When I learned that Ibaraki Prefecture has been ranked the least attractive Prefecture for five years in a row, I wondered how this could be. I thought, we have mountains and beaches, the Fukuroda waterfall, the amazing Tsuchiura Fireworks Festival, and we’re not too far from Tokyo. It only began to make sense to me when I learned that Ibaraki is well known for its natto, the smelly fermented soybeans that Japanese people, but very few others, love to eat. If natto is Ibaraki’s claim to fame, perhaps the prefecture does not have much else to offer.
But there is one thing — Hitachi Seaside Park — that earns Ibaraki a special place in many Japanese people’s hearts. In October, I had the chance to visit the park and see the the red kochia bushes that make the park world-famous. Although the weather was rainy and cloudy while I was there, I think I chose the perfect weekend to visit; the kochia had almost totally turned from green to red, and none of them had turned brown. When I looked from a good angle, the hill of kochia appeared as a mound of red against a blank sky.
In addition to the kochia, there were small white-flowered buckwheat plants and purple-pink cosmo flowers. As these flowers are seasonal, the park’s popularity waxes and wanes throughout the year; the park gets a huge burst of popularity in late April, when the park’s world-famous blue nemophila plants bloom. I arrived in Japan in mid-May, so I just missed them, but I’ve heard that the nemophila are also a can’t-miss. If you’re around during kochia season or nemophila season, get yourself to Hitachi Seaside Park!
When you look on a map, you’ll see that Hitachi Seaside Park is not on the Joban Line; nevertheless, it is definitely accessible by public transit. The easiest way to get there from IC in Omika is to take the Joban Line three stops south to Katsuta Station. From there, you can choose to walk, take a taxi, or take a bus. And among buses, there are two options: The slow Smile Aozora bus and the reasonable Ibaraki Kotsu bus. Aozora Smile operates with 90-minute headways to Hitachi seaside park, taking as long as 45 minutes to arrive there from Katsuta. It takes a sinuous, inconvenient route, but costs only 100 yen. If you opt for the Aozora bus, you should definitely be aware of the bus and train schedules, since a badly-timed transfer can take two hours, and you’d be better off walking one hour east to the Seaside Park than waiting. The Ibaraki Kotsu bus, on the other hand, operates more frequently and can get you there in under 20 minutes but costs around 450 yen. For this bus, you have to make sure that you take the plastic ticket when you board; at the end of your trip, you will need it in order to pay your fare correctly. Also, make sure you have exact change, or some 1000-yen bills, since the fare machine cannot make change for bills larger than 1000 yen. When returning I had only a 5000-yen bill, and it was solely by the grace of the bus driver’s wallet that I was able to exchange my 5000-yen bill for 1000-yen bills and correctly pay my fare.
If you have decided to take Aozora Bus and are looking for something to do in the 90 minutes before the next bus arrives, there are some attractions near Katsuta Station. Inside the station is a chain bakery called Hearth Brown. Chain or not, Japanese bakeries like Hearth Brown have very tasty pastries. There’s also a Don Quijote nearby with a motor-powered ramp walkway between the first and second floors! I call it a ramp-a-lator. As far as merchandise, they sell fun costumes and various kinds of party and home goods.
While waiting for the Katsuta-bound bus after visiting the Seaside Park, instead of waiting at the park’s entrance you can venture to the nearby shopping center nearby that includes a Uniqlo, a Hamazushi conveyor-belt sushi chain store, and a movie theater. And if you want to be reminded of America during your time in Japan, there is a Costco directly south of the shopping center! If you’re lucky, you can find a friend who has a Costco membership.
Even with a decent number of attractions, Ibaraki is still ranked 47th out of 47 prefectures in Japan in attractiveness. But when looking at the ranking, I see the two other north Kanto prefectures, Tochigi and Gunma, rated 43rd and 41st respectively. Perhaps the millions of nearby urban Tokyoites have something to do with the perception that this area of Japan is boring. Maybe they don’t know about the *truly* boring parts of Japan, which could be farther away. Maybe. But whether or not the prefecture is truly boring, you should come out to Hitachi Seaside Park. You won’t regret it.