Shiga Kogen – Japan’s largest ski resort near the beloved snow monkeys

Shiga Kogen – Japan’s largest ski resort near the beloved snow monkeys

Japan’s largest ski resort near the beloved snow monkeys
– Shiga Kogen

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HAVE THE ULTIMATE RESORT EXPERIENCE AT OKUSHIGA

Nagano prefecture boasts a myriad of popular ski resorts, such as Hakuba, and Nozawa Onsen. It also happens to be home to the largest ski resort in all of Japan with over 50 gondola lifts—Shiga Kogen. This ski resort is not only the biggest, but is also located at the highest altitude of all Japanese ski resorts with lift access. Shiga Kogen has the unique characteristic of having most of its ski areas located deep within the mountains at over 1,500-metres in altitude. Often, when snow conditions are less than desirable at other ski resorts in the same prefecture, Shiga Kogen can have amazing snow to shred up. The potential for the best powder snow, coupled with the amount of time it will take to conquer all of the expansive areas means it would be wise to consider an extended stay here to experience everything the resort has to offer.

Shiga Kogen’s location deep within the snow-rich mountains means that there are no towns close to the resort, however, there are many unique accommodation facilities in the area to make up for this. One of the most renowned areas in Shiga Kogen that offers the ultimate resort experience is Okushiga, which is found deep within the region.

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Due to its location deep within Shiga Kogen, and the necessity to traverse many other courses to reach it from the centre of the region, many visitors never make their way to Okushiga when they visit on short trips to the region.When compared to central Shiga Kogen, where large-scale ski resorts are concentrated and plentiful, Okushiga offers a far more relaxed experience, allowing visitors to bat away the crowds of the other areas and cruise around this quieter one. Okushiga also has a cult-following as it offers the best long-run courses in the area. The chances of you going to sleep on a snowy night and waking up to top-class powder snow the next morning are also quite high.

There are a variety of drawcards to the courses found here. From courses featuring slopes as sheer as 30 degrees to challenge expert snow-sport enthusiasts, to gentle long courses for beginners and kids to enjoy, there’s something to keep everyone entertained. The areas just off the chair lifts offer fun powdersnow courses following snowfall, and a Japanese ski magazine has also visited the area to take photos for a special feature on powder-run techniques for this very reason. Okushiga can be separated into two areas, one that has a gondola to take you straight up to the top for those who want to shred run after run, and the other featuring a medium slope for those who want to enjoy a high-speed shred down.

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The neighbouring Yakebitai area, connected at the mountain’s peak, also features a variety of courses with two gondola lifts servicing them. Setting up base in Okushiga Kogen whilst also visiting Yakebitai is already a full day’s worth of fun in itself. It is very much possible to move on to other areas from there, but the sheer size of the area means you would have to draw up an organised schedule to ensure that you make it back in time. There are shuttle buses constantly in operation in Shiga Kogen, so that back-up option is always there if your plans go awry.

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There is also the Shiga International Ski School in Okushiga offering skiing and snowboarding lessons for kids and adults, taught by international instructors, so you can rest at ease if snow sports are not your forte.

While the ski runs are highly appealing in their own rights, the biggest, unique drawcards of this area are the two hotels at the bottom of the slope offering ski-in ski-out facilities.

Okushiga also has a cult-following as it offers the best long-run courses in the area.
Grand Phenix

One of the hotels is known as the finest resort hotel in the area—Hotel Grand Phenix Okushiga. This long-renowned, hotel of nobility is loved by famous guests such as the Japanese royal family, and is also frequented by the world-renowned conductor, Seiji Ozawa. This prestigious guest list exemplifies the exceedingly spectacular accommodation experience this establishment offers. The guest rooms have been made with comfort in mind and feature wood in abundance to create a calming atmosphere, whilst the convenience of ski-visitors has also been considered with all rooms featuring walk-in closets. Guests here don’t have to worry about where to put their ski gear when they arrive for the ski season. Inside the hotel are three restaurants sourcing prized ingredients from all over Japan, such as the gourmet trove of Shinshu, as well as all over the world. These restaurants offer Italian, Japanese, and Chinese cuisine to tantalise your tastebuds. The lounge bar is also popular amongst guests who enjoy gathering around the large fireplace to chat the night away. There is nothing quite as luxurious as having a drink by the fire and soaking up the air of opulence after a skiing session. With an indoor heated swimming pool, and an open-air hot spring for a private soaking, Hotel Grand Phenix Okushiga offers a variety of facilities for all guests to enjoy their stays.

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The second hotel is the Okushiga Kogen Hotel. This hotel is directly operated by Okushiga Kogen Ski Resort, and features a variety of lavish facilities such as spacious rooms, an open-air hot spring to gaze upon the great outdoors, and even its own lounge bar with a fireplace, making it rival the Grand Phenix in its own right. Guests can choose from three different restaurants serving French cuisine, Japanese cuisine, or teppanyaki (where the chef cooks in front of patrons seated at the hot-plate counter).

Both of these hotels are popular for capturing the atmosphere of a European ski resort, whilst also offering the quintessentially Japanese custom of comprehensive hospitality. Many guests visit either of the hotels to sit back and relax at their respective lounges oozing elegance and enjoy the fireplaces ablaze. As a rule of thumb, for those who are after a quiet experience to bask in their time of luxury— choose the Grand Phenix; for those looking for a casual lounge experience whilst listening to some music—head to the Okushiga Kogen Hotel. While the Grand Phenix allows guests in their lounge to enjoy their time in peace and quiet without interruptions, the Okushiga Kogen Hotel organises for pianists to play in their lounge area. Both hotels offer different experiences to cater to different guests.

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As the two hotels are within walking distance of each other, guests can enjoy the offerings at the restaurants and lounges of either hotel during their stay. For the ultimate experience in Shiga Kogen, make plans to set up base at Okushiga and take full advantage of the area’s numerous charms.

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A NEW GATEWAY TO SHIGA

One piece of trending news to come out of Shiga Kogen is the long-awaited completion of the gateway to Shiga, the Yama-no-eki resort gondola chair lift. Shiga Kogen acts as the base for many visitors staying in the various major hotels dotted amongst the expansive resorts in the areas occupying it. While each of these areas are filled with their own unique charms, it would be near on impossible to visit all of the courses available when planning a short stay in just one of the areas, until now. The 2020/21 ski season saw the much-anticipated completion of the Yama-no-eki resort gondola chair lift. Yama-no-eki had originally served as a hub with shops, restaurants, and a bus stop, however, a downside of it was that it lacked easy access to a vital mainstay of the region— the ski slopes. The completion of the gondola chair lift now provides direct access from here to the central area of Shiga Kogen. This location may now very well act as the base station Shiga never had and provide a gateway to various areas in the region.

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Yama-no-eki serves as an excellent gateway to the ski fields. Here you can find a restaurant, souvenir shop, convenience store, and an information centre, as well as free parking for approximately 500 cars, a ticket counter, snow gear rental, lockers, and changing rooms.

The Giant Area is an extremely steep course that can challenge even adept skiers and snowboarders.

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The gondola chair lift provides direct access from Yama-no-eki to the Giant Area, which is the main area connecting 15 ski slopes for smooth and easy movement between them. The Giant Area is an extremely steep course that can challenge even adept skiers and snowboarders, and is known as the most difficult slope in all of Shiga Kogen. Taking a single chair lift from the Giant Area can bring you to the Higashitateyama area, which boasts the longest run in the entire resort featuring gentle to steep inclines, moguls, and variety of other slopes to challenge you on your journey down. Travelling via this area or the Nishitateyama area, which is home to the World Cup course, makes for smooth access to the central area with runs such as the Ichinose Family slope or the Takamagahara Mammoth course. This central area has a well-balanced layout with the steeper courses, for more advanced skiers and snowboarders, in the upper region, and comparatively more relaxed courses towards the bottom. On the other side of the mountain, opposite the central area, is a hidden treasure known as the Terakoya course, which is said to have the best powder snow in all of Shiga Kogen.

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Over in Ichinose in the central area is the Ichinose Diamond Snowcan rental shop where there is a foreign exchange cash machine accepting 12 different currencies. Make sure you take note of this location to save you in a pinch, as there are some cases where credit cards cannot be used and you need to have cash on hand.

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Back at Yama-no-eki, on the opposite area to the central ski hub, are a number of smaller, yet very much charming courses such as Maruike, which is known as the “Mogul Training Grounds” for its bumpy slopes, Hasuike, and Sun Valley. While there a number of accommodation facilities in this area vying for top place in the popularity stakes, Villa Alpen, in particular, sees many Australian guests frequent it. The owner of this establishment is Hideo Okazawa, a former pro-skier who is endearingly known as “Cap” amongst returning guests. While the facilities at Villa Alpen may be dated, the hotel continues to expand its fan base by providing a cosy bar with a fireplace, early check-in and late check-out options, and other careful considerations to ensure that guests have comfortable and worthwhile stays there. One such example of these considerations is that the hotel features fullyaccessible rooms, to keep it up-to-date with the changing times, despite its age. Villa Alpen is also accredited by the National Tax Agency, allowing foreign ambassadors, public officials, and other such staff to stay without being subjected to the 10% consumption tax.

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Heading down the Shiga Kogen mountain leads to a popular tourist attraction—the snow monkeys. Travelling from other ski fields in Nagano prefecture would take a whole day to see the snow monkeys, but a trip from Shiga Kogen is barely a trek at all. Located 40 minutes from Shiga Kogen is the hot-spring area of Yudanaka Shibu Onsen, with its atmospheric townscape. Shiga Kogen can be accessed via bus from this hot spring town, providing the option of perhaps staying a few nights here.

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Fukushima – Riding the wave of recovery

Fukushima – Riding the wave of recovery

Riding the wave of recovery

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Even before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns of March 2011, Fukushima Prefecture in northeastern Japan wasn’t the first place you’d choose to go on a surf trip. While the coast has plentiful surf, its distance from the seething metropolis of Tokyo kept Fukushima off the radar for most weekend surfers, leaving uncrowded spoils for those lucky few in the know.

Words: K. Rhodes with support from THE SURF NEWS Japan

FUKUSHIMA

With an area of 13,800m2, Fukushima is the third-largest prefecture in Japan, stretching from the snowy mountains in the west to the Pacific coast in the east. Fertile plains feed an agricultural industry lead by peaches, pears and rice. The Pacific coast is rich in sea life, spawning thriving fishing and seafood industries. The area also has a rich history and culture that thrives alongside abundant natural resources and beautiful scenery.

In the eight plus years since the triple catastrophe (*See Data box 1), the slow and tedious cleanup, recovery, and rebuilding process has long since stopped making news headlines. However, as Japan steps up preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, some of which will be held in the disaster affected Tohoku area, Fukushima has once again been thrust into the spotlight. When I caught wind that the Japan Pro Surfing Association was holding their first ever national professional surfing competition in Fukushima, I decided to pack my bags and find out first-hand what was really going on in this oftenmisunderstood region.

Fukushima is just over an hour north of Tokyo by Shinkansen (bullet train). I was met at the station by Fukushima resident Ishiuchi Kei, a keen snowboarder and surfer who was to be my guide for the trip. It was a gloomy Sunday morning as we left the station behind and began the hour-long drive to the beach. With the city behind, evidence of the nuclear disaster soon became apparent. Monitoring posts located every few kilometrs along the main road displayed real-time radiation readings. Driving through Iitate, an area heavily irradiated despite being mostly outside the nominal 30km exclusion zone, the readings showed 0.124 μSv/h (*See Data Box 2), several times higher than pre-disaster levels, though still low on a global scale.

Piles of radioactively contaminated soil serve as a stark reminder of the nuclear disaster (©THE SURF NEWS)
Piles of radioactively contaminated soil serve as a stark reminder of the nuclear disaster (©THE SURF NEWS)

Another reminder of the disaster came in the form of huge piles of radioactive soil packed into bags and covered with large waterproof sheets, the result of ongoing government funded ‘decontamination’ work which aims to reduce annual exposure to under 20 mSv, the government limit for allowing evacuees to return to their homes. Fukushima was once known as the bread-basket of Japan, and the area of Iitate was especially famous for its cattle farming. Now there was little to be seen on the farmland but piles of contaminated soil. I asked Kei if many of the estimated 160,000 evacuees from the nuclear disaster had chosen to return.

Eight years after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns, many shops and schools throughout Fukushima remain shut (© THE SURF NEWS)
Eight years after the earthquake, tsunamiand nuclear meltdowns, many shops and schools throughout Fukushima remain shut (© THE SURF NEWS)

“Some elderly people have returned, but the population has shrunk dramatically. Schools have closed and a lot of shops remain shut. Many evacuees have settled down elsewhere during the years since the disaster.”

“How about the people who returned? Are they worried about the radiation?” I asked.

“They try not to think about it. Once they’ve made the choice to come back, it’s better to just get on with their lives. This is the new reality for Fukushima. Worrying only makes it worse.”

We arrived at the surfing contest site of Kitaizumi just in time for emerging surf star Inoue Taka’s heat. 18-yearold Taka was on a competitive tear, notching two wins and a second from three contests on the Japanese pro tour so far this year. Another win here would see him claim the national title before the season finale in September.

The waves were chest-high with a light onshore sea breeze and intermittent rain. Conditions were by no means ideal, but Taka took to the waves with a vengeance, mixing high performance maneuvers with classic longboard style including a long and stylish hang- 10 for a heat score that more than doubled that of his nearest opponent. After his heat, I approached him to ask his impressions of Fukushima.

DATA BOX 1

NUCLEAR RADIATION

Radioactive material is found throughout nature in soil, rocks, water, air, and vegetation, alongside cosmic radiation from space. The worldwide average natural dose to humans is around 2.4 mSv (milli-Sieverts, see below) per year. Alongside this ‘background radiation,’ exposure to artificial ionising radiation, such as from nuclear sites and medical use averages 0.6 mSv/year worldwide and between 2.3 – 3.1 mSv/ year in technologically advanced countries such as Japan and the USA.

UNITS OF RADIATION

Sievert (Sv): A derived unit of ionising radiation dose used to measure of the health effect on the human body.

1 Sv = 1 joule/ kg and carries with it a 5.5% chance of eventually developing cancer.

Milli-Sievert (mSv): 1/1000 of a Sievert Micro-Sievert (μSv): 1/1000 of a milli-Sievert, or1-millionth of a Sievert Becquerel (Bq): A unit of radioactive decay.

1 Bq is defined as one decay or disintegration per second.

Rising surf star Inoue Taka on his way to securing the 2019 national longboarding title (© Japan Pro Surfing Association)
Rising surf star Inoue Taka on his way to securing the 2019 national longboarding title (© Japan Pro Surfing Association)

“This is my first time here, but the waves have been great. It was so good on Friday, I surfed for 10 hours – both longboarding and shortboarding.”

Taka is one of a rare breed of surfer who competes professionally in three disciplines; shortboard, longboard and SUP (Standup Paddle Board).

“Do you have any concerns about the radiation?”

“No. If they decided to have a contest here, I’m sure it’s fine. If anything, I hope I can help bring some joy to Fukushima.”

His sentiments seem to be shared with many of the other surfers in the competition. Rather than being worried about surfing in Fukushima, they are happy to support the recovery effort in any way they can.

JPSA management were also happy to hold their first professional competition in Fukushima.

“The beaches are closely monitored, and if they are safe enough for swimming, then I believe they are safe for surfing too. The local council has been very cooperative and we’re excited to have a professional longboarding competition in such great waves,” an official commented.

I went in search of Taka’s mother, who accompanies him on most of their surf trips around the country chasing contests. I wondered if she had any more concerns, as mothers always seem to do.

“The radiation is definitely on my mind, but I can see all the work they’ve done to rebuild after the disaster. The local council and prefectural government check the water regularly, and if JPSA management decides to have an event here, that’s good enough for me. I was a little worried about my daughter at first, as young women are more susceptible to the effects of radiation, but the waves have just been so good the last few days, I couldn’t keep her out of the water!” she laughed.

2019 professional longboarding champion Inoue Taka with his sister Kaede, who has also represented Japan in stand-up paddleboarding. Their first trip to Fukushima was blessed with good surf and good memories (© THE SURF NEWS)
2019 professional longboarding champion Inoue Taka with his sister
Kaede, who has also represented Japan in stand-up paddleboarding.
Their first trip to Fukushima was blessed with good surf and good memories(© THE SURF NEWS)

“I think it’s sad that so many people stay away from Fukushima just because of bad rumours,” his mother continued.

“I’m glad we came. I hope that Taka can do well and contribute to the recovery efforts in some way. You don’t hear much positive news from Fukushima these days, so I hope that changes in the future. The waves are great, and all the facilities have been rebuilt so nicely after the tsunami.”

Yes, the tsunami.

Nagasawa Fumiaki (left) returned to Fukushima to ensure the safety of his beloved Kitaizumi beach (©THE SURF NEWS)
Nagasawa Fumiaki (left) returned to Fukushima to ensure the safety of his beloved Kitaizumi beach
(©THE SURF NEWS)

While the nuclear disaster has received the lion’s share of coverage in the world media, it was the tsunami that left the deepest scars up and down the coast, killing 16,000 people and leaving 2,500 still missing. Here at the competition venue of Kitaizumi, the tsunami washed away the hugely popular campground along with the pine forest planted to protect it. Cars and debris were strewn upside-down in the fields. The neighbouring coal-fired power plant was severely damaged, and sand washed everywhere, leaving virtually none left on the beach.

“It was complete chaos,” said Kei, who drove down to the beach through the debris just weeks after the tsunami.

“But you know what? Three months after the tsunami, the beach itself had returned to normal. Mother Nature has an immense power to cleanse and heal herself.”

DATA BOX 2

TRIPLE CATASTROPHES OF 2011

At 2:46pm on 11 March 2011 a M9.0 Earthquake struck around 70km off the Tohoku coast of northeastern Japan. The earthquake triggered a tsunami that is estimated to have reached 40m in height and travelled up to 10km inland, killing nearly 16,000 people and leaving 2,500 still unaccounted for. The tsunami brought about a level 7 nuclear disaster at Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the most severe nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

Searching for more first-hand accounts, I ventured down to the lifeguard tower and sought out the person in charge. Nagasawa Fumiaki, burly and tanned, grew up on these beaches and has watched over them as a lifeguard for nearly 20 years.

“My father used to work at the nuclear power plant, cleaning inside the reactors. He’d work for 5 minutes before his maximum dose limit was reached and spend the rest of the day playing shogi (Japanese chess). He ended up dying from cancer. These days, one in two people get some form of cancer, so it’s hard to say for sure, but ever since he died, I have been suspicious of radiation. He took the job to put me through school but ended up paying for it with his life.” It was a heavy story to process on a Sunday morning at the beach. He continued, regardless.

“So, when the nuclear accident happened, I immediately took my wife and young child and fled. When I saw the explosion at reactor three, I thought it was over for Japan. I grabbed our passports and started looking for options to escape overseas. In the end, someone in Okinawa (southern Japan, almost 2,000km from Fukushima) agreed to take us in so we bought oneway tickets on the first boat.”

Life in tropical Okinawa, with no distinct seasons, didn’t suit them though and they ended up moving to Miyazaki, around half-way back to Fukushima.

“My child is going to school there now and we’re pretty settled, but when I heard they were going to re-open the beach here for swimming, I had to come back and help.”

“Is the water safe now?” I asked.

“If you’re talking about radiation, it pretty much always has been [safe]. There was a spike right after the explosions, but it’s amazing how quickly the readings went down. In seawater, much of the radioactive Cesium sinks and mixes with sediment, washing out to deeper water. The only reason it has taken this long to re-open the beaches is because people had to re-build their lives before they could even think about leisure. Most people refrained from surfing here for three years after the disaster, but that was out of respect for those who were taken by the tsunami, not because of radiation.”

His claims can be backed up with a search online for radiation monitoring post-disaster. Seawater samples, even close to the stricken nuclear power plant, went down to predisaster levels relatively quickly, while radiation in sediment has remained high. A 2016 Greenpeace Report showed contamination in seabed samples near the nuclear plant up to 120 Bq/kg compared to pre-2011 levels of 0.3 Bq/kg.

A handheld Geiger counter reading confirms no increase in regular background radiation (© THE SURF NEWS)
A handheld Geiger counter reading confirms no increase in regular background radiation (© THE SURF NEWS)

“The sheer size of the Pacific Ocean combined with powerful complex currents has led to the widespread dispersal of contamination.” notes Kendra Ulrich, Senior Global Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace Japan. I placed my hand-held Geiger-counter on the sand to check for myself. It read 0.036 μSv/h, no discernable increase on natural background radiation.

Meanwhile, back at the competition venue the surf action was heating up, with Inoue Taka facing off against Horii Satoshi, the only man left in the field who could thwart Taka from sealing his national title today. Excitement was at feverpitch as Satoshi held the lead mid-way through the final heat, however Taka scraped into a nice wave in the dying minutes and rode it to the sand, clinching the win by one-tenth of a point and his maiden national title.

With the competition dusted and champion crowned, we decided to scope some of the other surf breaks nearby. Kitaizumi is one of the most consistent spots for surf on the east coast of Japan, the artificial breakwater built to protect the neighbouring power plant catching any swell and reflecting it into the beach. A quick check both north and south revealed numerous other beaches with decent waves and only a handful of surfers out. Granted, they weren’t the kind of waves you’d expect to find in Hawaii or Indonesia, but if these same waves were breaking in Chiba or Shonan, popular surf areas closer to the metropolis of Tokyo, there would be 40-50 people jostling for position on each peak. Here, you had to search for someone to surf with.

We tore ourselves from the sight of empty waves and pulled onto Route 6, back towards Tokyo. The road took us within a couple of kilometres from the centre of the nuclear catastrophe, Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. As we passed the turnoff to the nuclear power plant, currently restricted to authorised personnel, the roadside Geiger counter showed 1.96 μSv/h. While this is still within the new Japanese limit of 20 mSv/year, I was happy to drive past with the windows up.

The thing with radiation exposure is that there is no well-defined ‘safe’ limit. As witnessed after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some survivors lived into their 80s and 90s, while people with little exposure to artificial radiation die of cancer every day.

For many people around the world, just the mention of radiation is enough to induce a shudder, however here in Fukushima, nuclear radiation has become another fact of life. While not totally accurate, a comparison to air quality might help put things in perspective. Anyone who lives in a big city is subjecting themselves to the negative effects of air pollution, whether they are aware of it or not. And while air quality may be one reason you choose not to live in Beijing or Delhi, it won’t stop most people from an occasional trip to Sydney for shopping or a nice café lunch. By this logic, a trip to most parts of Fukushima will have no discernable negative effects on your health, while you might be wise to avoid known hot-spots with higher levels of radiation.

The Fukushima coastline boasts great surf, often with only the birds to admire (©Kiyomi Igari)
The Fukushima coastline boasts great surf, often with only the birds to admire (©Kiyomi Igari)

The reality is that our daily lives are full of risks, whether you are aware of them or not. These days a myriad of dangerous chemicals including known carcinogens can be found emanating from the walls, carpets, and detergents in many homes. Government checks may pick up any radiation in fish and agricultural products, but residual pesticides and post-harvest chemicals pass through undetected. Radiation is now a well-known risk, however that alone does not make it any more dangerous than the other risks we take in life. Despite this, Fukushima and the surrounding areas have received so much bad press that it has blown the risks, at least for short term visits, way out of proportion. My guide Kei attests to this with his story of visiting Australia for business soon after the nuclear meltdowns. Upon discovering he lives in Fukushima, people immediately shrank back and didn’t want anything to do with him, as if he was emitting radiation himself. That’s the kind of reaction that comes from lack of knowledge and bad rumours as opposed to informed decision-making. The effects of the nuclear disaster are far from over, with thousands of people as yet unable to return to their homes. The government has faced widespread criticism over its response to the disaster and has a long way to go to regain the trust of the local population. However, a lot of money and effort has gone into rebuilding the devastated areas, and those who have chosen to return deserve what help they can get, not to be shunned. For many people here, it is still going to take wave after wave
of goodwill for life to return to normal.

Coastal areas destroyed by the tsunami have been rebuilt with the hope of attracting more beachgoers (©THE SURF NEWS)
Coastal areas destroyed by the tsunami have been rebuilt with the hope of attracting more beachgoers (©THE SURF NEWS)

My head was buzzing with all these thoughts as we
sped down the highway towards Tokyo. Looking out the window, we passed beach after empty beach with tempting surf. It was too much to resist. Unsure of what to expect, I had left my surfboard at home, so we stopped by a local surf shop to rent a board and wetsuit. I couldn’t wait to jump in the water and clear my head. The shop we pulled up to happened to be run by Watanabe Hiroki, head of the Fukushima Surfing Association.

Plentiful surf with no crowds. Welcome to Fukushima. (©Kiyomi Igari)
Plentiful surf with no crowds. Welcome to Fukushima. (©Kiyomi Igari)
Watanabe Hiroki, head of the Fukushima Surfing Association, in front of his shop that was flooded by the 2011 tsunami (© THE SURF NEWS)
Watanabe Hiroki, head of the Fukushima Surfing Association, in front of his shop that was flooded by the 2011 tsunami (© THE SURF NEWS)

Hiroki was in his shop when the 2011 earthquake struck. He escaped to a nearby evacuation centre and watched from the hilltop as his shop was flooded by the tsunami. While the national surfing community rallied together to send water, clothes and other support, it took several months of hard work to reopen his shop, and most people wouldn’t dare go near the sea for years afterwards. In the years following the tsunami Hiroki faced an uphill battle to promote surfing in the area. Thankfully, things are beginning to return to normal with big national surfing competitions the last two years attracting hundreds of amateur surfers from all over Japan.

“Some people still don’t feel safe coming to Fukushima, and that’s Ok,” says Hiroki.

“All we can do is welcome those that choose to come. By holding these competitions, I hope to bring more positive coverage of Fukushima. Slowly people will realise that it is safe and start coming back. These large events are an important contribution to the local economy. The sea is safe, and the local government has rebuilt the foreshore with spacious parking and clean toilets. All that’s left is for the people to come back.”

With the interview finished I grabbed a board and ran to the water’s edge, paddling straight out to an empty peak. Over the next two hours I caught wave after wave, never once crossing paths with another surfer. Uncrowded surf is a rare commodity in Japan, or almost anywhere in the world for that matter. You’d have to search pretty hard in any country with surfers to find easily accessible waves of this quality with no crowds. While the triple catastrophe of 2011 has scared many people from Fukushima, as things return to normal, maybe surfing can help bring people back. As the wave of government support subsides, the Pacific Ocean continues to provide unlimited waves of her own. Uncrowded surf is plentiful in Fukushima, but once people realise the high potential and minimal risks, it may not stay that way for long!

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.