leaves during the autumn months.
3:30 PM Aiyu Sake Brewery Visit
Finish off the activities for the day with a visit to the Aiyu sake brewery for a tour and tasting. During your visit, you can see the sake production process take place from beginning to end. Aiyu is the only sake brewery in the south of Ibaraki prefecture and has produced award-winning sakes. The brewery opened back in 1864 and is still housed in the same building.
Sake making season usually begins in November. The process begins by reducing the volume of the rice to around 50% of its original mass. This process is still done by hand. Although there are machines available to complete this process, they can scratch the rice which ultimately affects the flavor of the sake.
Next, the rice becomes a substance called moromi. At this stage it’s not fully fermented but some kind of mush between rice and sake. It takes approximately 3 weeks to turn the rice to this moromi substance.
The moromi is then transferred to another machine and squeezed to become sake. The leftover material is called sakekasu. It used to be thrown away but is now used for miso soup flavoring or amazake.
After a tour of the brewery, you can sample some of the different sakes in the brewery shop. I tried four during my visit. The first sake was a plum flavor and very fruity, and I enjoyed it so much a bought a bottle to take home along with two wooden ‘masu’ sake cups. I also tried their most popular sake, Aiyujundaiginjou, that won first prize in a national competition.
Tours are free of charge and can be arranged via Aiyu’s website here.
6:00 PM Return to Tokyo or Dinner & Overnight Stay
Take the bus back to Tokyo or if you want to stay in Itako city overnight and explore a bit more then I recommend the Itako Hotel.
Looking for more inspiration for day trips from Tokyo? Check out my Kashima City itinerary here.