AIZU – HIGASHIYAMA ONSEN  –

AIZU – HIGASHIYAMA ONSEN –

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HIGASHIYAMA ONSEN

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. 

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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.

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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? 

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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.

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AIZU – AIZU WAKAMATSU CITY –

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

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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.

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. 

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. 

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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 longestablished 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.

AIZU – NEKOMA / GRANDECO –

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

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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 funnelshape 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. 

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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, longdistance slopes. 

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. 

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