Friday, February 14, 2020

EVENT HAPPENING RIGHT NOW! Speeding Over to Ibaraki on the Tsukuba Express & Checking Out Makabe's Hinamatsuri Festival!

The JAPANKURU team loves a little off-the-beaten-path excursion, and when it's a day trip just outside Tokyo, that's even better! Which is why we hopped on a Tsukuba Express train in Akihabara this week to head over to the Makabe area of Sakuragawa City in Ibaraki, still composed mostly of old-fashioned buildings, all in the foothills of nearby Mt. Tsukuba. While the hundreds of historic buildings and dozens of national tangible cultural properties are beautiful year-round, Makabe turns from a sleepy village into a bustle of activity for Hinamatsuri Festival every year, so we went to check it out!

From Tokyo to Festival-Filled Ibaraki with Tsukuba Express

Japan's "Girls' Day," properly called Hinamatsuri Festival, has a history of over 1,000 years. Traditionally, families with daughters decorate their homes for the 3rd of March each year, setting up displays of carefully constructed dolls made to resemble ancient Japanese royalty, in hopes of good luck and a bright future for the young girls. Artisans making new Hina dolls (or ひな人形, "Hina ningyo") by hand can still be found in nearby Saitama, but we at JAPANKURU wanted so see the dolls on display this spring! So we directed ourselves towards Makabe, where the Hinamatsuri celebrations include people all over town (shops, guest houses, private homes!) all putting their dolls, both new and very old, out for people to see. Hina dolls old and new, unusual or just extremely elegant, are there for visitors to admire when they visit Makabe, and fortunately the celebrations go on for the whole month before Hinamatsuri Festival proper, from Feb. 4th to Mar. 3rd in 2020.

Those dolls aren't coming to you - make your way to Makabe before the festival ends!

(Official Festival Page - jp)

We knew we had to check out the festival as soon as possible! Really getting out into the countryside can be tough for travelers visiting Japan, but we had a pretty easy time finding our way over. This time, we started at Tsukuba Express Akihabara Station, the train's terminal, although travelers staying in Asakusa can also start their journey at the Tsukuba Express Asakusa Station.

Since we were leaving from Akihabara in the morning, there were plenty of empty seats, so we sat back and relaxed as the Tsukuba Express train took us all the way to the end of the line.

After arriving at Tsukuba Station we took the escalator up to exit A3, and into the fresh outside air. Our next destination, the bus stop, was right in front of our eyes! A couple different bus routes leave from this spot, so we were careful to line up for the Tsuku-bus Kitabu Shuttle (つくバス 北部シャトル).

The shuttle took us to Tsukubasanguchi bus stop, where we were able to quickly transfer to our final bus, a Yamazakura Go Sakuragawa City Bus, which was pink and decorated with some local mascots! If you ask for a transfer slip from the first bus driver as you get off (called a "noritsugi waribikiken", or 乗継割引券), they'll give you a little piece of paper that gives you a discount on the second ride as long as you pay in cash, so don't make the mistake of paying with IC cards like us. (Whoops!)

And we made it! Since we headed over during the earlier days of the Makabe Hinamatsuri Festival, we were able to get off the bus right in the middle of things, at Shimojuku bus stop. During some of the busier days of the festival, vehicle access to the central area is limited, so the bus stops at a stop that's a few minutes walk away, Sakuragawa City Hall bus stop.

Bus goes all the way to Shimojuku: 2/4~2/21, 2/25~2/28, & 3/2~3/3
Bus stops at Sakuragawa City Hall: 2/22~2/24, 2/29~3/1


So, to sum it up, this is how we got from Akihabara to Makabe!
① Tsukuba Express Akihabara Station ⇒ Tsukuba Station (via Tsukuba Express Train)
② Tsukuba Station ⇒ Tsukubasanguchi Bus Stop (via Tsuku-bus Kitabu Shuttle)
③ Tsukubasanguchi Bus Stop ⇒ Shimojuku Bus Stop (via Sakuragawa City Bus)


First Things First - Let's Get Dressed!
⇒ Time for Kimono Rentals!

Going on this excursion out of Tokyo, we wanted to make the most of our time in Ibaraki, so we decided to get into the spirit of things by exploring Makabe wearing kimono! (Fortunately, they were not just thin cotton yukata, so we were comfortably warm in the cool February weather.)

We walked just a couple minutes from Shimojuku bus stop to Edohatsu, a shop that offers kimono for sale, kimono repairs, kimono lessons, and of course kimono rentals! With so many gorgeous options, picking out the perfect kimono and obi (belt) combination turned out to be surprisingly difficult, but the staff really helped us, letting us drape on lots of different kimono, until we finally arrived at some great outfits. Considering how affordable the rental price is, we were moved by the dedication and great service we got from the friendly shop staff. Finally, after taking a trip to the shop's second floor to get dressed by a kimono expert, we were ready to go on our way and see the sights of the festival!

Edohatsu (江戸初)
376 Makabecho Makabe, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki
Hours: 10:00 - 19:00 (closed Wednesdays)
Kimono Rental: 3,900 yen
Official Website (jp)

Joining the Celebrations of Makabe Hinamatsuri Festival

(Wondering where all the Makabe sights are? Check out our area map!)

The Many Sights of Gojinyamae St

Gojinyamae St (御陣屋前通り) is arguably the center of activity in Makabe, with restaurants, souvenir and sweets stores, and plenty of Hina dolls to feast your eyes on.

There were truly dolls displayed everywhere we looked - including this impressive rooftop setup on top of an inn & restaurant, with dolls from 1970!

Hatago Furukawa (旅籠ふるかわ)
300 Makabecho Makabe, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki

We were charmed by this building that is now something of a symbol of the area. It was once a bank, and then a post office, and now uses the old-fashioned teller windows to display Hina dolls during the festival! Take a look inside - the building has kind of turned into a tourist information center, where friendly locals can give you a little bit of guidance and some recommendations. Plus, they've got a couple of especially large Hina dolls on display, as well.

Old Makabe Post Office (旧真壁郵便局)
297 Makabecho Makabe, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki

While you wouldn't know from the street, the Hina dolls on display right inside the Shiota Family house are some of the area's more impressive models, thanks in large part to their venerable age. They were some of the oldest dolls we saw all day; some of them are even from the Edo era, which means they're at least 150 years old! We were shocked to find out, since the dolls still look as good as new! Other dolls in the same room were a little newer, but still very special - they were bought for the house's current owner (now an older woman) when she was a little girl.

Shiota Family House (潮田家)
189 Makabecho Makabe, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki

If you start feeling a little bit of a chill, we recommend you pick up some amazake (a sweet fermented rice drink prepared a little like standard sake, but extremely low-alcohol) sold right nearby. It's often drunk hot, which makes it the perfect thing to warm you right up (and warm chilled fingers)! We found it at Hanakomichi, which specializes in sweet yakikarinto snacks (that we also got a little addicted to)!

Hanakomichi Yakikarinto (花小路 焼きかりんとう)
Makabecho Makabe, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki

Hananoi Brewery's Fantastic and Phantasmagorical Displays

A little apart from Makabe's old town area is the Hananoi Brewery, run by Nishioka Honten, a sake brewery in business since the late 1700s. Interestingly, the brewery sets up some fascinating displays during the Hinamatsuri Festival.

At first we were a little confused about what we were walking into, exploring the brewery grounds. But after searching around a little, next to the sake tasting area we found what looks like a contemporary art installation, all surrounding a fairly traditional Hina doll display. Tasting some high-quality Japanese sake and wandering into this unique series of rooms was kind of an unexpected treat for our group!

In a little side building inside the same complex is another display that was both equally impressive, and completely different from the first one. This building had the overhead lights turned out, but was colorfully lit by lanterns in every corner of the room, all carved out of Japanese "hyotan" (ひょうたん) gourds. This traditional craft, which requires steady hands and incredible skill, was on display all over the little shed, and all the little specks of light worked together to illuminate even more Hinamatsuri dolls. Some dolls were placed carefully on pedestals, and others inside enormous music boxes! It was all a little magical.

Hananoi Sake Brewery, Nishioka Honten (花の井蔵元 西岡本店)
6-1 Ta, Makabecho, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki
Official Website (en)

Time for a Bite to Eat!

We'd heard before arriving that Makabe had some excellent udon and soba, and that the kakiage udon (udon with a fried mix of vegetables and sometimes seafood on top) was especially worth trying. Unfortunately, our first attempt to try it failed, and we were only able to look around the empty shop! It turns out the restaurant we wanted to visit is always closed during January and February (and August), so we hope a reader will visit in March and let us know how it is!

Banitei Yoshi (馬荷亭「㐂」)
170 Sakurai, Makabecho Makabe, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki
Hours: 11:00 - 13:00 (closed January, February, August)

Then again, the soba and udon, topped with either kakiage or kenchin (a mix of daikon radish, burdock root, carrot, mushrooms, and tofu), found at a little restaurant inside the Shiota Family house was pretty delicious! The warm soup and beautifully chewy noodles had us feeling full, recharged, and ready to see more of Makabe.

The Beautiful and Unusual Hina Dolls Found in Every Corner of Makabe

Walking through the old streets of this once-upon-a-time Japanese castle town that still uses the same street plan as 400 years ago, it seemed like every other building we passed was a historical structure or even a registered tangible cultural property. And everywhere we looked there were Hina dolls, from little ones hiding on street corners, to huge shelves of them right inside the open doorways of homes and shops. We loved just strolling through the totally unique Makabe atmosphere.

Approaching this little shop we knew were in for something good when we saw the unusual motorbikes lined up outside... and then noticed the dolls placed on top!

The dolls inside, riding their very own motorbikes and police cars, were also pretty good. You won't see a rare Hina doll setup like this just anywhere!

Daikichiya (大吉屋)
165-1 Makabecho Makabe, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki

Walking down a quiet side street, the many, many dolls in this one former storefront stood out to us, and the building's owner came downstairs to find us peering in at them. It turns out the store used to specialize in traditional Japanese shoes called geta (下駄), and the dolls sit where shoe soles were once lined up on display for customers. The fabric shoe tops hung from the ceiling, so customers could mix and match!

Sekine Family House (関根家)
390 Makabecho Makabe, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki

These delicate little dolls have been in the family since 1918, when the current shop owner's grandfather saw them during a trip to Tokyo, and was so charmed by the delicate sculpting of the limbs and the great facial expressions on the dolls that he had to bring them home. They were already considered high quality, (and pricey!) at purchase, and they've now survived over 100 years totally unscathed!

The expressions really are something to behold!

Kurafuto (蔵布都)
199 Makabecho Makabe, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki

Returning to Tokyo 

Before we knew it, it was time to get back to Edohatsu so we could change into our everyday clothes, and make it back to the last connecting bus home. So we lined back up at Shimojuku bus stop, and did the whole process in reverse, getting back to the Tsukubasanguchi bus stop, transferring on to Tsukuba Station, and finally speeding back to Tokyo in a flash on the Tsukuba Express.

If a little trip to Japan's countryside, where the buildings have been around for generations and festival celebrations are being continued to this day, we wholeheartedly recommend you spend a day away from the crowds of Tokyo. Thanks to the speedy Tsukuba Express trains and the buses that get you way out into Ibaraki, a whole different view of Japan is an easy day trip from Tokyo, so don't miss the chance to check out this totally unique experience and dive into Japanese tradition. Take a day to see Makabe's Hinamatsuri Festival!

Then let us know how it goes! Or drop us a line if you need any help planning your trip to Ibaraki, on twitter, instagram, and facebook!

See you again soon, Ibaraki!


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