By Tetsuo Ukai / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterOARAI, Ibaraki — Waves from the Pacific Ocean crash against the rocks as white ocean spray shines against the blue sky. For years, renowned literary figures have come to admire the picturesque scenery of Oarai, a seaside town in Ibaraki Prefecture.
This year marks the 150th birthday of haiku poet Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902), who visited the Oarai Isosaki Jinja shrine with his friend in his early 20s and wrote about the rocky coastline’s sweeping scenery in his “Mito Kiko” (travel essay on Mito).
“When viewed from a distance, one sees white and black rocks, which look like Go stones. The changing landscape was fascinating and beyond description,” Masaoka wrote. He wrote a haiku poem based on his observations: “In the haze, waves from America lap the shore.”
In the midst of unchanged nature stands the Kamiiso no Torii gate. The gate, situated on a rockface, does not appear in records from the time of Masaoka’s travels, as it was built in 1959.
It measures 3.24 meters high and 4.5 meters wide. Many visitors come on New Year’s Day to take in the torii gate’s first sunrise, and in recent years, it has won nationwide acclaim for its beauty.
More than 20 years have passed since I moved to Moriya in southern Ibaraki in 1996. However, I commute to Tokyo everyday and have only visited a handful of locations in the prefecture, like Kairakuen Garden in Mito and Fukuroda Falls in Daigo.
Ibaraki attracted media attention for its designation as Japan’s least attractive prefecture for the fourth consecutive year. However, the prefecture has seen a spate of good news recently, including strong performances from Ibaraki sumo wrestlers Kisenosato and Takayasu and the bestowal of the Naoki Prize on Riku Onda, a graduate of Mito First High School.
I wanted to see the sunrise in Oarai, and the early bird gets the worm in such matters.
As sunrise approached, the sky glittered against the sea and the ground showed signs of life. The sun was thinly veiled by clouds, yet colored the sky crimson. It seemed to resemble a sketch drawn by gods.
The shrine’s pavilion, which records indicate has existed since ancient times, sits at the top of a flight of stairs stretching from the torii gate on the beach. It was rebuilt during the reign of Mito Mitsukuni, the second lord of the Mito Domain.
According to Tatsushi Yoshida, a 61-year-old gonnegi Shinto priest, “The shrine’s history and origin were scripted by Asaka Kaku, well-known as ‘Kaku-san’ in the Mito Komon TV drama series.”
In the midst of the grand, ancient shrine grounds lies a conspicuous sight: a huge ema wooden panel bearing the image of female anime characters in school uniforms with the message “Welcome to Oarai.”
The characters appear in the anime series “Girls und Panzer,” which was first broadcast on TV in 2012, the year after the Great East Japan Earthquake in which Oarai’s coastal area was damaged. The TV series was made into a film in 2015.
The anime is about students at the fictional Oarai Joshi Gakuen girls’ high school who engage in tank warfare as a competitive sport. In the show, tanks pass by the town’s marine tower, aquarium and other prominent landmarks. Oarai has become an anime pilgrimage site of sorts, as fans are eager to visit the show’s setting. Panels depicting the anime are exhibited in various parts of the shopping district.
Fans visiting the town often descend on the “Eguchi Yushindo” bookstore and pharmacy, which was founded in 1848. The store is crammed with books and magazines featuring the anime, old pictures of the town, old signboards and other memorabilia.
Fumiko Eguchi, 61, the seventh-generation store owner who proclaims herself to be an otaku and history buff, said cheerfully, “More young people have taken an interest in Oarai because of the anime pilgrimages.”
“Some people visit other famous sites in town like the ruins of Isohama Kaibo Jinya, from which Mito Domain samurai watched over foreign vessels during the final days of the Edo period (1603-1867), and the Gannyuji temple at which radical Mito samurai sought to topple the Tokugawa shogunate in the Tenguto rebellion.”
In Oarai, I felt that the new and the old had attained a happy coexistance.
Town readies for summer
Visitors are recommended to use a rental bike to tour the town. A 20-minute ride with ocean breezes will take you anywhere around town, including a beach for bathing, a rockface where visitors can enjoy recreation, an aquarium and portside eateries known for their fresh seafood, including Asian hard clams. Even though the town has repeatedly been damaged by false rumors that it was devastated by the March 2011 earthquake, each time it has recovered from the damage. Oarai is preparing for midsummer, its most vibrant time of year, when beaches are open and fireworks displays are held.
Mito Station is a 1 hour and 20 minute ride from Tokyo Station via the Joban Line limited express. From there, Oarai Station can be reached by a 15 minute ride on the Oarai-Kashima Line of the Kashima Rinkai Tetsudo Co. For more information, call the Oarai Town Tourism Association at (029) 266-0788 or the town office’s Commerce, Industry and Sightseeing Department at (029) 267-5111.
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