The town of Oya, near Tochigi Prefecture’s capital, Utsunomiya, is relatively unknown but is an excellent day trip from Tokyo. Oya-ishi, a porous stone created from ash and lava, has been quarried in the area for centuries. It is mostly extracted from underground, so the town’s landscape has not been scarred. However, man-made arches, holes, and sheer rock faces peek out from within lush greenery – actually enhancing the appearance of the town. Many local buildings, storehouses, and walls are also made with the stone.The Oya Shiryokan, a historical museum, was opened in 1979 to promote the town’s mining history. Enter this small building, pay an admission fee, and take a look at a room containing photos and equipment of the mine’s past. Pass through a doorway and down a flight of steps into a cool dark chamber that was once an underground quarry. Larger in volume than the Tokyo Dome, it is an impressive 20,000 square meters in size, with an average depth of 30 meters. Explore different sections of the ex-quarry, which are decorated with multi-colored lights. For a special experience, make reservations in advance for one of their slow raft rides through sections of the quarry that are now filled with water. *Before visiting the Shiryokan, call ahead (in Japanese) as they close occasionally for special events (ex. filming, weddings, etc.) and they do not put that information on their website.
I did a photo story on the Shiryokan for JapanTravel.com Outside the Shiryokan, sit and enjoy a cup of coffee or shop for souvenirs at the Rockside Market.Less than 10 minutes walk from the Shiryokan is Oya-ji Temple, which is said to have been founded by the famous priest, Kobo Daishi, in 810. It is #19 of 33 sacred temples in the Kanto area dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. The temple is built into the rock and inside ancient Buddhist images have been carved onto the rock wall of a cave. The temple also has a small garden area and a mini museum of historical artifacts.Just a minute’s walk from Oya-ji is the Heiwa Kannon, a 27 meter tall Goddess of Mercy. She appears ancient, but was carved by hand from 1948 to 1956 as a memorial to those who died in WWII, and she is dedicated to world peace. Climb the steps up to her back for a nice view of the surrounding area.There are two shops between Oya-ji & Heiwa Kannon that sell items made from oya-ishi. One of them has hands-on workshops using the stone. If you like Southeast Asian cuisine, then Zo-no-Ie is a ‘must visit’ for lunch. Housed in a small building made of Oya-ishi, the food is amazing and the owners (Mr. & Mrs. Saito) and their staff are really lovely. English is spoken and if you call in advance, they will accommodate any special food requirements that you might have. I did a photo story on Zo-no-Ie for JapanTravel.com Also be sure to stop at Oya Keikan Koen, a small grassy park that has a small stream running along exposed rock face. There is a tiny zakka shop there, Gallery Kannonbashi, that is full of lovely pottery and little odds & ends. The woman who runs this shop is also very sweet. *If you visit Zo-no-Ie or Gallery Kannonbashi, let them know that Sandy sent you!
Oya-ji, Heiwa Kannon-zo, Zo-no-Ie, and Oya Keikan Koen are all within 15 minutes walk of each other. So, you can walk around between them, then head back to Utsunomiya from one of the local bus stops.
If you are driving, also visit Tagesan Fudouson, a Shingon Sect Buddhist temple established in 822. In 1355, local feudal lord, Kintsuna Utsunomiya, moved the Buddhist guardian Fudo Myo-o here and ‘Fudouson’ was added to the temple’s name. The temple is surrounded by forest and is filled with interesting stone Buddhist carvings. It also has a large area filled with mizuki jizo (protector of deceased children) for people who want to pray for children they lost.The Romantic-mura (mura = village) is a perfect last stop before heading home. It is a huge complex containing a park, playground, flower dome, day visit onsen, beer brewery, restaurants, and a large shop full of locally grown produce and locally made goods. In season, there is also strawberry picking in the area.
Getting there: 50 min. by Shinkansen from Tokyo Station, 85 min. by rapid from Ueno, 100 min. from Asakusa – to Utsunomiya. Then, 30 minute bus ride to Oya. *1 hour and 45 minutes by car