Soup Stop

Soup Café Fika is a rather new restaurant located to the south-east of the Ibaraki Prefectural Government in Mito, offering tasty and affordable fare inside a cottage-like interior. The outside of the restaurant, which was a different establishment up until just a short while ago, looks somewhat old and lackluster, but inside there are plenty of shabby chic tables and tchotchkes to give it a relaxed, homey feeling.

002As suggested by the name, the menu features a selection of home-made soups that come with sides of salad, rice, and appetizers, although they do also feature pasta and entrees such as grilled chicken. The atmosphere is pleasant, with nice folk music piped in throughout, and the layout of the restaurant allows for you to seclude yourself from other guests to a certain extent, which provides for a more intimate experience. There are many windows and lots of space, and the white theme of the decorations makes it feel very open and inviting.

004The food is very well done, both in flavor and in presentation; al-dente pasta with plenty of seasoning, fragrant and filling soups that appeal to both eyes and stomach. They even have a selection of teas and coffees to finish off the meal, with some rather decadent desserts on display. One of the interesting features of the teas was that they brought out a small dish of blueberry jam that you were encouraged to spoon into your tea for an additional flavor boost. Prices are reasonable, averaging a little less than one thousand yen per dish, and the servings are quite generous.

001Thanks to the restaurant’s recent opening there was no need to make a reservation, but it is likely to gain popularity rather quickly given the quality of the offerings. It may be a little bit harder to get to than most establishments, but it is worth the effort to enjoy a meal with a little peace and quiet and some excellent service. There is ample parking for those so inclined, but very few streetlights so be careful when going at night (whether driving or not!).

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Timeless Tranquility

Roughly a 10 minute walk from Itako Station is one of Japan’s oldest Buddhist temples, the venerable (and long-suffering) Chosho-ji. Though it was originally built by the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, Minamoto Yoritomo, during the 12th century, this fact had been long obscured by an unfortunate fire that left it in such disrepair that it was in danger of being destroyed. In fact, the elaborate front gate of the temple itself was originally part of a different temple in the area, and was moved there in one unit in the same way the Egyptians transported the blocks used for the pyramids, all because a local lord decided to consolidate some of the overly plentiful worship sites.

023The main shrine of the temple itself was later restored when the local ruler, the famous Mito Komon, discovered its rich history and ordered it rebuilt. It is even rumored that he spent the night under its roof during one of his visits to Itako to oversee the town’s prosperous shipping and storage industries. It currently is an almost exact twin of the main building of the Engaku-ji temple in Kamakura, complete with the Genji family crest on display at the peak of the thatched roof.

025Once the restoration was complete a monk was called in from Kyoto to repopulate the temple, and the garden itself was redesigned by another Kyoto local educated in temple gardens. The wide porch surrounding the main residence provides a relaxing view of the many shrubs and trees, bordered by a well-raked trail of Zen pebbles. The boards on this porch also happen to be of the ‘nightingale’ form used in the construction of Kyoto’s famous Kinkaku-ji; these received their name from the squeaking noises made when stepping on them, making it impossible for someone to sneak up and assassinate the owner.

026Another interesting feature is the temple bell, which has been replaced a surprising total of three times. The original bell, complete with its inscription indicating Minamoto’s hand in its founding, was burned and cracked during the fire that nearly consumed the temple itself. Both the second and third bells were collected as materials for the construction of guns or other military implements, once during the early Meiji period and again during WW1.

028Not only are the grounds quiet and picturesque, with plentiful Japanese maple that turn a luscious crimson in fall and fragrant Linden trees, the temple also offers a tea service to visitors. For 500 yen you receive freshly made matcha tea in a traditional ceramic cup along with a Japanese sweet handmade by the wife of the monk stationed there. You are then provided with a cushion and an unobstructed view of the gardens, to enjoy the peace and inspiration the temple can bring.

The Flow of Time

The Itako Iris Festival is one of Ibaraki’s longest running festivals, and also one of its most popular. Held from Mid-May to the end of June, every year between 750 and 800 thousand people visit the small riverside town to take in the romantic scenery and gorgeous flowers, whose purple, white, pink, and yellow blossoms immediately arrest the eyes. However, this festival is a lot more than just a feast for the senses; the town itself has much to offer in terms of both history and hospitality.

035Itako is not only situated on a series of small canals, it is close to the Kitaura lake that forms part of Lake Kasumigaura, the second largest lake in Japan. Due to this ideal location, Itako prospered as a trade and shipping hub during the Edo period, when Japan’s government center shifted to its current capital of Tokyo. Thanks to the extensive waterways all of the major produce of the north-eastern section of Honshu were shipped through Itako, supplying the needs of the burgeoning population of Tokyo which, at roughly one million citizens, was the largest in the world for that period.

031At the time, Itako formed part of the Mito Dominion, what is now considered Ibaraki, which is famous for its second leader, the irrepressible Mito Komon. Also known as Tokugawa Mitsukuni, Mito Komon (the theme of the world’s longest-running television drama) visited Itako during his period of command because Itako produced over one third of the Mito Dominion’s total revenue. Not only are the traces of his visits, such as his renovation of a historical local temple, quite dear to the locals, some of the warehouses and shipping companies from that period are still in operation, giving Itako’s residents quite a sense of pride in their town.

033This is a pride which they are quite eager to share by volunteering to guide tourists around the local highlights. There are several different groups of volunteer guides who operate in Japanese or English, offering both an overview of the history of the region and significance of the festival, but also a feel for the local color. One such guide was kind enough to cover the difference between the flowers on display: though they all belong to the iris family, they form three different varieties, the ayame, the kakitsubata, and the hanashobu. Each blooms at a different period during the festival, and every three years the flowers are replanted to maintain a constant cycle of beautiful blossoms. They make a wonderful accompaniment to the nostalgic canal with its old wooden gondolas and picturesque arched bridges, and you will often spot pro photographers jockeying for the best position.

032Another highlight is the traditional Bridal Boat. It has long been a custom in Itako for brides to travel to their new home on one of the gondolas on the canal, gliding serenely along in full Japanese wedding regalia to her waiting groom on the other end of the river. Nowadays this can be seen on Wednesdays and weekends during the festival period, and is a huge draw for tourists. The only condition to ride the bridal boat is that one must have married within the last year or be getting married within the next year, so there are usually many opportunities to spot them.

yomeBesides the Bridal Boats there are also musical and dance performances most weekends, and of course a large selection of local and regional goods to sample and purchase. Be aware that events may be cancelled due to rain and volunteer guides must be reserved in advance, but the local hospitality is unparalleled.

June Flower Festivals

Now that summer has finally arrived the flowers are all in full bloom. Itako’s famous irises are definitely a sight to see, and the prefectural flower, the rose, is visible in various different colors. Come enjoy the season!

21st Annual Moriya Iris Festival

Dates: June 3rd – 17th, 2013

Location: Shiki-no-sato Park (catch the Mokobus)

Ushiku Iris Garden

Dates: June 1st – 30th

Location: Ushiku Iris Garden

2013 Rose Festival

Dates: May 25th – June 23rd

Location: Ishioka Flower Park

 rose

62nd Annual Suigou Itako Iris Festival

Dates: May 18th – June 23rd

Location: Maekawa Iris Garden

Events: Bridal boats on Wed/Sat/Sun every week, dance performances on Sat/Sun, music performances on Sun, night-time light-up every night

iris

Sweet Meats

Hitachiota is home to an unusual, somewhat surreal restaurant. A five minute walk from the station, hidden in the midst of a residential area, is a small so-called café that offers up some pretty surprising fare. The Sweet Café, contrary to its name, is not a dessert spot but rather a meat-centered establishment catering to a slightly more adventurous clientele. In fact, the main claim to fame for this café is their Flaming Hamburg Steak (as advertised on their sign outside), which is prepared right at your table. The meat is high quality Hitachi beef, gently grilled before being brought out on a metal skillet with some mixed vegetables. The server brings out a bottle of brandy, douses the patty, and soon there is a towering inferno spouting from your meal! It is quite a sight, and certainly makes for a fun time, although the flavor of the dish itself is not quite as spectacular.

Sweet CafeThe Flaming Hamburg Steak also comes with soup and salad, which are similar in flavor to the main dish, and a small dessert parfait as well as coffee or tea. While the dessert was by far the best part of the meal, the experience of watching your dinner go up in flames was definitely something you don’t get to try every day. Other menu items include the intriguingly named Volcano Steak, as well as another steak covered in gold leaf, all of which are quite pricey. The Flaming Hamburg is actually the cheapest item on the menu, and coming in at 1800 yen gives you an idea of where the price range goes from there.

Flaming HamburgThe atmosphere is a little unusual as well; the entryway is set up with astro turf and plastic lawn chairs, while the inside reminds one of an out-of-the way American roadside diner. The service is very good (the waiter even wears a tie and vest) and there was no difficulty in getting in for lunch, so if you happen to be in the area and in need of a thrill with your meal, by all means drop in.

Flaming hamburg ready to eat