A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.
All Doors are Open, as the Old Town of Makabe gets DOLLED UP for its annual HINA DOLL FESTIVAL (真壁の雛祭り) -until March 3rd
Nearly one hundred of the old houses and shops (including this deliciously rustic book store) will be open to the public with antique Hina Dolls and other heirlooms on display as part of the Hina Matsuri Festival in Makabe, Sakuragawa City ( just north of Tsukuba)- till March 3rd
A pair of antique Hina Dolls (from the 19th century) on display at an old shop which in makabe
By Avi Landau
During most of the year, if you pass through the center of the quaint, though rusting and run-down old town of Makabe, you are unlikely to see a single soul walking about. That is why it is surprising to go there in February, its coldest month , and find the streets filled with throngs of excited visitors wandering from old shop to old shop and old house to old house. What are all these people doing, sometimes even in the rain and sleet ? Well, eating, drinking (the local sake!), shopping, taking in the dozens of historical buildings, and most prominently, OOHING and AAHING at the dazzling variety of antique Hina Doll sets which are proudly displayed by local residents from February 4 to March 4th. There are about 200 of these family heirlooms, set up for your viewing pleasure, at shops and homes around the city center, and they have proven very successful, as part of the city-promoted Hina Matsuri Doll Festival, in bringing Makabe BACK TO LIFE, even if just for four winter weeks each year, for more than ten years ( and the concept has been taken up by several other towns in Ibaraki Prefecture).
In Makabe for the Hina Doll event
Though the town can be a bit depressing in the way that TIME SEEMS TO HAVE PASSED IT BY (a by-pass road has diverted traffic from the city center, the old Tsukuba Railroad, which ran from Tsuchiura to Iwase with a station in Makabe has gone out of service, and the stone workers who have made Makabe Stone-Ware famous throughout Japan now have to compete with much cheaper imports from Korea and China), Makabe is ALWAYS a fascinating place to visit.
Makabe has long been famous for its stone-ware. On the way there and back you will see the road lined with an almost impossible array of stone creations of all sizes. This is a typical stone lantern made of Makabe stone.
There is an old castle ruin, several noteworthy shrines and temples, an almost unchanged early-20th century townscape, dozens of stone works shops displaying their sometimes bizarre wares, an 800 year old bell foundry (!), and its completely different view (as compared with Tsukuba) of Mt Tsukuba and the mountains behind it, Mt Ashio and Mt Kaba. Despite these formidable attractions, in Japan of the Heisei Era, Makabe is far off the beaten tourist path — except, of course, when the calendar comes round to February (and the first 3 days of March), and the local residents bring out their old dolls — a testament to Makabes’s GOLDEN YEARS from the late Edo Period to mid-Showa, when its merchants could afford to splurge on extravagant Hina Doll sets to celebrate their female offspring and pray for their growth, good health and happy marriage.
An old house in Makabe with a Hina Doll set on display
Makabe in fact thrived for centuries, first as a castle town established in the late Heian Period under the Makabe-Lords which ruled until just after the battle of Sekigahara (1600) and the assertion of Tokugawa Family hegemony over Japan. The town was then ruled by the Asano Family (mostly doing the ruling from Kasama, however), whose most famous member was Asano Takuminokami (of the 47 Ronin story fame). Hence, the fine temples and shrines in the town and surrounding area.
During the Edo Period (1600-1868), as the merchants prospered, so did the situation of Hina Doll makers and the dolls themselves. Originally, having been tiny paper or straw figurines which were wiped against a girl’s body to remove impurities, and then cast off, like scape-goats into a river or the sea, the dolls used on the Girls’ Day Festival (Momo no Sekku ) evolved over time into sublime works of art, at first affordable only for the nobility and upper-rung samurai. As the merchant class grew richer, they too were able to buy the dolls, which in their fullest sets portray a prince and princess with their retinue and all the wedding trappings. The custom of putting out Hina dolls for the few weeks before the 3rd day of the 3rd month (now March 3rd), ended up becoming nearly universal. Instead of having these dolls cast-off into water, as the more primitive prototypes were in the old days, they were cast (gently of course) back into their boxes on the day after the festival. Families who did not do this were considered to be endangering their daughters’ chances of a successful marriage.
Its Hina Dolls everywhere in Makabe until March 3rd
There are dolls just about everywhere!
In Makabe today, you will be able to see several doll sets from the Edo Period ( 1600-1868). Visiting during the Hina Matsuri will also give you an opportunity to enter and photograph some VERY OLD shops and homes. At some residences, visitors are invited into the family compounds and even into the old KURA (storehouses). The presence of two sake breweries which provide free tasting samples give you the chance to add a little extra ZIP to your doll viewing experience, if you are not driving , of course.
On your way to Makabe from Tsukuba you will pass these nearly human-sized replica HANIWA figurines (on the right side of the road) There is a shop there that specializes in making them – interesting to brouse, but quite expensive!
What sticks in my most from my trip to Makabe this year is this old HO-AN DEN 、(where the Imperial Rescript for Education and portraits of the Imperial Family were enshrined untl the end of WWII. This is only one of two I have ever seen (the other was in Kasumigaura City – almost all were demolished by order of the American Occupation Government,
A look inside the HO-AN DEN
Probably my favorite stop in Makabe – the sake brewery! Plenty of tasting to be done!
You can get to Makabe by car in about 40 minutes from central Tsukuba. Head north to Route 41. As you leave the Tsukuba City limits you will start to see the stone works on both sides of the road (and one curious HANIWA shop, selling large recreations of ancient earthen-ware figurines). You can park at the Sakuragawa City Office ( Makabe is now part of Sakuragawa City).
Another option is to take a bus from Tsukuba Center (recommended for those who plan on tasting SAKE).
Some other cities in Ibaraki have been trying to copy Makabe’s idea by holding similar month-long events. In the future, it seems that most of the old towns of Ibaraki will be getting DOLLED-UP for February. I hope, however, that a visit to Makabe during the Hina Matsuri might lead to further appreciation of this all too overlooked neighbor of ours. Have a look at some of Makabe’s places of interest at the Sakuragawa City Homepage ( which has English on it):
A stone boar – which reminded me of the recent boar attack that occurred not very far away!
This boar was used as the emblem of the Makabe Family who long ruled the area.
The magnificent forest around the Yakuo-in Temple founded in the year 782. It`s central object of worship, a statue of the Yakushi Nyorai an be seen by the public only one day a year April 8th – Buddha`s birthday!
A pair of giant spectacles in the main hall at Yakuo-in. For centuries people have come hear praying for relief from eye ailments
Getting there by bus
There will be a special direct bus service from Tsukuba Center to the Makabe Hina Festival starting on Saturday February 17th, Sunday the 18th, Saturday the 24th, Sunday the 25th and then on March 3rd.
Round- trip fare for adults will be 2,000 yen (1,000 yen one-way) and 1,000 yen round-trip for children up to junior high-school age (500 yen one-way).
The trip will take about 50 minutes each way and will leave Tsukuba Center at:
9:30, 10:00, and 10:30
Returning times from Makabe are: 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30 pm.
If you want to get there by bus on any other day you`ll have to go to the Tsukuba-san Guchi (筑波山口) first ( which will take about 45 minutes).
Then, after ten minute wait you can get on the bus to the Sakuragawashi Makabe Chosha (桜川市真壁庁舎)
Buses to Tsukubasan Guchi leave Tsukuba Center at 8:30, 10:00, 10:25, 12:25 and 1:25.
It will cost 600 each way for adults
Towards the end of February Mt. Tsukuba`s famous plum blossoms should be in bloom!
One of my favorite places in the whole Mt. Tsukuba Region is this all but forgotten shrine – Yahashira Jinja, adorned with a fantastic riot of carvings.
Carvings at the Yahashira Jinja Shrine in Makabe
The Yahashira Jinja Shrine was once a Buddhist Temple dedicated to Kangiten, the God of Bliss.
A zelkova tree split by lightning – at the Yahashira Shrine in Makabe
Also of interest in and around Makabe are the:
Tobacco Festival on September 5th each year (tobacco has long been grown in the area
Kattate Festival held at the end of August in which torches are carried to the top of a mountain peak in order to subdue any typhoons that might e churning up