Despite being one of the most popular places in all of Japan, few international visitors realize that Kyoto City itself is but one part of a much, much larger prefecture. Confusingly called Kyoto Prefecture, this slot of land is simply massive and shouldn’t be confused with what’s often hailed as Japan’s ancient capital. In fact, within the entirety of Kyoto Prefecture, you’ll find that there are many different “Kyotos” to behold. Today, we’ll be taking a look at one of these, the so-called “Kyoto by the Sea.”
Now, long term readers of this blog will likely remember that I’ve previously introduced this part of Japan in my article on Amanohashidate and Ine. While the enchantingly beautiful sandbar and rustic fishing village are most definitely worth visiting, today I’d like to introduce you to another hidden gem in the area. Known as Maizuru, this seaside city has been inhabited since prehistoric times and was periodically involved in Japan’s Warring States period (1467–1603). What really put Maizuru on the radar though was the establishment of the Maizuru Naval District at the tail end of the 1800s.
Truth be told, I’ve long been wanting to introduce Maizuru. It first popped up on my radar when the kind folks at the Setouchi DMO showed me around Kure in the summer of 2021. Home to the Kure Naval District which built the biggest battleship ever created, this strategic port town in Hiroshima and Maizuru were something like sisters. The pair were key district headquarters for the Japanese navy with Kure protecting the Pacific Ocean and Maizuru taking charge of the Sea of Japan.
All things considered, a trip to Maizuru is perfect for the hardcore history fans out there and this is especially true if you’re interested in the era of World War II. At the same time though, Maizuru also has a lot more to offer. Moreover, unlike Kyoto City itself, Maizuru is tucked away from the trepidations of mass tourism. Rather than put up with the popular and ever-packed attractions, why not come tour a different side of Kyoto that most overseas visitors to Japan never encounter.
How to Get There
Let’s pause to talk about some important logistics. As noted above, Maizuru is located in the parts of Kyoto Prefecture that touch the Sea of Japan. Surprisingly, it takes almost as long to reach the topic of today’s post as it does to get to Kyoto Station from Tokyo. Thus, anyone looking to get to Maizuru is going to first need to find their way to Kyoto Station. Seeing that this is a blog about off-of-the-beaten-path travel though, I am going to go out on a limb and assume that you can get there yourselves.
Once you’ve arrived in Kyoto City, you’re going to need to make reservations on one of the Hashidate Limited Express trains that run up to Amanohashidate and Maizuru. These are quite infrequent so plug the date and time of departure into a service like Jorudan. This will populate a table with train schedules and the price for you. That said, I would suggest that you come down to Kyoto on the day before your outing to Maizuru so you can get an early start. It’s also worth mentioning for my fellow workaholics that these trains only have power outlets at the ends of the cars.
As we’ll see in the coming sections, you have two options for destinations. You can either get off at Nishi-Maizuru Station or continue on to the line’s terminus at Higashi-Maizuru Station. Though Maizuru could potentially be done as an aggressive day trip, you’d have to be a bit of a crazy person to attempt it. So that you don’t miss out on many of the attractions up north in Kyoto Prefecture, you should do yourself a favor and book a night somewhere. Just be sure to check the various reviews online in advance, especially if you have a rental car and need parking.
Note that if you’re going to overnight in Maizuru, I suggest that you pick a hotel around Nishi-Maizuru Station. Though I got the impression that there’s a bit more going on after sunset around Higashi-Maizuru Station, there are better transportation options from Nishi-Maizuru Station if you’re going to continue on to Amanohashidate and Ine. Seeing as these are actually the iconic destinations in “Kyoto by the Sea,” you really should plan on also visiting the nearby duo if it’s your first time.
Bisected by Maizuru Bay
First things first, you need to know that there are basically two distinct Maizurus. Divided into east and west by a large landmass that protrudes out into Maizuru Bay, each side boasts its own ambiance and atmosphere. To the west, you’ll find the former castle town and the historical roots of the city whereas the eastern half was home to the Maizuru Naval District (now the JMSDF Maizuru Air Base). Which location you visit first is largely up to you. However, if you’re following my suggestion for hotels, it’s better to begin on the eastern side.
Seeing as the Maizuru’s 19th century history deserves its own section, I’d like to cover it after going over what’s on the western side of town. More of an eclectic smorgasbord than a single, stand alone attraction, western Maizuru is home to many minor spots of interest. Once a castle town during Japan’s medieval periods, you’ll find all of the typical trappings scattered about. Below, I’ll list up the spots that I think are of interest along with a short description and a link to a Google Map.
- Tanabe Castle Ruins
An obvious homage to Maizuru’s legacy, Tanabe Castle used to be the regional seat of power. Originally erected by Hosokawa Fujitaka in 1579 and then later passed to his son, Tanabe Castle is famous for holding off a force of 15,000 men with a mere 500 soldiers. While nothing really remains of the original structure, the grounds are worth visiting and also house a small garden.
- The Yoshiwara Inlet
Around 10 minutes away from the Tanabe Castle Ruins you’ll find the Yoshiwara Inlet. Often referred to as the area’s “Venice,” this part of town is characterized by its many houses that line either side of the inlet. If you’ve been to the fishing town of Ine before, the vibe is very much the same.
- Maizuru Tore Tore Center
Only something that I’d ever recommend for those of you who have a rental car or are strong walkers, the Maizuru Tore Tore Center (pictured above) is a roadside service area and fish market that is an important part of Maizuru community life. Inside, there is a restaurant serving fresh seafood should you want to grab a bite to eat. Moreover, you’ll also find popular types of delicious food to prepare at home. Note that while opening hours run until 6 PM, the restaurants served lunch only when I was there.
- Misc. Shrines & Temples
As is the case with most other similar sites with castles, Maizuru has a part of the precincts that is entirely dedicated to its shrines and temples. You’ll find many of these situated along the slope that demarcates the western border of the downtown area. Though I could list each and every temple here one by one, that would make this piece unnecessarily long. So, in the interest of brevity, know that this is the portion of Maizuru that you’ll want to head over here should you be hankering to see Maizuru’s spiritual side.
Finally, there is also Goro Sky Tower, a place that I unfortunately had to skip. Found atop the 301.2 meter-high Mt. Goro that bisects Maizuru, the Goro Sky Tower affords some of the best views in all of the Kansai region (see the image at the start of this article for an idea). Alas, the only way to get to the spire via public transportation is to take a bus to the base of Mt. Goro and then hike your way up. Though I thought about making the ascent, I instead opted to visit everywhere else in this guide.
Maizuru Red Brick Park & the Brick Museum
OK, without any further ado, let us now get to why you would want to come to Maizuru in the first place—the sites related to its wartime history during the 20th century. As alluded to in the intro, this part of Kyoto Prefecture was home to the Maizuru Naval District, a military base of operations that was the guardian steward of the Sea of Japan. Seeing as Japan only has a self-defense force (at least as of this writing), the Maizuru Naval District has since been replaced but its legacy definitely still lingers.
The best place to explore Maizuru’s roots from the 1900s is at Maizuru Red Brick Park. Found immediately to the south of where the JMSDF Maizuru Air Base is presently located (here’s a map), Maizuru Red Brick Park can easily be reached on foot from Higashi-Maizuru Station. During my visit, I took the train all the way up from Kyoto Station but as previously mentioned you can also opt to do these parts of Maizuru in the latter half of your adventure too; it all depends on your personal preference.
As the name would suggest, the main point of interest here are the red brick warehouses that date from as far back as the Meiji period (1868–1912). Primarily used to store naval munitions during wartime, the structures here are eerily similar to the better-known ones in Yokohama. Today, the 12 buildings on the premises are considered to be national important cultural properties and many have been converted to gift shops, restaurants and even a coworking space.
Unlike with the Kure Naval District which was largely bombed flat, the red brick buildings of Maizuru somehow emerged from World War II unscathed. I’ve read that one contributing factor was the fact that they were painted black as night during the war to prevent the munitions warehouses from being spotted by allied bombers. Regardless, they are a standing relic of a period of Japan’s past that, outside of Hiroshima, rarely ever gets involved in international tourism. What’s more, exploring is entirely free of charge!
Both inside and outside of the red brick buildings, you’ll find a number of places to grab something to eat. Though I was fasting until evening and had to roll right past all of these restaurants, I’ve heard that their Hayashi Hashed Beef Curry is delicious. A former staple food of the Japanese navy, you can experience this dish while at Maizuru Red Brick Park. Oh and if you’re curious, here’s a wonderful write-up on how curry became so interlinked with the mess halls of the Japanese navy.
Anyway, one other nice place to check out in the area is Maizuru’s Red Brick Museum. Fittingly housed within one of the former steel-frame munitions warehouses, this museum is dedicated to, you guessed it, bricks from all over the world. On display are some seriously epic slabs from the four great civilizations of the world (ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Greece). Additionally, there are also bricks from the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth which were donated in 1933 and thereby made these far-flung locales sister cities.
Lastly, you’d be silly to come by Maizuru Red Brick Park and not take one of the scenic cruises. These 30 minute-long adventures will take you out on Maizuru Bay. En route, you’ll pass by a number of the JMSDF warships and be able to get a much closer glimpse of these mighty vessels than you might otherwise be able to from the shore. Though the price is a bit expensive at 1,500 yen, it’s a great way to round out the rest of the excursion.
Other Nearby Attractions
But wait, there’s more! Before concluding this in-depth review of Maizuru, allow me to end with a few more suggestions. After all, if you’re going to come all the way up to this rural part of Japan, I expect that you’ll want to at least check out a few of the other allures in “Kyoto by the Sea.” For starters, there are a lot of other hidden gems in Maizuru itself. For example, Kongo-in is a temple in the eastern half of the city that is simply wonderful during both fall and winter. Should you be in Maizuru anywhere between November and February, you really ought to swing by.
Fans of flowers will also rejoice to know that Maizuru has a location for hydrangeas that is truly top tier. Known as the Maizuru Nature and Cultural Park, this nature reserve safeguards thousands of hydrangeas that all bloom during the months of June and July. Though pretty far removed from anywhere you can get to via train and/or bus, the Maizuru Nature and Cultural Park is the perfect addition for those of you with your own set of wheels. Just drop that automobile off in the parking lot and spend a few hours exploring the beautiful grounds of the park.
Come summer, Maizuru is great for activities such as water sports. There is also Kongo-in’s annual Agetaimatsu or Torch-Hoisting Ritual in August as well. Since my visit was in May, I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to look at some other reviews online to decide if these options tickle your fancy or not. Personally though, with so much else to see and do in “Kyoto by the Sea,” I’d simply rather head on to Amanohashidate and the fishing village of Ine as they almost assuradely are the better choices.
Now, I’ve covered both of these destinations at length in their own stand alone article. So, rather than make this treatise any longer than it already is, I am just going to opt to direct you to this piece on Amanohashidate and Ine. It will tell you all you need to know to explore these amazing hamlets. Note that you’ll be coming from Maizuru to Amanohashidate via the Kyoto Tango Railway. This departs from Nishi-Maizuru Station so you’ll want to book your hotel there.
Lastly, while I have your attention, I’d like to close with one more off-of-the-beaten path suggestion. Known a Mt. Oe, this extremely remote peak was the mythological home of the oni Shuten Doji (or the “Drunken Demon” in English). Normally, this peak is a bit too obscure to recommend but seeing as it is relatively close to the places I’ve noted thus far, I figured I’d throw it in at the end for those of you who love your yokai.
Until next time travelers…