A Special Edition supported by Tochigi Prefecture
Near Tokyo, just one hour north of Tokyo is Tochigi Prefecture. To the north, you’ll find the Nikko and Nasu mountains, and to the east, near the border with Ibaraki Prefecture, lies the beautiful countryside of Tochigi with clear-water rivers and beautiful rice fields.
By following this route, you can meet local farmers and craftsmen, stay in old merchant houses, visit interesting sake breweries, and more.
This area is best enjoyed by car and it is a beautiful area not to be missed. So why not rent a car and take a road trip Road Trip to discover these hidden gems of this part Tochigi Prefecture?
Things to bring
– An international driving license or a driving license from countries that let you drive in Japan.
– A comfortable set of walking shoes
– A sim card or a pocket Wifi (there are not many free wifi spots as the area is rural)
– A camera (or your smart phone) to capture the beautiful countruyside and memories
Your journey starts at JR Utsunomiya Station which is located in Utsunomiya City in the center of in Tochigi prefecture. It only takes 50min by Shinkansen (the bullet train) from Tokyo or 45min from Ueno Station.
There are many rent-a-car companies near JR Utsunomiya city and most places offer booking in advance online.
We recommend departing Tokyo before 8:00am and arriving in Utsunomiya before 9:00am.
After arriving at JR Utsunomiya station and receiving your keys, it’s now time to drive to Nakatgawa town your first stop.
The trip will take around 60 min, but while driving, you will come across beautiful countryside scenery so make sure to stop to take pictures!
There are many companies that offer rent-a-car service around Utsunomiya station, but make sure to book. in advance. (Sometimes foreign rent-a-car chains have a business relations with Japanese rent-a car companies, so it’s worth asking your local rent-a-car chain to see if they can book for you)
Once arriving in Nakagawa Town there are a few things you can do.
You can visit the Koisago area (小砂地区) which is known for Koisago Pottery (小砂焼). Fujita Seitoujo is one of the largest traditional pottery factories and has a history of more than 160 years. This factory is particularly unique as they still dig out soil and make clay themselves.
Another hidden gem is the MOB Museum of Alternative Art. This museum was established in an abandoned elementary school to introduce art that was not bound by the conventional framework and showcases a lot of work by people with disabilities.
Both of these places are interesting places to drop by in the morning.
The area around Nakagawa and Nasu-Karasuyama is called ‘Yamizo Soba Highway’ and is known for delicious local Soba noodles as well as local river fish called Ayu (Sweet Fish).
Although you can eat Soba and Ayu all year-round, the best season for Soba is November to December (Shin-Soba) and the best season for Ayu (Sweet fish) is June to September.
There are many restaurants that offer these dishes so it shouldn’t be hard to find.
After lunch we recommend visiting Bato Hiroshige Museum of Art, one of the most famous museums in the area.
Designed by the renowned architect Kengo Kuma, the museum beautifully blends tradition and artistry. The combination of Japanese cedar, stone, and Japanese paper locally sourced is amazing.
Inside, it houses one of the largest collections of ukiyo-e artist Ando Hiroshige (Utagawa Hiroshige). Hiroshige was an Edo-period ukiyo-e master famous for creating 8,000 vibrant woodblock prints capturing daily life and landscapes in Japan.
If you have time in the afternoon, you may also want to visit Nakagawa Aquatic Park with over 60 water tanks.
If you are visiting this region one place we recommend staying at Iizuka-tei, a hotel, in the center of Nakagawa town (Only a few buildings away from Bato Hiroshige Museum of Art).
Originally a 400-year-old Japanese residence, this hotel seamlessly marries luxury and tradition. It was renovated into a hotel few years ago to offer visitors a unique and unforgettable experience.
The staff are well-versed in the hotel’s history but are also eager to assist you in exploring the surrounding area. If you are interested in visiting a local farm to a hiring private sushi chef for an exclusive dinner, make sure to ask in advance to see what they can offer.
One of the benefits of staying at Iizuka-tei, is they encourage visitors to eat out and meet locals.
If you are staying at Iizuka-tei, and you’re looking for an authentic experience, we recommend booking a lovely farm stay dinner. A great chance to learn about the Japanese countryside.
After a nice breakfast at Iizuka-tei, its now time to head to Nasu-Karasuyama city which is a short 30-40min drive.
Nasu-Karasuyama city is another beautiful countryside with plenty to see and experience. Three main attractions we recommend visiting are Shimazaki Sake Brewery, Ryumon Falls and Yamaage Kaikan.
Shimazaki Sake Brewery (AKA The Cave Brewery) is a local sake brewery with a history of years and run by the Shimazaki family. It is known as the cave brewery because it uses a massive cave, hand dug during WW2, to age sake. Visitors can book a tour of the cave and the brewery which includes tasting sake aged to different lengths. If you are a collector of Goshuin you can pick up a Sake Goshuin book and ask for a label to sick in it for a small fee.
After visiting the brewery, you should make a short stop at Yamaage Kaikan. Here you can watch a diorama of the UNESCO registered Yamaage Festival which happens every summer.
Finally if you have time, make sure to drop by Ryumon Falls. Legend has it that a dragon lives behind the waterfall! There is a small museum and a nice cafe which serves coffee, tea and food.
Once you enjoyed Nasu-karasuyama city, its time to drive to the next destination Mashiko Town, which is only another 40min drive away.
If you like traditional Japanese crafts, Mashiko may have been on your radar as it ‘s popular destination for pottery and art enthusiasts.
Here we recommend visiting Jonaizaka street which has many pottery shops and is a great place for shopping. You are bound to find a nice handmade item made by a local potter at a very reasonable price. If you an artistc type you may also want to try your hand at making one yourself! However, be aware that it takes 3 months to fire and glaze an item so you need make sure you can have it sent to your country before you book a pottery session.
Another place we recommend visiting is the famous Tonoike Sake Brewery were you can book a tour to learn about Sake Making and taste some of the best sake in Japan.
If you are interested about about Mashikoware, the two museums, Hamada Shoji Sankokan Museum and Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art are a must visit.
There are many accommodation options in Mashiko Town.
If you would like to stay at an Onsen there is Satoyama Resort Hotel Mashikokan. If you would like. to stay in a nice hotel with western amenities combined with historical significance, there is Yuwakan. For Bed and breakfast Mashiko Dokei. And finally if you are budget contious and don’t mind a guesthouse Furuki is also popular with oversea visitors.
Early Next Day
If you like Japanese strawberries, Dec-April is the season for Strawberry picking. Tochigi prefecture is known for the best strawberries in Japan, and a popular place with oversea visitors is Yoshimura Strawberry Park in Mashiko. Strawberries are best picked in the morning so why not drop by around at 8:30am.
Samurai Shoai is a unique facility run by a social welfare corporation, but they are also open to the public and offer Indigo dyeing experiences in English.
Their mission is to preserve the authentic indigo dyeing method which doesn’t use any chemical dye, so their dye is kind to the environment and gentle to sensitive skin. Even the leftover indigo dye which has effects of natural insecticide is used to grow organic vegetables as well as organic mango fruits. Recently their mangos were chosen by The Ritz-Carlton and served to overseas delegates at the 2023 G7 ministerial meeting in Nikko.
At Samurai Shoai you can book a 1-2 hour indigo dyeing session to learn about indigo and try dyeing an item of your choice.
On a Weekday
On weekdays, Samurai Shoai operates a small cafe called ‘Merry & Pono’ which offer meals with ingredients sourced from their organic fields and indigo-flavored tea.
If you are traveling on a weekday we recommend visiting here for lunch.
After learning about Indigo dyeing, its now time to learn about a very Japanese plant, bamboo!
A short 45min drive north from Samurai Shoia is Utsunomiya city. Here is Four Seasons Bamboo Forest Wakayama Farm. This bamboo farm is the largest bamboo forest open to the public in Japan and several types of bamboo spreads throughout their 24 hectares property.
Originally, the Wakayama family moved here during the Edo period (1603-1868) as they were promised that a waterway was going to be built to supply water for growing rice. However, the promised waterway was never built and generations later, the family gave up on growing rice and switched to growing bamboo and chestnuts instead.
Nowadays, the well-preserved bamboo forest supplies 99% of bamboo used in commercial properties in Tokyo, as well as being a popular visitor attraction and film location where many films and TV commercials are shot.
Visitors say it’s much nicer and prettier than Kyoto’s Arashiyama bamboo grove which can be overcrowded with tourists.
Wakayama Farm offers guided tours in English where you can learn about the different bamboo trees as well as workshops. You can even book a private tour which includes cutting down a bamboo tree and making a cup and a plate out of it. (Make sure to book in advance)
They even have a small museum where visitors can learn how sustainable bamboo is and see many delicately crafted bamboo items created by local artists.
After returning your car to your rent-a-car company near JR Utsunomiya Station, its finally time to try the local’s favorite ‘GYOZA Dumplings’!
Often called the Gyoza capital of Japan, Utsunomiya has over 300 restaurants that serve Gyoza, so there is no shortage of options, but here are a few we recommend.
A local Izakaya style Gyoza restaurant run by Mr Ko who makes juicy Gyozas made with local natural ingredients.
A Gyoza foodcourt where you can try Gyoza from different restaurants. Below Don Quijote in front of Futaarasan shrine.
In addition we have a list of recommendations in this guide.
Utsunomiya Night Guide
If you’re a first time visitor, we know it’s hard to find a good bar or Izakaya. So we worked closely with Utsunomiya city and created this Night-time guide of Utsunomiya for you.
Getting back to Tokyo should be a breeze.
Shinkansen trains (bullet trains) run frequently until just before 11PM. So if you plan to head back to Tokyo we recommend catching a train around 10PM which will arrive in Tokyo station just before 11PM.
(You can check times using the Japan Transit Planner)
Utsunomiya actually has many affordable hotels to choose form near JR Utsunomiya station. Why not check for any amazing deals in your favorite booking app?
If you need help visiting these destinations or if you would like a tour, please feel free to contact these companies below.