Aizu

Aizu

TAKE A LOOK AT AIZU, A SECLUDED SKI PARADISE

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Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba

AIZU

BEST-KEPT SKI SECRET OF JAPAN’S MAIN ISLAND

When you think of the ski areas most popular amongst foreigners on Japan’s main island, you would first think of places in Nagano and Niigata such as Hakuba, Nozawa, Shiga or Myoko. Otherwise, it’s the Tohoku area resorts, such as Appi or Hachimantai that come to mind.  There is, however, a ski area that westerners are just beginning to discover. It’s the slopes of Aizu, at the gateway of Tohoku, the main island’s northernmost region. 

Because of Aizu’s inland location, humidity is low, and snow quality is as high as it gets. Its fine, dry powder is comparable to the powder snow of Hokkaido at Japan’s northernmost tip, with its reputation as the world’s number one powder paradise.  

The very reason that makes Aizu’s fresh powder slopes so thrilling is, ironically, the absence of crowds. Despite being 100 kilometres north of the Daiichi nuclear accident, Aizu lies on the outer edge of the Fukushima district. Although Aizu itself is basically untouched by radiation, the very word “Fukushima” is synonymous with the word “disaster” to many people, Japanese and foreigners alike. Many people choose to stay away, avoiding to look at the actual data themselves. For people willing to do their own research, this makes a ski holiday in Aizu a prize catch. Not only can you get freshly-fallen powder all to yourself, the whole ski industry is bending over backwards to woo skiers back with all kinds of special deals, such as free lift passes for people aged 19 – 24. 

Fortunately, the data shows that the Aizu and Bandai areas saw little effect from the accident. This is due not only to distance, but also to being upwind of the accident, and having two protective mountain ranges between Aizu and the stricken power plant. Nevertheless, local government watches the situation closely. In addition, the citizen group, Safecast, provides reliable independent radiation monitoring with easy to use smartphone apps and online maps as an alternative source of information.  

A visit to Aizu is about much more than extremely inviting snow. The treasure of the north is the samurai town of Aizu Wakamatsu, built around the spectacular castle to which all wealth and culture flowed. Like the television dramas that it inspired, Wakamatsu town is full of tales of intrigue and heroism that played out all those years ago. These stories continue to inspire the people of Japan, and even a foreign movie star or two; the Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai, tells of the real-life events that took place in these mountains and streets. Yes, the “bushido” or “samurai spirit” is strong in the people of the north. 

So too is their attachment to their traditional cuisine. In a world where everything starts to be the same everywhere you go, we tasted wonderful dishes that are exclusive to this area, springing from its natural features and traditions, which I would love to share with you.

There are a total of 22 ski resorts in the area that all slope down to the open plain.  The district that flows down from the north is known as Aizu, while the south-western area goes by the name Minami Aizu.
In this trip my 9 companions and I focused on three places in the northern district: the main ski resorts of Aizu, the samurai town of Aizu Wakamatsu City, and the romantic historical village of Higashiyama Onsen (hot springs), just nearby.

Here is the story of my experience of Aizu, and the must-see places in each of the areas. 

ALTS

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AIZU’S BIGGEST RESORT, WITH EXCLUSIVE SNOWCAT BACKCOUNTRY SKIING

My trip began the minute I touched down at Narita airport. I met my party, and the ten of us all bundled into a bus, heading straight for the snowfields. It was a four hour bus trip, so after the long flight from summery Sydney, we fell into a slumber. Awakening, the world outside the window had turned white. We were in snow country.

We all tumbled out of the bus at ALTS, the nickname for the Hoshino Resorts’ Alts Bandai. After a quick lunch, we turned our heads towards the slopes, and off we went to explore. It turned out to be a preview trip only, checking out the trails, as the slopes were hit by furious snowfall. Were we pleased about this?  Of course! The snow was spectacularly light, fine powder, just feeding our anticipation of the skiing that lay ahead the next morning. 

ALTS, the largest ski resort in the Aizu area, is run by Hoshino Resorts, a chain with luxury resorts all over Japan. ALTS sits on the slopes of towering Mt. Bandai, a volcanic mountain included in the illustrious, Hyakumeizan, a list of the 100 favourite mountains of a famed Japanese alpinist. The list now has a life of its own, as dedicated mountaineers attempt to climb all one hundred. 

29 ski courses is a lot for just one resort. ALTS is the kind of resort that doesn’t do things by half-measures. The ski area is roughly divided into two parts, the front and the back. Nekoma Bowl is the bowl-shaped slope at the back.  Because it faces north, away from the sun, it has the super-high quality powder. The undulations of the non-compacted snow give this run a high degree of difficulty, making it popular amongst hardcore skiers.

The fact that you can also find relatively friendly slopes on Nekoma bowl is probably a big part of its allure – a group of friends with differing skiing experience and abilities can all have a great day together, experiencing the a quality of powder snow that’s unsurpassed, anywhere on the planet.

EXCLUSIVE CAT SKIING SLOPES

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We awoke the next day to a full-blown blizzard, with super-low temperatures predicted. Did that discourage hard-core skiers, like the ones in our group? Of course not! The more punishing the storm, the greater the thrill and joy of skiing through an entire night’s worth of freshly fallen snow.  We had to be careful about what we wished for, though. If the storm blew too hard, then the slopes would be closed, and we’d watch all that beautiful snow go to waste. The view from the window was especially nail-biting for us, as today was the long-anticipated “cat skiing” day.

From Monday to Friday, the slope, which ALTS once managed as a regular slope full of skiers, is closed. Snow falls quietly all week, completely undisturbed. Then come the weekend, the snowmobiles, known as “Snowcats”, track their way up to the top of the slope, and let the warm skiers out of their cozy cabins to tear through a whole week’s worth of beautiful, untouched powder.

As it turned out, today was our lucky day. Unlike ascending in a ski lift, you can feel the terrain beneath you as the Cat clambers up the mountain, which is a treat in itself. The Cat drops us off, we ski down the beautiful powder, while it follows along behind us, back to the foot of the slope. Then, we continue to repeat the whole delightful episode, all day long.

This particular slope is by appointment only. Today we were the privileged ones, with this luxurious expanse all to ourselves. It’s a wonderful feeling, hooting and whooping our glee to each other as we raced down, not another soul in sight. 

After many ups and downs in the freezing storm, the ladies of the group, Melissa and Libby from Australia, got the idea of hot springs in their heads. The rest of us didn’t take much persuasion. This area has been famous for its many hot springs long before skiing was invented. To steam and soak in the waters known for their curative properties, and to gormandise on the local cuisine is a perfectly valid way to make the most of your time in this special place. 

We loved the “ski in, ski out”, location of our accommodation at the Hoshino Resorts Bandai Onsen Hotel, just a few steps from the ski lifts. You’ve got hot springs, rentals and shops – a huge range of everything you could need, all in one place. It really is a perfect base from which you can come and go, visiting surrounding slopes and attractions. ALTS Bandai should be your first stop when planning a trip to the wilds of Aizu. 

NEKOMA

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FOR THE BEST OF THE BEST SNOW IN AIZU, MAKE YOUR WAY OVER TO NEKOMA

Aizu attracts the hardcore skiers hunting down the best snow in Japan. Of all the resorts in Aizu, the one that wins the prize for most magical snow is Nekoma. The funnel-shape of its north slope, as it narrows in at the base, is the reason the slopes avoid icing up for most of the season.

But the big attraction is the premium powder the Japanese call “micro-fine snow”, created by the super-low temperatures of Nekoma, at around minus 15 degrees Celsius. For some reason, most of the skiers here are Japanese, and there aren’t that many of them either. It’s just not a place foreigners think to come. It’s possible to get to the top of the Nekoma slopes by simply hiking over the summit from ALTS, which is just over the other side of the mountain. If you are skilled enough to take responsibility for your own safety, go for it. 

But as the peak is unpatrolled and the risks are many, this time we all decided to leave ALTS and head for the slopes of Nekoma by shuttle bus. It went around the mountain, and took us 40 minutes. The was no charge for the shuttle, and no need to buy more lift tickets, as both ALTS and Nekoma are operated by Hoshino Resorts. Nice. 

We had a day of indecisive weather, with the sun peeking out, then snowfall, followed by more fleeting sunshine, all day long. The slopes were a patchwork of skied upon snow and then big stretches of pristine, untouched powder. When you hit the freshly laid powder, it was like gliding. You really can’t experience it anywhere else in life, this weightless feeling of almost flying. I’ve experienced a lot of good snow, but this really was one of the best I have come across in all of Japan. Being high season, and in the depths of winter, it couldn’t have been any colder, but the freshly falling snow just had us feeling that things couldn’t be better. 

It’s not a massive resort, with its ten courses. But they range from beginner to advanced. If you are in the Aizu area, don’t miss the secluded charms of inland Nekoma – intense cold, and that distinctive Nekoma terrain, and the finest power imaginable.

There are rumours that the ALTS and Nekoma areas might soon be connected at the summit, since they are both operated by the same resort. If that happens, the days of solitude at Nekoma are numbered. But for some reason, an interconnected snow playground seems an alluring daydream for me. I’m looking forward to the day it becomes a reality. 

GRANDECO

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FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY

Further north of ALTS and Nekoma lies GRANDECO, our final visit of the Aizu ski areas. GRANDECO is not the easiest to get to of the Aizu resorts, but despite the drawbacks of its location, it is still immensely popular.

It is not a big resort, with a total of five gondolas and chairlifts, and seven courses. GRANDECO is a long, narrow ski area, which is its main attraction. Skiers spend their time on lengthy, uninterrupted runs down slopes, rather than getting on and off lifts all day. Its defining characteristic is an environment that is friendly to families and people wanting to have a fun connection with their friends.

The range of slopes is suitable for all levels
of expertise, but the majority are gentle slopes suitable for beginner and intermediate level skiers. There are few places in the world where you can enjoy both the best quality powder snow, and so many cruisy, easy, long-distance slopes. 

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It is super cold. But at an elevation of 1,000 metres above sea level, that’s what you would generally expect. At GRANDECO they are careful to protect guests from the downsides of the powder-creating temperatures, by providing quad lifts protected with hoods which are filled with comfortable and happy families. Also, it’s rare that Japanese families can go on a ski trip for the Golden Week holiday in early May. Here, it’s possible, with the long, luscious snow season when you are this far north, and this high up. 

During the high season the quality of the snow is good enough to give Nekoma and the other Aizu resorts a run for their money. It’s not only an approachable place for regular people to enjoy the snow, but also it also has plenty of challenging runs to keep advanced skiers fully engaged. We had a great time going through tree runs, and scaring ourselves with the tough steep slopes. 

The best hotel of the whole area is said to be the hotel adjacent to GRANDECO, so there is one more plus to add to the collection. Family time can truly be enjoyed in this highly pleasant place, with unsurpassable snow, good service, and easy, approachable skiing just out the door. GRANDECO has just about everything a family could wish for to create a lovely time in each other’s company. 

AIZU WAKAMATSU CITY

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THE CULTIVATED CITY OF WARRIORS, AND HOME OF THE LEGENDARY LAST SAMURAI

Today was our ski-free day, a day for exploring Aizu Wakamatsu city. Known as the city of warriors, it goes down in history as a place of heroism and tragedy. The last stand of the warrior known as ‘”Japan’s Last Samurai” took place here, which makes it a poignant place in Japan’s history.

To be immersed in that chapter from the past is a perfectly good reason to come and stay here. But more prosaically, it’s just a 30 minute drive from here to Alts Bandai, and an hour to Nekoma. So even if you only have skiing on your mind, it’s a pretty irresistible base.

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As a sightseer, you will probably start off with Tsuruga Castle. The original castle was constructed 630 years ago, and lasted until its bombardment in the civil war during the latter half of the Edo period, the last time wars were fought by samurai. Although finally defeated, the castle and its warriors earned a glorious kind of immortality through their final brave attacks. They withstood an entire month under siege, facing weapons of immense destructive power, never before seen by these ancient warriors.

Now, the replica castle holds all sorts of displays and documents, that bring to life the story of what happened here, floor after floor, until you reach the apex. From the very top of the tower, we caught our breath and viewed the city of Aizu spread out below us. It’s not quite skiing, but a wonderful feeling, high above the world. 

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After this glorious place, we then wandered down to the modest thatched tea ceremony hut, built centuries ago by the son of Sen no Rikyu, the renowned master and initiator of the Japanese tea ceremony. Here, we partook of matcha green tea, served in the ritual way, with traditional Japanese sweets. The ladies were especially appreciative of those sweets, all elaborate, pretty and sugary-sweet. Melissa seemed so taken by the whole experience that she purchased a set of the special tea ceremony equipment – a pottery bowl, bamboo whisk, and so on – so she could bring this special feeling back with her to her life in Sydney. 

There aren’t usually what you would call cities around ski areas in this country, so that limits how you can keep entertained and occupied once you’re done skiing for the day. But if you stay in Aizu Wakamatsu, you really won’t run out of attractions and distractions.

The city of Aizu was built up on what was once ancient swampland. Draining the wetlands and setting the nutrient-rich soil aside created extremely fertile farmlands, which is why the rice grown here so delicious. The difference between this juicy, flavourful rice and ordinary rice is so distinctive that you will immediately realise when you take your first bite.

The snow that piles up in the surrounding mountains also has an impact on making things here delicious. It seeps into the ground as meltwater, gets purified as it filters through the rock, then lies in the ground as clear, cold spring water. This pure water and lush rice go together to make astonishingly good Japanese sake. The town is full of traditional izakayas, quaint eatery-bars, as well as modern bars and restaurants of all sorts. 

After hearing stories of the marvels of the sake of this area, we went over to the long-established sake brewery, Suehiro Shuzo, to see if the legends were true. They showed us the careful process of making perfect sake, not dramatically different from centuries ago.  At the tasting corner we refined our powers of discrimination, and finally chose some favourites to buy and take home. 

On the wall were photographs and calligraphy by the world-renowned doctor and humanist, Hideyo Noguchi. Dr Noguchi had visited this place early last century, and the ladies of our group entertained themselves by photographing each other in the same hall, same angle and pose as that of Dr Noguchi.

In lands with pure water, good sake, and spectacular scenery in all seasons, food always tastes good. As Aizu is an isolated mountain city, deeply inland, the unique local cuisine has dishes that have been passed down with their special Aizu character intact. Herring pickled in Japanese pepper, stewed dried cod, and kozuyu, a clear broth served on auspicious occasions are exclusive to Aizu. Wappameshi, is a dish of steamed rice scattered with other tasty morsels and seasonings, also unique to this region. Aizu is famous for its handmade buckwheat noodles, or soba.  Connoisseurs of soba flock to the many specialty restaurants of this seemingly simple dish, and marvel at its subtlety. 

It was really hard to tear ourselves away from the charms of Aizu Wakamatsu. The night of eating local food and the amazing sake just stretched out longer and longer, as we watched the snow pile up outside and watched everything become indescribably lovely as the sake took effect.

There are many more ski areas in Aizu than the ones we have introduced here, all special in their own way.
Get yourselves a base in lovely Aizu Wakamatsu, and go explore them all.

HIGASHIYAMA ONSEN

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A SPA TOWN OF OLD JAPAN, TUCKED AWAY IN THE MOUNTAINS

A ten minute drive from Aizu Wakamatsu central, yet hundreds of years away, is the historical hot spring village of Higashiyama Onsen. Although there are several other historical hot spring towns in the mountains of Japan, it’s unheard of for them to be just around the corner from a busy city. Higashiyama Onsen is special in that sense.

Higashiyama Onsen is proud of its long history, founded by the itinerant monk, Gyoki, 1300 years ago. This intrepid fellow travelled the country instigating public works to benefit the people of Japan, waterworks included. It is known for being a favourite place of respite and recreation of historical figures. One such personage is the samurai leader Toshizo Hijikata, leader of the Shinsen-gumi special forces, active during the last days of the Samurai. Japan’s very first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito was another great person of history who frequented the bathhouses of this village. And then there was us, making it our final destination of our Aizu tour.

The onsen is a mineral-rich sulfate spring. It is said to have a therapeutic effect on disorders such as rheumatism, high blood pressure, and menopausal symptoms in women. 

We were lucky enough to stay at the Ashina, a truly grand ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. The Ashina is a 120 year old reconstructed farmhouse, dismantled and rebuilt in the village as a luxury accommodation. There are only seven guest rooms. As we walked in, we found that one of these rooms was where the creator of the animation Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka, happened to stay. The room has now been decorated to give the impression you are staying in the great man’s own workroom. Inspiring!

At the Ashina, the hot water rises up to the baths directly from its source in the earth. There were indoor baths, and outdoor baths, and we just couldn’t decide on which was better, so we bathed and bathed until we couldn’t be any more relaxed and glowing. “Look at our lovely, dewy complexions!” the girls marvelled.

It turned out that our party of 10 had the entire place to ourselves that night. Usually, elaborate meals are served privately in each of the seven rooms. But tonight we all gathered around the open hearth, used for kaiseki cuisine, in the main tatami room. It really felt like a time slip to the Japan of old, as delicious morsels of food sizzled gently over our charcoal fire, our faces lively in its flickering light. Food found only in this place, this season. How did they coax such deliciousness from such simple ingredients? 

There was a point in the night when the food, the atmosphere, the glow from the baths and the sake had gotten our spirits as merry as they were going to get. That was the moment the geisha made their entrance. Three genuine geisha, in full regalia. The night was just getting started, as it turned out. It was a night of shamisen, dance, and the witty banter and attentiveness that geisha have honed to an art form. There was also taiko drumming, and nagauta – a unique experience of traditional singing.

An evening’s entertainment with real geisha is something so rare, you never expect it will happen to you. Even Japanese people don’t expect to have such an experience.  So this night, in this secluded mountain village, blanketed in thick snow, felt like some kind of dream. It was true, in a sense. It’s the only place in the whole of Tohoku with so many geisha, twenty, and we were lucky enough to be there to be a part of it. Do whatever you can to complete a trip to Aizu with a stay at Higashiyama Onsen. The time you spend here will sparkle in your memory like starlight on snow.

TOHOKU 3 – Aomori & Akita

Aomori

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Dramatic landscapes abound in Aomori prefecture and Mt Hakkoda is yet another striking example. Like its southern cousin Zao, Hakkoda’s famous for its winter ice monsters and endless powder; whilst in summer, with the song of hummingbirds cheerfully filling the air, she’s a photographer, sightseer and hiker’s paradise; come autumn, she’s saturated in colour as the virgin forest and alpine flora turn crimson, gold and orange in preparation for their eventual hibernation in the white season.

The grandness of nature makes way to grand design as we hit Aomori City, with a population of just under 300,000, it punches well above its weight in the architectural and art stakes. There’s the monolithic stark white Aomori Museum of Art designed by Jun Aoki featuring the mammoth 8.5 metre tall ‘Aomori-Ken’ dog statue by Yoshitomo Nara and a cavernous 8,379m3 space housing three gigantic backdrops for the ballet ‘Aleko’ created by Marc Chagall. The fun-filled Nebuta Festival Museum, ingeniously skinned in burnt red steel vertical louvres, contains a colourful array of illuminated festival floats and interactive displays which has me dreaming of seeing the annual parades that take place every August. Then there’s the landmark Aomori Tourist Information Center, a 15 storey triangle-shaped building representing the letter “A” for Aomori that glows apple green in the evening and the iconic cable stayed Aomori Bay Bridge that itself glows iridescent blue. The edgy Aomori night life complements this slick urban centre as Tohoku’s rich history and traditional culture makes way for cutting edge design and fun times in its northern most capital.

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Akita

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Across the border in Akita prefecture, a sense of heritage and tradition is restored at the historical castle town of Kakunodate established in 1620 and its prestigious samurai district. The half-a-dozen finely preserved samurai houses, set amongst 400 weeping cherry blossom trees, are a picture of dignified architecture, tranquil grounds, grand gates, austere black fences, interesting artefacts, antiques and museum pieces. Along the bank of the Hinokinai River the renowned 2km Cherry Blossom Tunnel is a nationally designated scenic spot that I can only imagine must glow pink in the spring and adds to Kakunodate’s reputation as “Little Kyoto”.

As we venture further north, the winding roads spiral through the breathtaking Akita mountainside which lead to pictures of natural beauty and amazing hidden gems such as Tsurunoyu Onsen and Tamagawa Onsen. Tsurunoyu, dates back to 1638 and was frequented by samurai and their escorts as a place of healing and relaxation. The thatched roofed tatami lodgings, churning water wheel, communal onsens, including a mixed onsen, of this tiny resort transport us back in time. By contrast Tamagawa Onsen’s deafening fissures whistle jets of sulphurous steam and a bubbling hot spring of 98˚C feeds pools of wellness in a cloud of mist for the many sick and elderly taking respite in this most unique somewhat harsh environ.

Sheer beauty in these parts are also found lakeside, riverside and in the local legends. Lake Tazawa, Japan’s deepest at 423.4m, is both a lovely place and the setting of the evocative story of the lovely Tatsuko who prayed to the gods for eternal beauty and upon drinking the waters of Tazawa-ko transformed into a water dragon and submerged into the lake. Ironically, a glorious golden statue of the enchanting Tatsuko a few metres off the lake’s western shore immortalises her beauty and saw her dream come true.

Not too far away the gorgeous Oirase Mountain Stream in Aomori prefecture is home to another legendary lovely, former geisha Omatsu, who would ambush young samurai in order to rob and sometimes kill them. This 400 year old tale is almost as enthralling as the crystal clear cascading rapids and spectacular white waterfalls surrounded in every direction by a thick wood of verdant lime green maple trees, white cedar and Japanese beech along with a blanket of furry moss covered boulders and felled timber. The 14 km nature trail is stunning, whether on foot, by bike, car or public bus and to quench my thirst a well-earned craft beer from Oirase Brewery certainly hit the spot.

Life is an odyssey to be undertaken with gusto, an open mind, light heart and empty stomach. Which is easy enough said, though not always possible in our frenetically connected ‘always on’ fast food world. Taking time to travel Tohoku’s treasures and sample her flavours provided a well needed tonic for the pressures of the day to day with a delightful dose of tranquillity, warmth and beauty that serves as yet another reminder of the genuine joy of journeying to Japan. In reverence to mother nature and all the people, poets, artisans, designers, craftspeople, gardeners, story tellers, architects, iron chefs, legends and samurai that have influenced this treasureland I dedicate a haiku of my own
– “Tohoku green land, water rich built legends breathe, spiritual oishii”.

TOHOKU 2 – Miyagi & Aomori

Miyagi

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Tohoku’s nature reveals her beauty and wonder as we head to Zao National Park and the 5 star Chikusenso Mt Zao Onsen Resort & Spa in Miyagi prefecture. With only 32 rooms it is a boutique lodging of understated luxury and opulence. Acclaimed architect Yukio Hashimoto is true to his goal “to design not the material, but the ambience” as the wonderful use of space, locally sourced chestnut flooring, Japanese stucco walls (wara juraku), richly woven soft furnishings, Towada stone quarried from Aomori and the impressive Bonshō (Buddhist bell) in the library lounge area immediately impress upon me that this is the height of Japanese design and style whilst maintaining a traditional feel in harmony with the lush green surrounding.

A memorable kaiseki banquet at the refined Kamajin restaurant in a semi-private dining room is nothing short of culinary indulgence as Head Chef Kiyakazu Naoi presents each of the delectable 9 courses like a piece of fine art that, but for my insatiable appetite, seem a shame to eat. From Sendai beef to sweet fish to a surprisingly delicate bite sized meat pie it was an outstanding feast of Japan’s highest form of cuisine. Of course accompanying such a meal with a fine bottle of La Forge Estate Chardonnay from Languedoc, France seemed only natural, though sake would probably have been more appropriate.

Ensconced within 16 acres of heavily forested bamboo, maple and water oak within the Zao National Park it’s an exceptional place for relaxation, reflection and appetite.

Chikusenso is probably not the place to take the kids, but the nearby Miyagi Zao Kokeshi Museum in Tōgatta Onsen certainly is. The large museum is home to over 5,000 intricately painted kokeshi dolls from all over Japan and other hand crafted items, and offers the opportunity to paint your own Tōgatta style kokeshi doll, which was actually a lot more fun than it initially sounded. Under the watchful and guiding eye of a master artisan we slowly and gently paint her petite face, ornate headpiece and a green and red kimono adorned with flowers, to create our own bespoke kokeshi. Traditionally adored by girls, whilst the boys had fun spinning tops, the origins of kokeshi date back to this area of Tohoku during the middle of the Edo Period, some 283 years ago, created by skilled woodworkers to sell as souvenirs to onsen visitors.

Whether it’s the unique ruggedness of Mt Zao or the unique kokeshi of Tōgatta, Miyagi prefecture also lays claim to the unique honour of having one of Japan’s three most scenic spots – Matsushima. Haiku poetry master Bashō Matsuo famously lost for words to describe the sheer beauty and wonder of Matsushima is said to have penned “Matsushima ya, a a Matsushima ya, Matsushima ya”. It’s an astonishing archipelago of 260 pine covered islets within the protected Matsushima Bay, half an hour north of Sendai, which escaped relatively unscathed from the 2011 tsunami. The view is wonderful from every angle, be it high at Saigyo Modoshi no Matsu lookout park, through the windows of Taritsu-an Restaurant feasting on scallops, fried oysters and tempura sea eel, partaking in a time honoured tea ceremony shore side at Kanrantei or on one of the tourist boats that cruise the bay.

The amazing beauty extends on shore to within the grounds of the Zuigan-ji Buddhist Temple which boasts manicured gardens, traditional buildings and a collection of exquisite gold plated panels dating back to the 17th century depicting intricate scenes of nature, such as hawks hunting white herons and scampering rabbits to chrysanthemums, pine and cherry trees blooming to regal peacocks and proud roosters painted by Hasegawa Toin, Sakuma Sakyo and others. The tile covered Hōjō, built of zelkova, cyprus and cedar by 130 master craftsmen was commissioned by Lord Date Masamune and declared a National Treasure in 1953.

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Chuson-ji

Another National Treasure and personal highlight was Hiraizumi in Iwate prefecture – one of the prettiest towns I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. To walk this quaint town with its expansive public spaces, shrines and temples, ornamental ponds, productive rice paddies, archaeological sites, heavenly parks, manicured gardens, breathing the fresh floral scented air to the tunes of birds singing, children playing and irrigation trickling is a sensory delight. The calming soulfulness of this place rested my mind and raised my spirit and is the idyllic backdrop to five UNESCO World Heritage sites representing the Buddhist Pure Land.

The magical Chūson- ji Temple occupies 284 acres of gently undulating forest with a complex of well-preserved buildings, lush greenery and the amazing Konjikidō (Golden Hall) nestled within a wood of giant maples and cyprus standing guard like sentinels. Completed in 1124 by the Ōshu Fujiwara warrior clan the 5 x 5m structure is blanketed in resplendent gold leaf shining on the walls, floors, ceiling and eaves. Amida, Buddha of Infinite Light, adorns the central altar and golden peacocks, elaborate paintings, scenes of nature, statues and inlaid mother-of-pearl decorate the first architectural structure in Japan to be designated a National Treasure. Pilgrims solemnly make offerings and bow their heads whilst an orange and black robed monk quietly recites prayers.

Nearby Mōtsū-ji Temple with one of Japan’s last pure land gardens centred around a large ornamental pond was awash with a rainbow of colour playing host to an iris festival which was a pure delight for a garden lover like myself.

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