Ashikaga: Complete Sightseeing Guide

Ashikaga: Complete Sightseeing Guide

Ashikaga is a small, quiet town in northern Kanto with a rich history. It is home to Japan’s oldest known school, temples brimming with stories, and one of the country’s most magical flower parks. The center of town has a historic cultural district you can walk around in. The hills to the north provide quiet mountain roads that are perfect for road biking. Ashikagashi Station is just an hour and a half north of Tokyo with direct train access.

This guide has all the info you need to get inspiration for your next holiday in Ashikaga.

View from Orihime Shrine
View from Orihime Shrine

Living History in Downtown Ashikaga

Ashikaga Gakko

Right in the middle of town is a collection of thatch-roofed buildings that will take you back to the Edo period. Ashikaga Gakko is considered to be the oldest school in Japan. It was the top university in the 16th century. Students came from all across the country to study Chinese literature, Confucianism, medicine, and warfare. Although the teachers were mostly Buddhist monks, Buddhism was excluded from the curriculum to try to keep things secular.

The Edo-period thatched roofs of Ashikaga Gakko are a rare historical sight
The Edo-period thatched roofs of Ashikaga Gakko are a rare historical sight

Although the school fell into disuse by the 19th century, it was reconstructed in the past few decades to resemble its Edo era state. Visitors can enter the library and school buildings, and read about historical school life. There are two Japanese gardens on the campus, beautifully maintained as they would have been in years past. These hint at the value that was placed on scenery in a prestigious academy. You can walk on the tatami floor of the school building and stare out into the landscape, imagining what it would feel like to study in this serene atmosphere. If you really want to get into the experience, you can sit by the back garden and transcribe an old Confucian text just as the students would have. The front desk provides texts and paper for this.

Anecdotes of the time litter the campus. A plaque in front of a tree tells the story of the Annotated Pine Tree: A student couldn’t read one of the complex Chinese characters in a book he was studying, so he wrote the character on a piece of paper and tied it to a branch in desperation. The school master saw it and wrote the pronunciation of the character on the paper. The student was grateful that his problem was solved. This vivd anecdote supposedly demonstrates how kind the school master was. Would it have been kinder for him to make his students feel like they could ask questions directly? You decide.

Bannaji Temple
Bannaji Temple

Bannaji Temple

Bannaji Temple was the official temple of the Ashikaga clan. The grounds include several temples and shrines of all shapes and sizes. It is surrounded by a moat on all four sides, a remnant of its origins as a samurai residence. The main entrance is often guarded by a horde of pigeons that are quite friendly if you feed them. The unique design of the main temple is “a rare extant example of early esoteric Buddhist temple architecture with a strong Chinese influence” (source: Japan Experience). Behind the main temple, a smaller shrine is designated for prayers about fertility and childbirth. There are bibs tied to the front of the shrine. A quick inspection of them reveals messages from families who have had safe deliveries, thanking the gods for their service.

A bib with a message thanking the gods for safe childbirth
A bib with a message thanking the gods for safe childbirth

While the reconstructed college next door sticks out as a piece of history set apart from modern life, Bannaji is integrated into the city around it. The day I visited, a group of small children were having a soccer lesson in one corner of the complex. There is also a colorful playground next to the gravel soccer field.

On the street to Bannaji Temple
On the street to Bannaji Temple

Shopping on the Old Cobbled Street

The cobbled street that connects Bannaji Temple and Ashikaga Gakko is lined with little shops and cafes. Food stands and open shopfronts sell snacks ranging from sweet mochi dumplings to shumai on katana-shaped skewers. In the eclectic stores you can find cute knickknacks and souvenirs, vintage kimonos and grandma fashion, even antique dishware from the Edo period for 5 dollars a piece. One cafe proudly proclaims it only has 3 seats in it.

In the front entranceway of a restaurants on the street, an old man can often be seen painting rocks. His finished creations—armies of little penguin and goldfish pebbles, a flock of birds painted on bigger stones—have no price tags. Is he selling them? Just painting for fun? I asked him one day, and he told me he uses them to teach children how to draw. “You can draw these ladybugs with just lines, circles and triangles”—he sketched it out enthusiastically on a postcard to demonstrate. He said he wants to show children that even if they think they can’t draw, they actually already can. He let me take a ladybug rock home for myself, so now I guess I’ll always know that I can draw.

The cobblestones continue on the other side of Bannaji. Though there’s not much there, there is a hole-in-the-wall Japanese grill selling fish-shaped pancakes. They serve the standard taiyaki filled with sweet red bean paste, but they also offer okonomiyaki in the fish-shaped mold. As with all the best Japanese food, this takes a bit of explaining. Okonomiyaki is a savory cabbage pancake that you can find in every prefecture, but it’s rare to find it in portable fish form.

Fish-shaped cabbage pancakes—only in Japan
Fish-shaped cabbage pancakes—only in Japan

Orihime Shrine
Orihime Shrine

Orihime Shrine

Bright red Orihime Shrine sits atop a hill near the center of town. This big shinto shrine is dedicated to Orihime, the goddess of weaving. The first incarnation of the shrine was built in 1705, when the local lord realized there was no shrine for silk textiles in Ashikaga, despite the fact that that was the town’s biggest industry. As you would imagine, this seemed like a hazard, so the shrine was built to ensure continued industrial prosperity. But weaving is not just a business matter. The entwining of threads symbolizes marriage, and Princess Orihime is the heroine of the famous Tanabata love story. Because of this, the shrine has also become a place to pray for a good match. It is certified as a Lover’s Sanctuary for couples.

Visitors have two options for climbing the hill up to the shrine. You can opt to climb the main stone steps, lined in bright red, gold-tipped railings. Or instead, climb the winding stairs to the side that pass through a rainbow of torii gates. Each color grants the traveler a different kind of good fortune, from health to knowledge to relationships. At the top, Orihime Shrine is a vision in crimson. Turn around for a sweeping view of the city and the interspersed hills.

Behind the shrine is the start of a hiking trail that leads to several of Ashikaga’s easy-to-reach mountains.

Taishakuzan-Hogen Cemetery in Ashikaga
Taishakuzan-Hogen Cemetery in Ashikaga

Taishakuzan-Hogen Temple and Cemetery

Right next to Orihime is a large cemetery. Stone terraces sprawl in layers down the hill, divided into grave plots sometimes sectioned off by knee-height stone walls. Tall boxy gravel stones sit on each plot, looking like buildings in a mini city. As an American, the architecture of Japanese cemeteries always impresses and intrigues me. Because cremation is the most common way of dealing with remains in Japan, there’s no need for grassy fields. Also, graves are often set on high places out of respect for the dead. You can find cemeteries in every town in Japan, but ones of this size are usually located further out of the way. So if you’re interested, be sure to check this one out while you’re in the area.

Bishamonten Temple
Bishamonten Temple

Mountain Temples and Strange Festivals

Bishamonten Temple on Mount Oiwa & the Festival of Profanity

Bishamon Saishoji Temple lies in the foothills on the outskirts of town. The forest here is green even in winter. Regardless of its remote location, locals come here often for religious services. It is one of the three most famous temples in Japan dedicated to Bishamon, the guardian god of Buddhism.

But while it seems like a peaceful holy place most of the year, a rare festival held here on every New Year’s Eve shows the rowdier side of Japanese religion and superstition. The Akutai Festival, or Festival of Profanity, sees a procession march up the road to the temple, shouting insults and profanities. This is done to throw away the evil spirits—and also vent the worldly frustrations and anger—of the previous year, and start the new year fresh. Anyone can join the procession. The most traditional thing to shout is bakayaro (“fucking idiot”). However, participants are encouraged to profane whatever they want to their hearts’ content. There is even a cursing contest earlier in the evening, with prizes for whoever can shout the loudest.

Check out some videos of the festival here

Joinji Temple on Mount Gyodo
Joinji Temple on Mount Gyodo

The Hanging-Cloud Bridge at Mount Gyodo | Hokusai’s inspiration

Further back into the foothills on nearby Mount Gyodo, you can find the inspiration for one of Hokusai’s famous woodblock prints: Joinji Temple. The temple complex perches on cliffs in the forest. The temple’s tea house sits on a large rock, accessible only by a bridge from the neighboring cliff. This scene is depicted in Hokusai’s The Hanging-Cloud Bridge at Mount Gyodo. Even in real life without the clouds, it’s cool to see the tea house balanced high up on the rock.

Temple-Hopping Hike

Orihime Shrine, Bishamonten Temple, and Mount Gyodo are all connected by a scenic hiking trail. The forested ridgeline trail passes through several ups and downs suitable for beginner-intermediate hikers. It is 7 km long, with bus access to and from the Mount Gyodo trailhead. This hike is a great chance to enjoy the nature outside of town while also getting your fill of traditional culture. You can find the map for this hike, as well as other nearby mountains, in our article The Ashikaga Foothills – Made for Hikes and Bikes.

Purple wisteria flowers at Ashikaga Flower Park are the perfect subject for your next photoshoot
Purple wisteria flowers at Ashikaga Flower Park are the perfect subject for your next photoshoot

Flowers and Wine in the Hills

Ashikaga Flower Park

Have you ever though to yourself, wouldn’t it be cool to shape wisteria trees into enormous, living works of art? Probably not, but the masterminds behind Ashikaga Flower Park did.

You can easily spend an hour or two strolling through this large flower theme park. There is something in bloom almost every time of year, but the main event is definitely the purple wisteria that bloom from mid-April to mid-May. The flowers hang down from overhead trellises and wrap around lattice-work tunnels, creating a dreamy atmosphere. The largest tree in the park is almost 160 years old—even older than the park itself. Its vines stretch out over 1,000 square meters.

In the winter, the park uses the trellises and landscape to install larger-than-life flower-themed illuminations that are magical in their own right.

Winter illuminations at Ashikaga Flower Park
Winter illuminations at Ashikaga Flower Park

Coco Farm & Winery

Just a short drive or bus ride into the hills lies Coco Farm & Winery. The vineyard stretches up the mountainside, with the winery, shop and cafe below. You can buy a bottle of local sweet wine, enjoy a tasting session, or go on a tour of the winery. Visitors who want to stay and relax for a while can sit down for lunch on the terrace looking out at the vineyard.

How to Get to Ashikaga

Ashikaga is accessible via a direct express train from Tokyo. It takes about an hour and a half on the Tobu Railway Limited Express Ryomo from Asakusa Station to Ashikagashi Station. Note that Ashikagashi and Ashikaga are two different stations run by two different rail companies. They are both in Ashikaga, about a 15 minute walk apart. Type carefully when planning your route.

Sample Google itinerary

Looking out at Ashikaga from Orihime Shrine, ready to explore
Looking out at Ashikaga from Orihime Shrine, ready to explore

Now that you’ve got the overview of Ashikaga, dive into our related articles here. Or, read about a path that will take you from Ashikaga even further into the Japanese countryside: Biking Kiryu to Ashikaga Via the Watarase River Cycling Road.

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