Delving Into the Allure of Fukushima and Aizu

Delving Into the Allure of Fukushima and Aizu

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
your travels.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Aizu

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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.

Aomori2

Akita

Akita1

Akita2

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”.