A tapestry of history, culture, and nature-filled mountains
Words and Photography: Ryoji Yamauchi
The Tohoku region – host to a number of 2019 Rugby World Cup matches, part of the Tokyo Olympic torch relay, and showing renewed signs of life following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. It goes without saying that this huge region, comprised of six prefectures and making up approximately 30% of the total area of Honshu (the main island of Japan), is known domestically as one of the top skiing destinations, but it is also diverse in the many charms to be found when the snow has melted to reveal the lush greenery.
I visited Fukushima, the southern-most prefecture of Tohoku at the end of September 2019 after receiving an invitation from a local government, leading to the writing of this article. Some readers are probably concerned about the effects of the nuclear incident following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, upon the mere mention of the place, “Fukushima”. However, the prefecture is working hard to deliver accurate information based on comparisons of radiation levels with other major cities, as well as efforts towards changing their tourism campaign to “Hope Tourism”, which is aimed at not only recovering from the reputational damage of misinformation, but also to educate about natural disasters and disaster prevention.
My trip covered hope tourism locations, as well as the mountainous region of Aizu in the prefecture’s west. The history and culture of the Aizu region forms a large pillar of Fukushima tourism alongside the hope tourism efforts. I will detail the beautiful aspects of Aizu I came across in much the same fashion as my trip to introduce you to what the area has to offer.
Getting to the Aizu region is simple – just grab a shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo station to Koriyama station and you’re there. Use the one hour and 45-minute trip to unwind from your long flight over to Japan before charting a course to Aizu.
Get up close and personal with Aizu history and the warrior’s spirit in Aizuwakamatsu
My trip started in the heart of the Aizu region – the city of Aizuwakamatsu. This city was once one of the battlegrounds of the Boshin War, a civil war that broke out in Japan from 1868 to 1869 between the revolutionary army, formed through an alliance centered around the domains of Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa, and the former Edo bakufu army led by the likes of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Aizu domain. During this war, the Battle of Aizu was said to be where the most resistance was met. It is these brave and proud warrior stories that have earned Aizuwakamatsu the moniker of“the Samurai Town”.
Upon reaching Aizuwakamatsu, I decided to visit the iconic Tsuruga Castle, however, before making my way over I dropped by the Tsurugajo Kaikan, a tourism facility next to the castle, for a kimono-wearing experience. Time flew by in almost the blink of an eye as I became engrossed in finding the perfect kimono combination amongst the facility’s 20 kimono and 30 obi (kimono belts) for men, and 80 kimono and 80 obi for women. It takes approximately 10 minutes for men and 15 minutes for women to complete the kimono dressing process. With the obi tightened around my waist, I felt the upper half of my body become secured, but I was also overcomeby a strange sense of calm and invigoration. Give kimono dressing a shot for a unique experience when you drop by Tsuruga Castle.
Fitted and proper in my kimono, I headed inside the castle. I immediately noticed the castle tower with its white walls and red roofing tiles upon stepping inside. Entry is permitted into this tower, and climbing to the top of this 36-metre-high structure will give you a sweeping view of Aizuwakamatsu that just has to be seen for full effect. Panels and educational videos about the Boshin War are also found within the tower, and the English explanations and subtitles allow visitors from overseas to learn about this fascinating history on their visits.
After a fulfilling trip to Tsuruga Castle, I set off for another location to learn about the history of Aizu – Nisshinkan, an Edo period school in the Aizu domain. Built in 1803, the aim of this school was to promote education in the Aizu domain and foster people of talent. The Nisshinkan was said to be the largest and possess the highest standard of education of the 300 domain schools during the Edo period. What makes this school so intriguing were its various unique features, from the teaching system with no class grades amongst the 1,300 students in attendance and the option for talented students to skip ahead, to the avantgarde subjects such as astronomy.
While you’re at Nisshinkan to learn about Japan’s latest education institution of the Edo period, make sure you try out the Zen meditation, tea ceremony, archery, and other experience programs catered to tourists. Having a shot at archery is particularly interesting since the bows and arrows are made of bamboo as they were during the period, and you can picture exactly how the children back in the day used to train.
Traditional culture, and delicious food – skip and stroll around the town of Kitakata
I travelled further north from Aizuwakamatsu to visit Kitakata. The trip from Aizuwakamatsu to Kitakata only takes a short 30 minutes, so it would be a breeze to take a day trip to this city if you happen to be centering your travels around Aizuwakamatsu.
Kitakata is blessed with an abundance of water from sources such as the underground flow from the nearby Mount Iide to the north. These sources of water helped the town flourish throughout the ages through the production of soy sauce, miso, sake, and other fermented products. The fermentation industry has led to the construction of many brewing storehouses and it is these buildings that have made the city famous across Japan as the “town of storehouses” due to the photo exhibitions held showcasing shots of these views. Traditional crafts such as kirizaiku (woodwork using paulownia wood), Kitakata lacquerware, and Oguniyama bamboo craftwork are also popular in the area. I highly recommend a walk around the town to see all of the different traditional aspects of Japan from yesteryear on display around the place. If you’re coming in from Kitakata station then you won’t need to waste any time to see the sights.
The first sight that can be seen on your walking tour is the Kitakata Urushi Ginza Street, approximately five minutes from the station. Kitakata used to be home to many lacquer workers, and was a prominent lacquer district within the Aizu region. The “Tenman Area” is the beating heart of this street still filled with many workshops and doll museums to this day. Here you can try your hand at some makie (a traditional method of applying designs to lacquerware using powdered gold or silver), or make some kirinoko dolls (Aizu-region dolls made by hand twisting packed paulownia wood chips) to make some memorable gifts of
A trip to a place renowned for fermented goods wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a sake brewery. In the 2018 National Sake Fair, 22 brands from Fukushima received gold awards (the highest number of awards nationwide for seven years running), which just goes to show how successful the industry is in the prefecture. Kitakata has been shown to produce high quality sake with two goldwinning brands, and three brands qualifying for awards. There is an endless variety of unique sake brewed in Kitakata alone, so it would be wise to visit a brewery for yourself to try them all out and find your perfect drop.
Foodies absolutely must try some Kitakata ramen on any trip to the locale. Kitakata ramen stands alongside Sapporo (Hokkaido), and Hakata (Fukuoka) as one of the three major ramen in Japan. A quick stroll around the town will give you a taste of just how passionate the area is about ramen. The slick texture of the moderately thick, curly noodles is characteristic of Kitakata ramen, but it is the soup that defines each restaurant. If you want to traverse the rabbit hole of this ramen then you’ll just have to try out all of the different restaurants in the area. You can also give handroasting rice crackers a try at a storehouse as well as a variety of other experiences – so make sure you leave plenty of time to make the most out of your trip to Kitakata.
The multi-faceted, gorgeous ponds of Goshiki-numa
My tour also included a trek to Goshiki-numa, one of the most famous tourist destinations outside of the Aizu region within Fukushima prefecture. In 2016, Goshiki-numa was awarded a star in the Michelin Green Guide.This tourist destination is internationally renowned and the allure of this place is found squarely in the mysterious beauty of Mother Nature here.
Goshiki-numa literally translates to “ponds of five colours”, which might be a little confusing. In 1888, a volcanic eruption on the northern peak of Mount Bandai caused a collapse of the volcanic edifice, with the avalanche of rocks and snow damming up the rivers, creating hundreds of ponds and lakes in the area. Goshiki-numa refers to 30 or so of these ponds. The ponds deviate between emerald green, cobalt blue, turquoise blue, emerald blue, and pastel blue, thus the fitting name “ponds of five colours”.
Goshiki-numa features an approximately four-kilometre-long trekking course known as the “Goshiki-numa Natural Sightseeing Path”. This course is part of a special protection area within the national park, which means any collection of plants or animals is strictly prohibited, and visitors must stay within the confines of the course. Please make sure you abide by these rules if you happen to drop by for this trek.
Despite a few undulating spots, I found the course to be fairly easy to walk. Sunlight streamed through the foliage and the breeze rushing through the trees felt great on the sunny, fresh autumn day I happened to take the trek. The sound of the rivers flowing into the ponds soothed my soul and enveloped me with a sense of calm.
I’m convinced that the mysterious powers behind the natural wonders found at Goshikinuma are what took my mind off any fatigue I must’ve felt. While the ponds come in different shades of blue and green, as mentioned earlier, what makes them really interesting is that the colours appear to change depending on where or what angle you view the same pond. This phenomenon is caused by the difference in angle of the light reflecting off the matter in the water. The ponds are said to display different colours depending on the weather or season, so it might be a good idea to drop by when the cherry blossoms are in bloom or the autumn leaves are on show to see the different variations of these ponds.
There was one other place I visited on my trek during this trip. A quick thirty-minute walk from the Urabandai Grandeco Tokyu Hotel (popular amongst many ski visitors during winter) are the Fudo Falls. It goes without saying that these falls offer impressive views. Despite a few hilly areas on the way to Fudo Falls, I highly recommend the walk over if you happen to be staying at the nearby hotel during the green season for a quick and fun trek into nature.
To cap off my trip, I visited Fukushima Ouse Winery, a winery newly-built in October 2015 located between Lake Inawashiro and Koriyama station. The inspiration behind this winery comes from the motivation to create a new industry in Fukushima following the aftermath of the disaster. Fukushima Ouse Winery is not only garnering attention for its wines, but also for the cider brewed on the premises using local apples. In fact, the cider was awarded a bronze medal in the 2018 International Cider Challenge, an impressive feat for a newcomer to the industry. If your interests lie outside of sake, then drop by this winery for a taste of what Fukushima can produce.
Make some space in your itinerary for your next trip to Japan to visit and experience the fascinating history, culture, and beautiful nature on offer in Aizu.