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Beyond Tokyo: Oarai – Japan’s Lesser-Known Destination

Updated: Apr 23, 2023

Trip to a hidden gem of Japan: Oarai in Ibaraki prefecture.

Have you heard of a town in Japan called Oarai (大洗)? Probably not. It’s lesser-known seaside town nestled on the eastern coast of Japan in Ibaraki Prefecture. If you’re looking to escape the crowds of Japan’s bustling cities (a.k.a. Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka) and explore a new location, keep reading!


How did I end up in Oarai to begin with? Well, it all started from this fascinating photograph of a Shinto Shrine’s gate (Torii 鳥居) in the middle of the ocean with white crashing wave breaking on the seashore, forming an almost divine and unearthly sight – you can watch the video here if you’re interested.


As a photography enthusiast, I knew I have to check this place out. The shrine in the photograph was Isosaki Shrine which is located in Oarai of Ibaraki Prefecture.


After I have travelled in Oarai myself, I’ve come to realize this little town has a lot of unique characteristics. Allow me to introduce 5 of them to you!


Traditional & Untouched

I have been to many places across Japan over the past 7 years. And regardless of how “in-the-middle-of-nowhere” the place was, if there is a train station, there was always a machine that read the prepaid smart card (Pasmo, Suica). Oarai station was the first that only accepted cash and not the smart card. The town was very old-fashioned and clearly didn’t get a lot of tourists. Needless to say, I was excited and could tell that I’ve stepped onto a hidden gem of a town!

Anime Town

Alright. I know this is difficult to believe. But in a specific community of anime lovers, Oarai is a pretty well-known destination. To put things into perspective, it would be difficult to walk around this little town without seeing a decoration, a poster, a sticker, or a drawing of an anime character. It’s everywhere – seats on a train, windows on the train, hand holders inside the train, the train itself, a pole at the train station, a greeting sign to welcome visitors, in front of most restaurants, at most hotels, and more.


And the most shocking one – at a shrine. Most shrines in Japan have something called Ema (絵馬) which are wooden plaques where people write their wishes or prayers to the gods. At Isosaki Shrine, however, these wooden plaques are written and drawn in style by presumably very talented manga writers. I was a bit speechless when I saw this myself.


The history behind this town and its anime culture stems from the Japanese animation called "Girls und Panzer" series featuring tank battles among schoolgirls. Apparently the story of this animation took place in Oarai, attracting fans of this anime series to pay a visit.


Oarai is one of many towns affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. The disaster severely damaged local industries, and the local tourism sector faced a sharp decline followed the event. To overcome the conundrum, the local tourism businesses have taken the opportunity to collaborate with an anime called Girls und Panzer, which has been developed by an external animation production studio. This collaboration has resulted in huge success, and the drop in the local tourism industry had been largely reversed, but has resulted in a significant change to the economical status of the Oarai.



Nature & Beaches

Oarai is surrounded by lush forests, crystal-clear waters, and breathtaking ocean views, making it a perfect destination for nature lovers and beach enthusiasts. One of the most popular beaches in Oarai is the Oarai Sun Beach, which is a long stretch of golden sand that attracts visitors. The beach is known for its clear waters, perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing. The beach is also surrounded by beautiful cliffs and rock formations, which add to its scenic beauty. And of course, the legendary Isosaki Shrine’s gate which has brought me here to begin with.

Seafood

The town is home to a bustling fishing industry that supplies some of the finest seafood to local restaurants and markets. Visitors to Oarai can enjoy a variety of other seafood dishes, such as grilled fish, sashimi, and tempura. The town is also home to several seafood markets, where visitors can purchase fresh seafood to take home or cook themselves.


If you like Mentaiko (明太子) or spicy cod roe, Oarai has Mentai Park which is a combination of Mentaiko Factory, café, souvenir shops and small museum. This is one of very few places in Japan where you can enjoy Mentaiko on rice fresh from the factory!

Glamping & Camping

If you don’t know what a “glamping” is, it’s a luxurious version of the traditional camping. Glamping includes facilities and accommodations like bathroom, living room, kitchen, etc. It essentially a way for people this generation to enjoy the freedom and closeness to nature that come from camping without going through all the hardship and bathroom troubles 


The glamping site we stayed in is called “グランマーレ茨城大洗” which was really nice. It comes all kinds of facility including sauna pod, swimming pool, giant tents with transparent plastic window and a kitchen facility. It’s also right next to the beach, so if you enjoy surfing or other water activities, you should look this place up!

 

Personally, traveling is a way to open my eyes to new perspectives and see how the locals live their life. Of course, it’s exciting to go to famous spots like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and so on. Those are the must-visit if you’ve never been to Japan before. But if you’re looking to really experience how Japanese people live their lives outside the city, or see things the little things that would surprise you, sometimes it’s a small and lesser-known town like Oarai that says it best :)


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