Located an hour from Tokyo, Tochigi City’s Kuranomachi is the perfect day trip for travelers who want a look at Japan’s picturesque past.

Tochigi City is one of the Kanto Area’s best kept secrets. Nicknamed Kuranomachi, or “Kura Town,” it’s home to a plethora of kura, traditional storehouses, the majority of which were built in the Edo Period. Because it has so many old buildings and because it’s relatively unknown, Tochigi is the perfect destination for photographers looking for distinctly Japanese architecture without the crowds.

An Historic Town

The city began prospering in the Edo Period due to its location on the Uzumagawa River which flows into the Tone River, one of the longest and most important rivers in Japan. The Tone flowed all the way to Edo, the capital of the Tokugawa shoguns, as well as hundreds of other cities and villages along the river and its watershed.

In those days, a special highway passed through Tochigi for reiheishi, special envoys sent from the imperial court in Kyoto to pay yearly respects at Nikko Tosho-gu, the resting spot of the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The part of town that grew up along this road, known as the Reiheishi Kaido, developed into a post town to accommodate the imperial envoys and other travelers who used the route.

After the collapse of the shogunate in 1868 and the subsequent creation of the prefectural system, Tochigi City served as the capital Tochigi Prefecture from 1871 until 1884 when it was permanently relocated to Utsunomiya. The western-style Meiji Period Former Tochigi Prefectural Capital Building (and its moat system!) still stands in the town’s west district.

A lot of Traditional Japan without the Crowds

Of course, the main attraction is the large number of preserved kura in and around Kuranomachi Odori. You can find storehouses of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some are very well maintained, others… not so much.

Taking a leisurely stroll down the main street and exploring the side streets, you won’t only encounter old storehouses. There are plenty of other traditional buildings, like temples, shrines, and old houses. A few of the cooler spots are the Kitagawa Utamaro Museum which is located inside a kura and showcases free seasonal exhibits of works by this famous ukiyo-e artist who visited Tochigi many times. A beautifully restored large, black, tripartite kura houses the Kuranomachi Art Museum which usually displays ukiyo-e is definitely worth the ¥500 if you love old Japanese woodblock prints.

A stroll down the old Reiheishi Kaido will bring you to the Okada Memorial Hall at which you can see the Edo Period residence of the Okada clan who served as the village headman and daikan (regional governor and magistrate). There are warehouses displaying the family heirlooms, including armor and an impressive array of swords.

Another must see spot is the Tsukada Memorial Hall where you can find the home and warehouses of the Tsukada clan who were timber dealers who sent lumber to Edo by loading up barges on the Uzumagawa River and floating them down the Tone River. At the loading dock, you can board a pleasure boat and take a 15-20 minute cruise through this historic district.

There’s Stuff Going On Year Round

If you time you trip right, you make it coincide with several major events. In May, there is the Kuranomachi Doll Festival where families bring dolls they don’t want anymore but can’t bring themselves to throw away in the trash. The dolls and figures are given one final sayonara and arigato, then undergo a Shinto ritual exorcism before being cremated (there is a long standing tradition of imbuing dolls with “souls”).

An oiran parade, a kind of live Edo Period advertisement for courtesans, is recreated at the Utamaro Festival in October. In August, there is a Shinto festival in which 108 paper lanterns are floated down the Uzumagawa River. The biggest event is the Autumn Festival which takes place in November on even numbered years. Huge traditional wagons with characters from Japanese history and mythology called dashi are paraded through the streets. Even if you can’t make it to the festival, there is a museum where dashi from previous years are on display and you can get a sense of how big and fun it is.

One Day Trip… or Two

Tochigi Kuranomachi is super easy to get to. Just hop on the Tobu Line at Asakusa and in about an hour, you’ll arrive at Tochigi Station where the staff at the Tourist Information Center can give you brochures and point you in the right direction. Of course, this is a great day trip if you’re visiting Tokyo, but we recommend visiting Tochigi City and then heading to Nikko for dinner and a stay at an onsen. The next day, you can hit up Edo Wonderland or the Shrines and Temples of Nikko