Touring Japan: My Autumn Love Affair

By Odigo Contributor Chiara Terzuolo

The sticker on my chest concerns me, the bright yellow and designated number making me feel like I have been tagged. In all my years of traveling around as an adult (at least on paper), group bus tours have never been on my radar. I will admit to a bit of a snobbish independent streak, as I prefer to explore and get hopelessly lost on my own timeframe. But ah, the things I do for love.
Love, in this case, applies to anything vaguely Autumn-related. Since seeing a photo of the bright red kochia covering Hitachi Seaside Park, it has been my ambition to gawp at them in person. However, after looking up the trains/buses/walking routes needed to get to this gem in Ibaraki, the time and expense were far above the expected. To my rescue, a bus tour, run by one of Japan's largest tour operators. Before I could overthink the implications, I booked my seat and arrived bright and early in Shinjuku to join my group, all marked by the same yellow stickers.
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Chiara at the Hitachi Seaside Park[/caption]
On the bus, I hoped for a quick rundown of the itinerary, and then the chance to snooze until reaching Ibaraki. But this was not to be, in an impressive show of stamina, the sweet and chirpy guide spoke for a whole two hours. After describing the various stops, she went on about a boggling number of subjects: the average income of men and women in Japan (with a rather ludicrous explanation of the disparity thereof), the booming popularity of soccer, house prices within and outside Tokyo... I was a bit relieved when we arrived at the first stop of morning, lunch at the fish market of Nakaminato Port.

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The Fish Market at Nakaminato Port[/caption]
As a vegan-tending-type, the mountain of fish and palm-sized oysters on display, were lost on me. Strolling by the port area, away from the bustle of the market was lovely. In front of the local high school, a retired ship rested on the grass facing the waters it once trawled, now serving as a napping spot for a large white cat.
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Retired Ship by the Seaside[/caption]
The fishy theme continued at Mentai Park, dedicated to all things cod roe (mentaiko). They even have their own fish-egg mascot proudly on display everywhere.
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Mentaiko Mascot[/caption]
In a rebellious moment, I decided to skip the whole factory tour and instead people watch. Obviously a must-see stop on tours for the retired set, I watched as spritely groups of mostly women hovered over the samples and cackled at their own bravery in trying the oddest thing on the Mentaiko Cafe menu: cod roe-flavored soft serve ice cream. This only served to further confirm my theory that Japanese women over 60 are awesome and have more fun than basically anyone else in the country, me included. As each bus departed, a young employee would rush out and bow to the bus, waving until it was well out of sight.
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Do you want to try cod-roe ice cream?[/caption]
As my new comrades and I headed towards Hitachi Seaside Park, the excitement level rose dramatically. This sprawling park is dotted with special gardens, ensuring that except for the dreariest winter months there is always something in bloom. The kochia, (Burning Bush - Kochia Scoparia) which are knee-high fluffy bushes, were at the absolute peak of their magenta-tinted redness, and put one in mind of the ‘truffula trees’ of Dr. Seuss. I slowly climbed the crimson hill made even more dramatic by the perfect blue sky, and the view from the top was worth every yen and long-winded explanation.
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Gorgeous Kochia at Hitachi Seaside Park[/caption]
While the usual contingent of couples, retirees and dogs in frilly outfits abounded, going on a weekday meant that we all had enough space to enjoy our wanders. Toward the bottom of the hill swathes of purple and pink cosmos provided a palate refresher from the surreal redness.
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Cosmos and Kochia at Hitachi Seaside Park[/caption]
While I cannot say that I have become a convert and will start joining bus tours for all my travels, they are useful  and a fun change of pace for getting to areas that usually require a car. I certainly enjoyed the people watching and ease of planning. The price was quite competitive as well. For just a little more than the fare for express trains to the closest station, this tour included transport, lunch (including some veggie options), a yummy nashi pear the size of a grapefruit, entrance fees to the park and a gift of mentaiko-flavored potato chips. You can find many train and bus tours that welcome English speakers here.

Apparently in spring the same hill becomes a sea of sky blue, when the nemophila are in bloom… perhaps another bus tour is in my future?

Have a wander through Chiara's other trips and recommended hidden gems on her Odigo profile page.