Words: Dave Windsor
Tohoku’s fascinating history, rich culture, gorgeous natural beauty and fabulous food are everywhere across this enchanting “treasureland” of northern Honshū.
As we leave the neon excitement, tangle of towers and calamitous congestion of Tokyo behind us racing north through the urban sprawl aboard the Yamabiko Shinkansen the cluttered concrete and steel gradually makes way for vast green spaces as the horizon meets the vibrant blue sky. The heads and eyes of my fellow passengers lift from their devices, as do our spirits, to take in the calming panorama unfolding outside. Our arrival in Tohoku, Honshū’s northern region, brings with it a sense of lightness, calm and an overwhelming expectation of discovery.
Tohoku’s six prefectures – Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata, are steeped in history of warring samurai clans and the reign of powerful shoguns, with monumental castles, reverent temples and shrines, visions of astounding natural beauty, revitalising onsen towns, mysterious legends and delicious cuisine that has me saying “oishii” every meal. There is much to discover and experience for children as well, be it open air train rides, table top cooking, doll painting, collecting memorial stamps and ‘flying dumplings’ across the Gembikei Gorge. Getting around is easy via the excellent expressway system, shinkansen and domestic ANA routes connecting Tohoku’s main centres with Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo.
Tohoku reminds us of times past and no better example can be found than the proudly preserved Ōuchijuku Village, Fukushima prefecture, which flourished as a major cross road in a time of relative peace and stability during the Tokugawa shogunate. With over 30 thatched roof buildings stuccoed with clay, straw and cement walls it provides a fascinating time-traveller’s perspective. Each building houses local handicrafts and eateries where you must try a delicious bowl of famous negi soba, which is eaten with a long crisp leek in lieu of chopsticks or spoon.
Around the corner is Yunokami Onsen station, which is also roofed with thatch. The chance to dip my weary feet in the almost too hot communal foot bath adjacent the station was a welcome respite before catching the quaint Ozatoro Observation Train to Aizuwakamatsu city. The train, with an open air cabin, designed with kids in mind, plus a unique tatami mat dining car, winds us through tunnels chiselled through the scenic mountains and past the cultivated countryside where every square inch of arable land is the dominion of rice paddies, orchards and market gardens.
Aizuwakamatsu has been home to the magnificent Tsurugajo Castle for 600 years. The present castle, standing 25.5 metres tall atop an 11 metre stone base, was masterfully rebuilt in 1965 after its demolition following the Boshi civil war. It now houses a museum with a large collection of items and displays, including katanas and armour that recount the history, battles and characters of this strategic samurai stronghold that served successive shoguns with admirable loyalty. Glistening white with brown tiled roofing the donjon (castle tower) dominates the area that made up the grounds of this heavily fortified garrison. Surrounded by moats and over one thousand cherry trees, today it is a picturesque peaceful place. Normally the cherries blossom from April 20, which is a little later than the warmer southern areas of Japan, thus extending this gorgeous season.
Another less sobering highlight of the area is Suehiro Sake Brewery, founded in 1850. Tours and tastings at the facility are welcomed and it’s tremendous to learn the time honoured and fastidious process of preparation, fermentation and cellaring undertaken by the sake masters to produce Japan’s iconic beverage. The subtle nuance of flavours sampled in the tastings vary like the scent of floral varietals, each delighting the palate whether sweet, tart, dry or sharp.
Nearby Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum in Yamagata prefecture is home to the National Treasure Rakutyu-Rakugaizu-Byobu, a pair of 6 panelled folding screens elaborately painted on gold leafed Japanese paper by Kano Eitoku in the mid-16th century. It vividly portrays the places, customs and some 2,500 citizens of Kyoto at the end of the Muromachi period and was gifted to Daimyo (lord) Kenshin Uesugi in 1574 by his contemporary Daimyo Oda Nobunaga. Also in the museum, detailed dioramas depicting village life and times through the four seasons will keep the kids happy, whilst antique scrolls, documents and an impressive 24 square metre map of Niigata prefecture painted in 1597 will delight the history buffs.
With nicknames like “Dragon of Echigo”, “God of War”, “Tiger of Echigo”, “Guardian of the North”, Kenshin Uesugi sounds more like a character from Game of Thrones than a legendary Japanese lord. Whilst 9th generation successor Yōzan Uesugi is revered as an economic, financial and industrial wizard of the early 19th century that, it is said, J. F. Kennedy once praised as “a brilliant politician”.
From brilliant politicians to a brilliant long lunch at the Uesugi Joshien restaurant across the park, where we devoured soft, tender and succulent Yonezawa beef sukiyaki. The delectable marbled wagyu is simmered with Chinese cabbage, tofu, carrots, spring onion, shiitake, shimeji and enoki mushrooms, in a warishita broth of soya, sake and sugar. The melt in your mouth wagyu is beyond delicious and
little wonder can cost over ¥30,000 per kilo at the adjacent store.