Ashikaga makes an ideal day trip from Tokyo. It’s a small city with a lot of history packed into an attractive and easily walkable radius, from the mound tombs (kofun) and mountain-top shrines of pre-Buddhist Japan to dozens of temples built by members of the long-powerful Ashikaga clan, notable patrons of classical Japanese theatre (Noh), art (flower arranging and tea ceremony), and architecture (the Golden and Silver Pavilions in Kyoto). The Ashikaga clan was an offshoot of the Minamoto clan who conquered Honshu and dominated the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333). Ashikaga Takauji overthrew the Kamakura shoguns and installed himself in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. The Ashikaga shoguns did not just help beautify Kamakura and Kyoto, they also built temples, gardens, and retirement villas in their hometown, which has been called a Little Kyoto and calls Kamakura one of its sister cities. The clan also sponsored the Ashikaga Gakkō, the most famous Confucian academy of eastern Japan, and Ashikaga has a friendship city relationship with Jining (Shandong), China, which includes Qufu, the hometown of Confucius.
As the Ashikaga shoguns got weaker, the country fractured into civil war, until it was reunited and pacified under the Tokugawa Shogunate, with its headquarters in Edo (modern Tokyo). Ashikaga and other towns on the edge of the Kanto plain prospered as Edo grew into a bustling metropolis, two of Ashikaga’s specialties being soba and silk. Classic, Edo-period merchant stronghouses are still frequent sights along Ashikaga streets. Long prominent in the silk industry, Ashikaga, Kiryu, and nearby towns became important centers of Japan’s industrial revolution, with textile manufacturing leading the way. Although the factories have moved overseas, textile handicrafters are still active, and fine woven goods can be found in many local souvenir shops.
Travelers coming from Narita airport should note that bus may be cheaper, faster and more convenient than taking train.