Later in the month on August 22 we took a trip to the seaside town of Ooarai (大洗, “OH-a-rye”), a little over an hour northeast from Ueno Station in Tokyo. This town has become famous as the backdrop for the 2012 smash hit anime, Girls und Panzer, and it really showed! There were character cutouts, banners, and merchandise everywhere you went.
I’m super excited that 3 and a half years after watching the 1st finale, I’d be visiting the town where it all started! Panzer vor!
So What Is Girls und Panzer?
The premise of the show can be summed up in one sentence: high school girls driving WW2-era tanks for competitive sport. There’s a little more to it, such as how the live ammo used is designed to be 100% completely non-lethal; high schools are built on aircraft carriers; and driving tanks is seen as elegant and ladylike as men aren’t allowed to drive tanks. “Why,” you may ask? It’s really just a cute and fun sports story, but with a really unique sport.
Oh and “Panzer vor” means “Tanks forward” in German. Panzer literally means “armor”, but here means “tanks” in this context much like the English counterpart.
Ooarai is over 100 km from Tokyo in Ibaraki Prefecture to the northeast, and the nearest major station you can reach is Mito Station in Mito (水戸). To get to Mito Station, you can choose between two trains on the Joban Line (常磐線) from Ueno Station, either a 1-hour Limited Express (￥3800) or a 2-hour (~￥2200) trip. In our case, we took the Limited Express. For that, you need to reserve your tickets in advance. I’m pretty sure you would also need to reserve tickets for the 2-hour train, but I haven’t confirmed. If in doubt, go to the ticket office (see below)!
We went to one of the Japan Rail (JR) ticket offices in Ueno Station which are called “Midori no Madoguchi” (みどりの窓口, lit. “Green Window”) and bought our round-trip tickets a week ahead with no difficulty. The agents at the office said they can use a little English, but it’s best to bring a map and timetable anyway. Like most Japanese service counters, they spoke very clearly and slowly enough for a foreigner like me.
If you reserved a seat, your ticket will be for a specific seat in a specific car. If you can’t find your car or just want to make sure, there will be a JR employee somewhere on the platform walking around to assist in boarding or to answer any questions.
Once you get to Mito, take the Kashima Rinkai Tetsudou (鹿島臨海鉄道) down to Ooarai Station. On this line you cannot use your Suica, Pasmo, JR Pass, or other electronic fares. You can buy a ticket from a machine at Mito Station by exiting then re-entering and then hand your ticket in at Ooarai Station. I also saw people transferring directly to the local train, then paying their fare when they got there. The train is a departure (haha) from more modern electric trains and is powered by a loud diesel engine. It may be 1 or 2 cars only, and looks kinda like the one on the right.
It costs ￥320 one way and is three stops down: past Higashi Mito (東水戸), Tsunezumi (常澄), and then finally Ooarai (大洗). You’ll know you’re there when you see pictures of anime characters and tanks covering train cars and station pillars.
Once you’re at Ooarai Station, you’ll be greeted by a big poster and the ticket window. If you transferred direct without buying a ticket, you have to line up and pay your fare; otherwise, just give your ticket to the guy standing at a collection box. As you enter the station lobby there is a small shop to the left where you can get some Garupan sweets and souvenirs.
You can take one of the buses to the Resort Outlet malls where you can go shopping for clothes and goods. When we arrived however, the bus shown on the right said they weren’t actually going to the mall, and the only other bus seemed to be taking awhile. Everything in town is pretty close, so we decided to walk around instead. If you get the chance however, I recommend you take it!
Just outside of the station, there’s an English map with many major spots. I then immediately noticed the Naka River that runs through the town on the far north side. As I briefly talked about in my post about Yokosuka, this is the same river that the IJN Sendai-class light cruiser Naka, a ship featured in KanColle, was named after! This trip was getting more fun by the second.
We bought some snacks and a town guide at a nearby convenience store southwest of the station. At first I thought the guide was a generic magazine, but it turned out to also have maps and detailed information on where the anime’s scenes took place in town. Me being me, I only realized this after we got home and instead I relied on a map I snapped a picture of in the store. Whoops.
A lot of the excitement is also due to the fact that a new movie is coming out this November! The owner of this bike is totally excited:
We made our way to a main street and bought some goods at a clothing shop, including a polo with one of Team Ooarai’s tanks’ logos on it for ￥3500 (about $38 CAD). The lady in the store was very kind and even offered us some cola as a bonus! We were a little too hot and sweaty to politely refuse so we took them gratefully. They had some Garupan comic (manga) books, but apparently they were samples only. I asked where I could buy some and they phoned the nearby bookstore to see if they had any (of course they had loads). The lady drew us a map showing how to get there, in English to boot! We then went on our way, stopping to grab a snack or snap pictures. There were ink stamps that you could collect as you walked from shop to shop too.
At the end of the street is a 3-way intersection and the ryokan Kappou Ryokan Sakanaya Honten, simply called Sakanaya-san by the locals. It’s famous for being the spot where a British Matilda tank crashed into in the show during a tank chase scene. The bookstore we were searching for was just opposite the ryokan. You can book a room online in English here; I haven’t tried it yet but definitely for next time!
As we walked northeast, we eventually reached the end of the shopping district which led into a residential area and the Ooarai Culture Center. From there we decided to have lunch at the Marine Tower, a large building with many windows which housed a souvenir shop, an observatory, and a Girls und Panzer cafe!
To ride the elevator to the cafe or observatory, you have to buy a ticket at the front door for about ￥600 (younger children are cheaper). The cafe on the 2nd floor serves a variety of drinks and comfort food all themed to characters from the show. Even the waitress was dressed up like Saori, another girl from the show and a member of Team Ooarai! (I felt it was a bit rude to ask for a photo at the time.)
Noel ordered Kay’s All-American Freedom Burger, or at least that’s what I called it. I had some delicious and tender pork curry katsu. And since I’m also a fan of the show’s British team’s commander Darjeeling, I absolutely had to have Darjeeling tea with my lunch.
The observation deck offers a great view of the sea and the town. Right beside the tower to the south, you can see the Resort Outlets Ooarai mall complex, a great shopping spot for clothes, goods, and snacks.
Inside the mall, you’ll also find a Girls und Panzer gallery mini-museum that showcases the development process of the media franchise and promotional items. Admission is free, just walk in! There are also 2 computers where you can play the online game World of Tanks; the client has been modded to feature the characters’ voices and tanks.
One of my favourites in the gallery was the Win Cutlet: two pieces of deliciously breaded fried pork in the shape of a tank. It’s a really cute Japanese pun: “cutlet” (カツ) and the verb “to win” (勝つ) are both pronounced katsu. The girls from Team Ooarai eat this the night before big matches!
We looked for the restaurant featured in the show that serves the Win Cutlet, Cook Fan, but it turns out it’s south of Mito and way west of Oarai; Google Maps doesn’t show any public transit to anywhere near it and it’s an hour walk from Mito Station. Next time!
At the end of the gallery you’ll find a souvenir shop with items such as slippers, towels, fans, and even full-size inflatable tank shells (Noel grabbed one of those)! There are also detailed scale miniatures of scenes from the show; the one below is from the finale where Ooarai’s Leopon Team used their Tiger (P) to block the opponents’ reinforcements from where the commanders were dueling for the championship title. The protagonists won, but hey it was close.
Another notable attraction of the city are the three shrine gates or torii, a 25-minute walk from the mall. There is a bus you can take but it wasn’t running when we were there. The first one you’ll likely run into is Ichi-no-torii, which stands above and across a road at the intersection right beside the Ooarai Hotel. Another, Ni-no-torii, lies up the hill past the Ooarai Seaside Hotel (not to be confused with the Ooarai Hotel beside it).
One of the most iconic places in Ooarai is the third torii, Kamiiso-no-torii, which lies on a small rock outcropping in the sea. You can see it by going down a small alleyway right across the above shrine gate, but you can also see it from an observation deck a little up the street. It is frequently battered by the waves and makes for great photos.
We needed to be at Ooarai Station by 6:30 pm so we could catch the train back, eat dinner, then catch our Limited Express back to Ueno. We walked back through Ichi-no-torii and through the main street one more time, but as time went on it seemed we weren’t getting much closer. We checked our map, and it seemed we were a lot farther than we thought we were. No buses were running, and there wasn’t a taxi in sight.
So we sprinted like mad little foreigners through the residential streets, whizzing by the stores we passed by earlier that day. It should also be noted that we’re carrying maybe 20 pounds of manga and souvenirs. At one point we ran into a festival procession with a shrine-shaped float and a line of people playing music. We took some time to watch it pass by, then resumed our run to the station.
We made it to the station with about 10 minutes to spare. We then took our trains back to Tokyo and concluded our pilgrimage to this very special town where we’ll be back again one day. On the right is a photo of a dolphin statue outside the station, as shown in the anime and as photographed by us.
On our next trip we’ll go to the aquarium, the beach, Cook Fan, and the ryokan. All in all this was an amazing trip, and I still smile ear to ear when I watch the anime and see the scenes we saw in person. Until next time, Panzer vor!
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