A hideaway in Mito

Waterfalls are just the tip of it when you go deep into Ibaraki

The historic city of Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture serves as the transfer point to the JR Suigun Line, a narrow-gauge single-track line that runs along the scenic Kuji River en route to the Fukuroda Falls.

Known as Oku Kuji (Upper Kuji), it’s a lovely pastoral area at the northeastern extremity of the Kanto region.

The Suigun Line plays hide and seek with National Highway 118, which crosses and re-crosses the Kuji River as it meanders through the hills.

About 45 minutes after exiting the Joban Expressway, a right turn off Highway 118 — just before the town of Hitachi Daigo — soon brings you to Fukuroda Falls. At 120 meters high and 73 meters across, Fukuroda ranks as one of Japan’s three most famous waterfalls, along with Kegon (97 meters) in Nikko and Nachi (133 meters) in Wakayama .

Fukuroda’s surroundings are indeed pretty and can be enjoyed year round. The falls often freeze over in winter, and cold-weather gear is a must if you go in January or February.

The cascading falls are viewed after walking through a 100-meter-long mountain tunnel. The good news is that an elevator has been built permitting viewing from above the falls. The bad news was, our tight schedule didn’t permit time to take it — it was around noon on a weekend and the posted elevator waiting time was 50 minutes, according to the signboard at the entrance. So I had to be content to admire the impressive view from the lower reaches, followed by a short hike along the hillsides.

But lunch more than compensated for the disappointments. We turned off Highway 118 just before the town of Yamagata-juku and followed Highway 293 for about 15 minutes in the direction of the Miwa hot springs, which brought us to Yakiya Shintaku (tel. [0295] 58-4788), whose fare is prepared robata-yaki-style on a charcoal grill.

The restaurant, which occupies a lovely 150-year-old traditional farmhouse with a thatched roof, offers set courses ranging from ¥2,000 to ¥5,000, plus drinks. Beside my table the proprietor had propped up a meter-long log from which real shiitake mushrooms were sprouting, and ingredients don’t get any fresher than that. I just twisted them off the log and plopped them on the grill to accompany items such as scallops in the shell, chicken, garden-fresh vegetables and nama-age tofu (bean curd) on a skewer.

Drowsy from the sumptuous lunch, I relaxed en route to the next stop, Seizan-so Villa.

Back in 1691, Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1628-1701), a grandson of dynasty founder Ieyasu, retired from his position as vice shogun and moved to a rustic residence not far from his birthplace in Mito to begin researching the “Dai Nihon Shi” (“History of Great Japan”), an undertaking so massive that the 397-chapter work was not completed until 205 years after his death.

Various writers decided to embellish Lord Mitsukuni’s career by having him wander about the country incognito, and since 1969 the TV drama “Mito Komon” has been a standby on TBS and affiliates, aired each Monday evening from 8 o’clock.

While the actors have changed over the years, the lead character of the series is a distinguished gent with a snow-white Vandyke beard, which gives him a faint resemblance to Col. Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. The basic message of the episodes: mess with Lord Mitsukuni and your goose will certainly be cooked.

The story lines typically have his lordship roaming around Japan in the guise of a wealthy retired merchant using the alias Mitsuemon. He and his small entourage invariably encounter greedy and powerful men who abuse their authority and oppress others, so they set out to right the wrongs.

At each episode’s climax, the evildoer orders his minions to attack, and a wild melee ensues, in which Mitsuemon’s two assistants, Kaku and Suke, helped by a female ninja (played by Kaoru Yumi in an implausibly revealing costume), completely outclass at least a dozen or so assailants, usually without even needing to draw their swords.

Kaku (or Suke, I can never remember which) then exclaims “Hikaero!! (desist),” and, brandishing a palm-size inro (lacquered medicine case) bearing the Holyoke family crest of the Tokugawa, proclaims, “Behold the deputy shogun, Lord Mitsukuni of Mito.”

Everybody present stops in his tracks, drops to his knees and grovels. Swift justice is meted out, and good once again triumphs over evil. Break for commercial.

But the Seizan-so is much more authentic than Monday-night TV fare. Rebuilt after the original burned down about 170 years ago, it’s administered by the Suifu-Meitokukai Foundation, which also operates the Tokugawa Museum in Mito City. You arrive outside the gift shop and restaurant, behind which is a modern garden and a traditional teahouse called Anjo-an. Following the paved trail up the gorge for about five minutes brings you to the thatched gate of the original hermitage of his lordship, who spent a decade here.

It’s not hard to imagine the elderly Mitsukuni, walking-stick in hand, strolling contemplatively while taking in the streams and the changing seasons, then returning to his cabin and, beneath its thatched roof, pursuing the massive historical work that would secure his reputation as a scholar.

Seizan-so and its environs are a photographer’s dream and deserve at least an hour, if not longer, to linger and take in the surroundings

Getting there: Fukuroda Falls (open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission ¥300) is a 45-minute walk from Fukuroda Station on the JR Suigun Line. There are infrequent bus runs from Fukuroda or Hitachi Daigo (the next station after Fukuroda). (Japanese only) Seizan-so (open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays, Tuesdays and Dec. 27-Jan. 3; admission ¥630 for adults, ¥420 for children) is a 5-min. taxi ride from Hitachi Ota Station. As a general rule, travel in the countryside takes planning, patience and stamina. If you take the Suigun Line from Mito, you’ll need road maps and rail and bus schedules (posted on the Web by JR East Japan and Ibaraki Kotsu). Be prepared to do a lot of walking or a lot of waiting. Maybe both. Guided tours depart from the Hato Bus terminal in the basement of the World Trade Center Annex in Hamamatsucho, Tokyo at 7:30 a.m. and return to Tokyo Station 12 hours later. In addition to round-trip transport, ¥9,980 covers all admission fees and lunch. For information on advance bookings (in Japanese), visit ?id=10619

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