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Friday, Nov. 14, 2008

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A view from the summer retreat Kobun-tei in Kairaku-en Park. MARK SCHREIBER PHOTOS

From Mitsukuni to natto

Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture boasts a rich history and also a fetid foodstuff


Special to The Japan Times

Mito, the historic seat of ancient Hitachi Province — present-day Ibaraki Prefecture — has all the right prerequisites for a nonstrenuous daylong excursion from Tokyo: convenient access, plenty of attractive sites, exotic foods and hospitable people.

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Deskwork for warriors: The beautifully restored Kodokan — pictured is the main hall — was where young samurai received higher education.

This friendly city of 265,000 is served by the JR Joban Line. Depending on the day of the week, the Super Hitachi, an elegantly streamlined express train with reclining seats, departs from Ueno Station at least twice per hour and reaches Mito in about 80 minutes.

During the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867), Mito was the center of a domain controlled by one of the most powerful branches of the Tokugawa family. Today it's a green city full of vestiges of the Tokugawas' former grandeur.

Free city maps, guide brochures and other information can be obtained upon arrival from the city's tourist bureau, a branch of which is located outside the station turnstiles to the right.

Exit the north side of JR Mito Station and you're immediately confronted with a statue of the town's most famous denizen: Mito Komon. A grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, his real name was Tokugawa Mitsukuni and he lived from 1628 to 1701.

Fictitious roamings of Lord Mitsukuni began appearing in popular fiction from the 19th century. From the 1960s, "Mito Komon," an hourlong TV period drama broadcast on TBS and affiliates — now in its 40th season — really put Mito on the map, and reminders of Mitsukuni's former presence are ubiquitous.

After a brief wait at the station, I boarded a bus for an approximately 15-minute ride to Kairaku-en Park. Completed in 1842 by the ninth lord of Mito, Tokugawa Nariaki (1800-1860), Kairaku-en, which means "the garden for sharing pleasures with people," covers 13 hectares. It is considered one of Japan's three most famous historic parks, the other two being Kenroku-en in Ishikawa Prefecture and Koraku-en in Okayama Prefecture.

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Above: The museum at the Tengu Natto factory. Below: Reminders of Lord Mitsukuni (aka Mito Komon) can be found all over Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture.
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The northeastern third of Kairaku-en is covered with 3,000 plum trees, which make for awesome viewing when they bloom from late February to mid March.

On a hillside overlooking a river on the southern side of the park, Tokugawa Nariaki built a lovely summer retreat called Kobun-tei (admission ¥190). It's been carefully restored, and walking through its narrow corridors you can imagine what sort of mundane pleasures the ruler of a feudal domain might have enjoyed.

Most of the explanatory signs in Kobun-tei and other parts of the park are bilingual and in good English. (Likewise for the park's brochures.)

About 10 minutes away from Kairaku-en is the Ibaraki Prefecture Museum of History (admission ¥150), but since time was limited, I decided instead to visit the Tokugawa Museum.

Although they keep a low public profile, the descendants of the Tokugawas, the powerful clan that ruled Japan for two and a half centuries, are still very much around. The current and 15th head of the family, Narimasa Tokugawa, was an executive in an insurance company at the time he became foundation president and museum director.

Since two special exhibitions were being held on the day I visited, a higher admission fee of ¥1,050 was charged (usually it's ¥630).

I was disappointed that photography is prohibited. Still, visitors can view a splendid assortment of Tokugawa family heirlooms and other artifacts, including swords, armor, ceramics, portraits, calligraphy and a tiny kimono liner (i.e., long underwear) actually worn by Lord Mitsukuni himself. No English panel explanations are provided, although the museum's Web site provides an English page (tokugawa.gr.jp/museum_info_e.htm).

Back at Mito Station, I followed the map up the hill to the Kodokan Hall (admission ¥190).

Not related to the Judo school of the same name in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward, this institution of higher learning was built by Lord Nariaki in 1841. Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913), the last shogun, was confined here after abdicating his rule in 1867.

The sprawling complex of buildings gives a good idea of what a university campus looked like back then, with tatami-floored lecture rooms where such subjects as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, Confucianism and military arts were taught.

In a room in the main hall can be found a huge hanging scroll that reads "Son-jo," an abbreviation of the mid-19th century isolationist slogan Sonno-joi (revere the Emperor and expel the foreigners), a movement that obviously failed or I would not be here to write this.

It was also interesting to see the bathing areas and toilets used by the students, which are still intact — albeit with signs posted warning visitors not to avail themselves of the facilities.

Ibaraki also just so happens to be the nation's top producer, and consumer per capita, of natto (fermented soybeans), a nutritious dish in which Mitoites revel, almost to the point of malicious glee. A number of restaurants in town even offer full-course natto meals.

Natto is produced by boiling soybeans, sprinkling in a bacterium present in rice straw, and keeping them warm until they ferment into an odiferous, gooey blob. Fermentation considerably boosts the beans' nutritive value, particularly of protein.

Earlier in the day, I had stopped by natto restaurant Tenmasa ([029] 224-6460) for a nebari donburi (sticky rice bowl) lunch. This item, which is definitely in the running for the title of the world's slimiest dish, consists of toro imo (grated mountain tuber), okra, salmon roe, nameko mushrooms, a type of kombu (kelp) and natto garnished with a raw quail's egg placed atop a large bowl of rice.

Many foreigners here can never get used to the stuff. "It's fetid, slimy and visually repellent," a lady friend from the U.K. once exclaimed to me. In its defense, I would just add that natto is an inexpensive, healthy food that lends itself to a variety of preparations. For about ¥80 for a 50-gram pack, natto boasts around eight grams of protein and only 100 or so calories, making it far cheaper and healthier than animal protein. Incidence of stroke is said to be statistically lower in parts of Japan with high natto consumption.

Before heading for home, I stopped by the Tengu Natto factory five minutes from Mito Station to pick up some omiyage (souvenirs). I also toured the small museum upstairs, which, along with panels introducing the company's history, features an exhibit demonstrating traditional natto- production methods. My Japanese neighbors were tickled pink to receive these local delicacies commemorating my excursion to Mito.

Getting there: The one-way adult fare (unreserved seat) to Mito by Super Hitachi express is about ¥3,500. Seat reservations are advised for the return trip. Buses to Kairaku-en (¥230) depart from stops No. 4 and 6 in front of Mito Station's north exit. Kairaku-en (admission free) and Kodokan Hall are open daily except for Dec. 29-31. Mito City's English-language Web site carries more information on these and other attractions: www.city.mito.lg.jp/html/english/spots/spots.htm


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