Ashikaga is a quiet little city in Tochigi Prefecture to the west of Tokyo. Now better known for silk textiles and a park that elevates the viewing of flowers to something magical, it has a history you'd never guess.
Ashikaga Flower Park is such an overwhelming experience of sight and scent that the world outside it seems washed out by comparison. Best known for its wisteria—including a tunnel through the lavender, pink, purple, blue and white flowers—the park covers 23 acres with blooms that vary with the seasons. There are events throughout the year, and of special note is the illumination that gives the flowers an even more magical aspect.
Ashikaga is easily accessible by train and bus from Tokyo.
From Tokyo, take a limited express train from Kita-Senju or Asakusa bound for Akagi, and get off at Ashikagashi Station. There are also direct buses from Shinjuku to Ashikaga City.
Ashikaga gave birth to a shogunate of the same name that dominated Japan 237 years from 1336 until 1573. Its leaders established strong relations with Korea, fostered new developments in the arts—including Noh drama, the tea ceremony, and flower arrangement—and fostered Zen Buddhism.
The Ashikaga clan revived a school which had been opened in the 9th century, the Ashikaga Gakko. The school is Japan's oldest, and in 1549 the missionary Francisco Xavier called it the largest and most famous university in the country.
Bannaji Temple was once the home of the Ashikaga clan's founder, Ashikaga Yoshiyasu (1127-1157), and still retains the style of a warrior's residence, boasting a moat, a wall, and a four-gated layout. The temple's spacious grounds include a bell tower, library and other buildings. There are cherry trees all over the grounds, and a gingko tree that reportedly has been around for six centuries.
A poet named Ono no Takamura reportedly started Ashikaga Gakko in 832, and an Ashikaga lord named Uesugi Norizane revived the school in 1432. The school has taught an eclectic mix of subjects: Confucianism, Chinese medicine, divination and military studies. Its library has more than 12,000 volumes as well as some of Japan's oldest historical documents.
The grounds alone are worth the visit—you can see why quiet contemplation would be easy here—but the kitchen, living quarters and other facilities are fascinating in their own right. Ashikaga Gakko is just a short walk from the train station.
Tochigi is particularly known for its sweet, plump strawberries, and calls itself “The Strawberry Kingdom.” It produces more strawberries than anywhere else in Japan, and you can pick your own at one of the many strawberry farms in the area.
Another Ashikaga specialty is soba noodles. You can sample an assortment of soba according to the seasons. What makes these noodles unusual is that the flavors are not added into the soup or as toppings but rather blended directly into them during the kneading process.
Just north of the city lies Coco Winery. Partnered with a winery in the famous Napa Valley region in the United States, this estate produces quality red and white wine sold at local markets and serves up plenty of it at the annual harvest festival on November 19 and 20 along with gourmet food and music.