While day-trippers from Tokyo to Nikko may recognize Utsunomiya as the place to change from the shinkansen to the local train, there is enough to be explored here that it's worth its own day trip, or consider overnighting in the area to combine an exploration of Utsunomiya with a visit to Nikko.
One of Utsunomiya’s noteworthy features is the local pumice stone, known as Oya stone for the area northwest of the city where it is quarried. Sites associated with Oya stone have been designated as "Japan Heritage" sites by the Agency of Cultural Affairs.
Long used to build walls and stone kura (storage buildings), the relatively soft stone that undergoes subtle color changes with exposure to the elements came to the attention of Westerners in the early 20th century when Frank Lloyd Wright chose it as the stone to be used for the carved decorative features of his Imperial Hotel (opened in Tokyo in 1923, the lobby of the since demolished building is preserved at Meiji Mura in Aichi Prefecture).
It’s easy to spend an entire day checking out sites in the Utsunomiya area associated with Oya stone. Thanks to the 20th "Utsunomiya Festa in Oya" from Oct 12 to Oct 26, October is a particularly good time to plan a visit.
Although many visitors begin by taking the bus to Oya (about 30 minutes) and then returning to explore the city of Utsunomiya in the afternoon, since the Festa is held in Oya and includes evening illuminations, consider reversing course.
Futaarayama Shrine (bus stop: Baba-cho) is the religious and cultural heart of the city. It is said that the shrine's founding 1,600 years ago was simultaneously the founding of the city, which grew around it. It is the most popular shrine with locals for New Year visits and the 3-5-7 (shichi-go-san) children's blessings held in early November. The shrine has been a part of many major historical events, most recently being the site of a major battle in the Boshin civil war in the late 1860s.
The shrine is situated atop a small hill and its main approach is a massive stone stairway. The Tokugawa period retaining walls flanking the stairs about halfway up the hill offer visitors their first, and most historic, exposure to Oya stone.
It's a 10-15 minute walk from the shrine to Matsugamine Catholic Church, another gorgeous example of the use of Oya stone. Along the way, try to walk a couple of blocks on Orion-dori, a traditional covered shopping street. Plenty of local flavor here.
Built in 1932 and faced with Oya stone, Matsugamine Catholic Church is a different kind of community center, being home to a kindergarten and regular services, as well as frequent classic and choral concerts—the stone contributes to excellent acoustics. Visitors are welcome to enter and [respectfully] look around. Be sure to ascend to the choir loft for a full view of the sanctuary.
Outside, look for the recent addition of an elevator, designed to match the original structure. Look for the gargoyle rain spout on the "back" side near the top. It's a frog wearing gumboots, said to be an homage to Kenji Miyazawa, a popular children's author who wrote a children's story called "Frog's Rubber Boots" and was a friend of the church's priest who oversaw the project. Given that less than 2% of Japanese people identify as Christian, it may seem unusual to find such a substantial church here. All the more reason to pay it a visit.
Across the street from the church is a perfect lunch spot, Osharaku. This popular little restaurant operates in a refurbished warehouse made of Oya stone. It is artfully decorated, lending a pleasant ambience. You'll get an excellent set lunch meal, too.
After lunch it's time to head to Oya. From the restaurant it's about a five-minute walk to Tobu-ekimae bus stop. Catch the bus bound for Oya (Tateiwa). Keep an eye out the window — you'll see lots of walls and buildings made of Oya stone along the way and as you enter Oya, the topography includes quarried hillsides and stone cliffs alongside the Sugata River.
Oya stone is the result of undersea volcanic eruptions more than 20 million years ago. Volcanic ash from the eruptions mixed with sea water and then settled on the sea bed to harden into stone. Geologic uplift eventually resulted in its location so far inland.
If you're visiting on the week-end or a public holiday, ride to the end of the line, Tateiwa. From this bus stop, it's about a five-minute walk to Kanehon, an open-cut quarry that recently began opening to visitors on weekends (500 yen). Although the site is still developing for tourist visits, it's already possible to have basic refreshments and the opportunity to bake a small pizza in one of their wood-burning ovens made of Oya stone (1,500 yen). You can sit under a garden umbrella and overlook the quarry, or don a hardhat and check out their stone cutting facilities. Stone cutting experience and a treasure hunt for children are soon to be added.
About half a kilometer back along the bus route (or if you’ve skipped Kanehon, get off at bus stop Shiryokan Iriguchi) is the Oya History Museum, a museum that includes an old quarry inside a mountain. (Open 9:00-17:00; 800 yen; special sound and light show 17:00-21:00 October 26, 2019 only; 500 yen).
At ground level is a room containing displays explaining Oya stone, how it was quarried both historically and in modern times, and what kinds of objects have been made with Oya stone. Although this isn’t the quarry used by Frank Lloyd Wright (that quarry is north of the road between the museum and Kanehon), there are displays relating to his work on the Imperial Hotel as well.
The real jewel of the museum is the opportunity to descend 30 meters underground into the quarry and wander around. Beware, it’s a bit chilly inside. In the 70 years that this was an operating quarry, more than 300,000 cubic meters of stone were removed, initially cut out by hand and later with modern stone-cutting machinery.
The cavern that remains served as an aircraft manufacturing plan during World War II, and now also has galleries of sculptures, a wedding chapel, displays on historic mining and the size of the blocks removed (often on men’s backs), and even a photo gallery of movies and concerts staged here. All in all, quite fascinating.
The general area and especially the cliffs alongside the river between the museum and Oya-ji Temple are the site of the evening illumination from 17:00 to 22:00 during the Festa.
Oya-ji Temple, nestled into a hillside about 400 meters south of the history museum, is said to have been found in 810 by Kobo Daishi, the monk who popularized Buddhism across Japan. The main temple is home to a thousand-armed Kannon statue carved into the living rock using, it is believed, the same methods that created the Buddha statue in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan. Other Buddha images are carved into living rock on a facing hillside, also at least a thousand years old. (Open 9:00-16:30; 400 yen)
Be sure to visit the temple’s small museum, which includes exhibits on Jomon relics recovered during some maintenance and restoration work on the temple. The star of the exhibit is the skeleton of a young Jomon man.
Cross the bridge on the pond next to the museum to reach a small Benten shrine, flanked by two white snakes (made of concrete). Local legend has it that a poisonous snake once terrorized this area, until a local priest befriended it, converting it to a local guardian.
The Oya Heiwa Kannon can be found in Otani Park, just a couple dozen meters away. Carved by locals from living rock over a six-year period beginning in 1948, the 27 meter statue stands as a prayer for peace after the horrors of the Pacific War. Also look for two large boulders in the park known as the parent and child frogs; easy to see when viewed from the right angle.
There are several small shops in Oya that offer stone carving or stone working experiences, a fun way to dig deeper into this fascinating stone, and while away the time if there’s a bit of a wait for your bus back to Utsunomiya. Back in Utsunomiya at the end of your day, don’t forget to try its famous gyoza dumplings.
Vicki Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today