Last Sunday was overcast again, but warm, so we decided to check it out.
What we found was a beautiful nature park with wood chip-paved walking paths, an interesting variety of trees, lots of birds, a natural pond for fishing and superb facilities including an outdoor concert stage, large open grassed area, and two buildings for holding educational programs.
The park is about half a kilometer wide and three times that long, with paths that meander around the pond and through the woods. Half of the park surrounds Daizen Pond, and the other half is designed around five mounds or tumuli.
As usual, we were late starting out - Sunday is a sleep-in, linger-over-pancake-breakfast kind of day for us. We should have brought a lunch or stopped to pick up bento lunches on the way, but although not doing so shortened our visit, it turned out just fine, as you'll come to learn.
The cherry blossoms were past their prime and the other trees were just opening their budding leaves. Still, it was quite a beautiful sight, with subtle contrasts between the trees. Yamazakura, or mountain cherry, is a common wild cherry tree here. They do not have the dense clusters of blossoms of cultivated tress found in most parks, and the flowers have a single layer of petals, but have a beauty of their own for all that.
The paths are made of a wood chip paving material that is held together by a urethane binder. It has a nice feel under foot and keeps the chips from becoming scattered or too quickly invaded by weeds.
Wild flowers, wild herbs, and naturally sprouting seedlings - we saw oak and pine - line the paths. There were lots of small butterfles - we saw white and yellow cabbages mostly, and a "Beni shijimi" called "American copper" in the US.
The Suigo Prefectural Forest Park sits in the middle of the 5 km wide strip of land that separates Lake Kitaura from Lake Kasumigaura. It is only 5 miles, as the crow flies, from our house, yet we had never been there before. The website announces the activities planned for each month and a blog - HERE - has lots of pictures of past events and volunteer efforts at the park.
After a couple of hours, we had barely seen half the park and worked up an appetite for lunch. We decided to leave and return another day, perhaps in a month or so, after more of the foliage had filled in. We learned that dogs are allowed, if kept on a leash, so next time, Momo the Wonder Dog can come along. Think of all those trees, Momo!
This is the main entrance (above picture). The hall features lots of activities for kids as well a venue for lectures and starting point for guided nature walks. That's K's burgundy colored Toyota. I put in in the picture as it is 15 years old and will be recycled soon.
We made our way down to the center of Itako City - famous for its Iris Festival - and found a great restaurant with a view of the Hitachi-tone river, which empties Lake Kasumigaura into the Tone river which in turn leads to the sea. A century or so ago, most transport in the area was by boat on the rivers and canals.
The restaurant is called Nigumi and is run by the chef, Wakamaki Eiichi, who is well known for his skill in making sushi and has won prizes for his bamboo leaf cutting art skills (the art is known as "baran" here). He is also licensed to prepare and serve the poisonous fugu (blowfish). As he worked, there was an "enka" singing contest on the television above the bar. Enka music is sort of the Japanese equivalent of country and western in the US - not that it sounds anything like it, but it is full of love songs, broken hearts, and almost yodel-like voice inflections at times. I happen to like it. In moderation.
We passed on the fugu this trip - though we did come home with a fugu lantern that Mr Wakamaki had made - and instead had an excellent lunch of chirashizushi (liternally, scattered sushi), which is a mix of sushi rice, egg, nori seaweed, cucumber slices, etc. topped with sashimi. K had the special -a mix of various fish and roe, while I had fatty salmon on mine.
Mr. Wakamaki showed us a video of his appearance on television a couple of years ago during which he demonstrated cutting bamboo leaves into decorative patterns for sushi platters as well as entire pictures for hanging on the wall. He seemed to light up when K told him we had enjoyed eating at the historic restaurant in Itako called "Wakata", which Moody wrote about on his blog last year. He was eager to talk about his craft with appreciative customers.
The Nigumi restaurant website, with pictures and menus, is here: You can even order a fugu lamp or bamboo cutting artwork from the site.
Mr. Wakamaki also has a blog you might want to check out, since it shows many of his fantastic food/art creations for all special occasions - from birthdays to weddings. (scroll about halfway down to see some amazing displays of sushi and sashimi.
After lunch we walked along the banks of the Hitachi-tone Gawa. The cherry trees there were just past peak with petals coming down in little "sakura fubuki" (cherry blossom snow) flurries. Perhaps the cooler air from the lake and river allows them to bloom a little later or longer.
Close your eyes....."there's no place like home, there's no place like home"....
Soon it was time to head home and tell Momo the good news about the forest park. The day had started out overcast, but gradually cleared up except for a lingering haze in the air. The temperature had hovered just at the edge of comfort, so that we were often removing or donning a light jacket. In other words, another wonderful Sunday outing filled with pleasant surprises within a short distance from home. To paraphrase a modern Hawaiian saying, "lucky we live Ibaraki"!