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July 01 2019
The Hydrangea Festival of Tochigi
June’s early summer sunshine supplied the perfect conditions to hit the Kanto countryside and revisit Tochigi.
Tochigi is a great little town that is easily accessible from Tokyo. Often overlooked by the crowds that gravitate towards Nikko further to the north, Tochigi has plenty to enjoy over a day or two, thanks largely to its town centre’s historical Edo-era buildings. Tochigi can also be used as a base for hikers.
The town’s annual hydrangea festival (held every year since 1974) from mid-June until early July, gave us another excellent reason to return. The festival’s centrepiece is the ascending approach to Ohira Shrine at the top of Mount Ohira.
Mount Ohira is, in Japan terms, more of a hill (reaching 341 metres high) so the climb is not too strenuous. On foot, it takes just over an hour from either Tochigi Station or Ohirashita Station. We approached from the latter, enjoying a gentler climb to the shrine than the visitors we passed coming in the opposite direction during our descent.
Most visitors, however, take the direct approach from Tochigi City and its station, climbing the famous steps up to the main entrance of the shrine head-on from the north.
This route is lined on both sides by a multi-hued variety of hydrangea, and draws visitors of all ages – from school trippers to elderly photography enthusiasts. Although climbing the steps is not for the unfit, the colourful blooms provide a lovely distraction from the exertions of the ascent.
Our own more leisurely route to the top approached the shrine from the east, and provided panoramic viewpoints of the area. From some of these spots, Mount Fuji can often be seen. However, the early summer heat on the day of our visit had formed a haze obscuring that iconic view. Nevertheless, several eateries provided shaded areas for us to enjoy refreshments (try the cold noodles or traditional seasonal Japanese sweets), rest for a while, and enjoy what views could still be made out.
Our final push upwards was followed by a flurry of our camera shutters, as we snapped the photogenic features of the shrine and its grounds.
Ohira Shrine itself is one of the prettiest in the region. This ancient place of worship was established in the early Heian Period (794 to 1185). It is popular in the region with the locals who come to pray for the health of their family members. It is nestled prettily amongst torii gates, intricately-designed mini shrines, and a forest backdrop. Delightful handprints made by children adorned a small bridge over the steep entrance to the shrine. These were the marks of youngsters who had recently visited the shrine to celebrate their shichi-go-san (7-5-3) ceremonies. The ceremonies are an important milestone for Japanese children – aged 3 and 7 for the girls, and 5 for the boys.
To the side of the shrine is another promontory with an eatery overlooking the paddy fields skirting the outside of Tochigi City – a pleasant spot to enjoy an ice cream or some local delicacies.
Our walk back towards Tochigi itself was less picturesque, but we were rewarded by the spectacle of singing boatmen punting happy punters along the Uzuma River, beneath the Edo-era warehouses that line the streets and waterways of the town.
Frequent rapid train services to Tochigi make it a great destination for a day trip from Tokyo – you can see so much and still be back in the big smoke for dinner time.
Direct express trains run from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, and take just over an hour to Tochigi, while cheaper local trains can get you there in about two hours. Get off at either Tochigi Station or Ohirashita Station to begin your short trek to Ohira Shrine.