Ashikaga Gakkō was Japan’s first organized school.
It was a specialized college founded (allegedly) in the ninth century but resurrected in the early 1400s by the man considered to be its true founder, Uesugi Norizane. He believed in classical (i.e. Chinese) education and helped to make the school Japan’s most prominent place to study the works of Confucius, Chinese medicine, military, science, etc.
He was a local official coming from the prestigious Uesugi samurai clan and indirectly serving the Ashikaga shoguns who governed Japan from 1338 to 1573. Like most nobles, Norizane believed in classical (i.e. Chinese) education and he helped make the school Japan’s most prominent place to study the works of Confucius, Chinese medicine, military, science, etc. The school’s library still contains thousands of volumes, some extinct even in China.
Unless you’re a student of classic Chinese, the above probably won’t mean much. What will though (and it is worth the ¥420 entrance fee) is the beautiful buildings and the gardens. Those who haven’t been to Kyoto can find here a good sample of what Japanese architecture and garden landscaping meant back in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, the buildings are open to go in and explore, and there are few things in the world more peaceful than sitting on a Japanese veranda and watching a perfect garden with a small pond.
If you are in the mood for games, you can try playing with the tilting vessel: an illustration of one of Confucius’s principles where a bucket is suspended from two chains and needs to be filled with exactly 80% of its capacity in water to come to perfect balance — this is where the Japanese expression “hara hachibu” or “eat until you’re 80% full” comes from.
Entrance costs ¥420.
How to get there
The closest station to Ashikaga Gakkō is Ashikaga Station, which can be reached from Tokyo with a change at Oyama Station. This is the best option for JR Pass users as the whole journey is covered.
You can also aim for Ashikagashi Station, which is a little farther (a 13-minute walk) from the school, but is a lot cheaper at around ¥2,100 (depending on where you change). To get there from Tokyo, you can change at Kuki Station, or go direct from Asakusa Station on the Nikko-Kinugawa Line (1 hour 20 minutes, ¥2,250).
To get there from nearby Ashikaga Flower Park (Ashikaga Flower Park Station), you simply take the Ryomo Line to Ashikaga Station. It costs ¥200 and takes 6 minutes on the train and a further 8 minutes from Ashikaga Station to the school.