October 1, 2020

Aizu-Wakamatsu

Most visitors only know of Fukushima in the context of the triple disasters of 2011 but the prefecture is actually home to a lot of history.

Aizu-Wakamatsu's red bull mascot, Akabeko, stands in front of Tsuruga Castle in Fukushima Prefecture

When most overseas foreigners think of Fukushima, their thoughts immediately flash to the devastating disasters of March 11, 2011. On this day a decade ago, the prefecture as well as the neighboring regions were hit by a triple punch. This combo, which is known as the Great East Japan Earthquake, originally consisted of a calamitous quake followed by a ruinous tsunami. Of course, as the world would soon learn, this devastating disaster was only the beginning. Shortly thereafter, reports emerged of Level 7 meltdowns inside three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex. The rest, as they say, is history.

While nearly ten years have passed since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Fukushima Prefecture continues to get a bad rap. In fact, I regularly get wind of reports concerning the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plants and their ill after-effect on the environment. What’s more, some of the poor souls who were victimized by the destructive events have yet to right their upended lives. These extremely tragic tales and topics remain a serious concern and one that is not well suited for travel blog discussion. Instead, I want to focus on doing what I can to rightfully redeem Fukushima as a destination for overseas tourism.

Rather than take on the entirety of Fukushima (which by the way is the third largest prefecture out there), I am going to zero in on the historic area of Aizu-Wakamatsu. This castle town is located in the mountainous interior of Fukushima and is well known throughout Japan for its top- tier sake and samurai legacy. During the Edo period (1603–1868), Aizu-Wakamatsu developed extremely strong ties with the Tokugawa shogunate. As a result of this allegiance, the region became the site of the final battle of the Boshin War with the forces of Aizu-Wakamatsu continuing the struggle despite the Tokugawas throwing in the towel.

By the way, if the name Aizu-Wakamatsu sounds familiar to you, know that you probably encountered it once before in some historical anime, manga, or drama. For example, the name is heavily featured in the acclaimed Samurai X and Rurouni Kenshin series. Given the integral role that Aizu-Wakamatsu played in the closing act of the Edo period (1603–1868), this should come as no surprise. Still, while most famous for its undying loyalty to the shogunate, do understand that the rather rural Aizu-Wakamatsu was also a center of power commerce and cultural tradition.

Getting to Aizu-Wakamatsu

One of the exits at Aizu-Wakamatsu Station in Fukushima Prefecture

Let’s take a quick break in talking about Aizu-Wakamatsu to cover some key logistics. Though not exactly difficult to reach, the journey to this part of Fukushima Prefecture will take some time. To begin with, you’ll need to take one of the bullet trains heading north to Koriyama Station. Here, you’ll need to transfer to the Ban-Etsu West Line and ride this for a little over an hour to Aizu-Wakamatsu station. As always, just refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the connections for you. Unlike central Tokyo, the Ban-Etsu West Line has infrequent departures so you need to be sure not to miss your train at Koriyama Station.

Once you’re in Aizu-Wakamatsu, things get a bit more challenging. You see, given the mountainous nature of this central section of Fukushima, convenient train access is somewhat lacking. Instead, you’ll need to make use of the rather cumbersome bus system. Alternatively, you can also follow my lead and take a taxi to the furthest point out and then walk your way back. For those interested in tracking my footsteps, I’ll introduce the attractions in the same order so you can easily reproduce my route. All in all, the trek wasn’t that bad and totaled only a few kilometers.

In terms of time, you’ll want a full day to explore Aizu-Wakamatsu and then another half of a day for Ouchijuku (more on that later). Though you can opt to take one of the early morning bullet trains up from Tokyo as I did, I now think that it’s wiser to head up to Koriyama the day before. This way, you can greet the day in Fukushima and thereby maximize the time you spend in Aizu-Wakamatsu. During my stint in the area, I didn’t arrive until noontime. Given most attractions begin closing at 4:30 PM, I felt more rushed than I would have preferred.

Aizu-Wakamatsu’s Sazaedo

Aizu-Wakamatsu’s double-helixed Sazaedo in Fukushima Prefecture

After arriving in Aizu-Wakamatsu, I immediately hopped into a taxi and made a beeline for the Sazaedo. While there is a loop bus available for tourists, the schedule is so sporadic that it tends to be unreliable. Nevertheless, you’re free to make use of it however I highly recommend just biting the bullet and paying for a taxi. The ride to the Sazaedo ran around 1,000 yen and saved me a lot of time that otherwise would have been spent on walking or waiting for the bus. Assuming you’re a seasoned walker, you can make your way back to the area surrounding Aizu-Wakamatsu Station on foot.

Anyway, the Sazaedo is the oddly shaped pagoda that’s pictured above. This structure boasts a double helix design that is reminiscent of human DNA. Originally erected as far back as the late 1700’s on the slopes of Mt. Iimori, the Sazaedo has been earmarked as a nationally designated Important Cultural Property. For a mere few hundred yen, visitors can venture inside the sixteen meters-tall tower. Upon entering, the unique architecture of the Sazaedo ensures that you’ll never once cross paths with someone who is on the descending portion of the double helix. It’s really quite impressive.

A little further up Mt. Iimori from the Sazaedo, you’ll encounter nineteen tombs for the Byakkotai (lit. “White Tiger Unit”). While I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit history hole, know that this brigade of approximately three-hundred teenaged samurai fought in the Boshin War. The monuments on Mt. Iimori are dedicated to a group of Byakkotai members who erroneously thought that Aizu-Wakamatsu forces were defeated in battle. Fearing that their lord and family were lost, the brave younglings took their lives. Though they were mistaken, their loyalty is still honored to this day.

Aizu-Wakamatsu’s Samurai Manor

About half an hour away on foot from Mt. Iimori and the Sazaedo you’ll find an impressive samurai residence. Tragically, the original structure was burned to the ground in 1868 during the final clash of the Boshin War. Today, this modern reconstruction displays the bygone lifestyles of a high ranking retainer of the Aizu-Wakamatsu domain. While the former samurai dwelling lacks historical authenticity, the reproduction has been as faithful to the original as humanly possible. What’s more, the compound has been outfitted with a number of natural mannequins to provide additional context.

Entry to Aizu-Wakamatsu’s reconstructed samurai residence is a bit on the expensive side. Exploring this amazing abode will run you as much as 850 yen. While definitely pricey, trust me when I say that the experience is more than worth it. You’ll find the facility here, not too far away from the famed Higashiyama Onsen area.

Aizu-Wakamatsu’s Tsuruga Castle

Cherry blossom petals flutter about in front of Aizu-Wakamatsu’s Tsuraga Castle

No mention of Aizu-Wakamatsu would be complete without introducing Tsuruga Castle. Formerly the seat of power for the entire region, this mighty fortress was destroyed in the concluding conflict of the Boshin War. Unlike many other structures that were torn down by imperial decree at the start of the Meiji period (1868–1912), Tsuruga Castle went out in a blaze of glory. The stronghold was later remade in the 1960’s as a concrete reconstruction. For the price of a few hundred yen, visitors can venture inside. Much in the same vein as Osaka Castle and other remakes, the interior of Tsuruga Castle has been transformed into a museum.

You’ll find Tsuruga Castle within the confines of a Tsuruga Castle Park (here’s a Google Map link in case you can’t locate it). This wide open green space sports some well-tended lawns that give the grounds a peaceful vibe. That said, know that Tsuruga Castle Park is at its best in mid- April when its many cherry trees reach their full bloom. When exploring Tsuruga Castle Park, be sure not to skip out on the Rinkaku Teahouse. In the days of yore, this hut used to be where the lords of Tsuruga Castle would enjoy the traditional tea ceremony.

While not technically located within the confines of Tsuruga Castle Park, note that the Fukushima Prefectural Museum is also nearby. This scholarly facility documents the entire history of Fukushima from as far back as Japan’s Jomon period (14,000 BCE — 1,000 BCE). Sadly, many of the exhibits are presented in Japanese only and consequently foreign tourists will miss much of the nuance. Still, you can request a thoroughly-done English pamphlet when purchasing a ticket. Although the brochure does not cover all the details, it will help you gather the gist of the curation.

Aizu-Wakamatsu’s Neighbor Ouchijuku

The former post town of Ouchijuku near Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture

This former post town lies on the Aizu-Nishi Kaido that once connected the area of Aizu-Wakamatsu with Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture. Located roughly twenty kilometers to the south of central Aizu-Wakamatsu, a visit to Ouchijuku will necessitate an additional half day. To get there, you’ll first need to take a train to Yunokami Onsen Station. From there, the former post town can be reached via shuttle bus or by taxi. Note that the buses only run from April to November. Should you visit in winter, you’ll have no recourse other than to fork over 2,000 yen each way for a taxi.

What makes Ouchijuku worth visiting is that the town has been restored to look exactly as it did during the Edo period (1603–1868). On either side of the unpaved main road, you’ll find thatched roof buildings that house a number of shops and eateries. At least as far as I’m concerned, the following is a list of must-do’s while in Ouchijuku…

  • Ouchijuku’s Honjin
    Located about halfway down the main street lining Ouchijuku, you’ll find the post town’s honjin. In the days of yesteryear, this wooden building served as an inn for high ranking samurai and other notable officials. Today, the honjin is a museum that features a fully functional irori hearth.
  • Eat Some Negi Soba
    One of the rules that I try to always follow when traveling is to eat the f@$#ing meibutsu (local specialities). At Ouchijuku, this is Negi Soba. As the name suggests, this is a bowl of soba but instead of using chopsticks, you’ll consume the noodles with a leek-like negi.
  • Shoho-ji’s View Point
    At the far end of Ouchijuku’s main street, you’ll encounter a temple called Shoho-ji. If you ascend its stone staircase, you’ll be greeted with the panoramic view of Ouchijuku pictured above.
  • Takakura Shrine
    Found about five minutes away from Ouchijuku, this rustic little shrine is a lovely addition to a visit to the former post town. Set against the backdrop of a collection of cedars, Takakura Shrine has a particularly pleasant atmosphere to it.

Also of note on the way to, or from, Ouchijuku sits Ashinomaki Onsen Station. What makes this rural train stop extraordinary is that its stationmaster is not a human being but a cat. Yes you read that right. The head honcho at Ashinomaki Onsen Station is indeed a feline. #OnlyInJapan

Attractions Near Aizu-Wakamatsu

Mt. Bandai near Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture

As you might imagine, this rural part of Fukushima Prefecture is home to some amazing natural vistas. Much of this terrain is centered around Mt. Bandai and the surrounding peaks. Here, you’ll find all sorts of options for outdoor fun such as hiking and whatnot. The pond dotted highlands behind Mt. Bandai, as well as the charming Lake Inawashiro (pictured above), are particularly charming regardless of the season.

Back in the more urban parts of Aizu-Wakamatsu, there are also a number of other allures to check out should you not be an outdoorsy type. Here are some of my recommendations. I’ll include links to Google Maps as I often do to help you get your bearings.

  • Higashiyama Onsen
    Located on foot approximately ten minutes from the samurai residence, this hot spring town is often hailed as one of the best in northern Japan. Nestled in a valley to the east of central Aizu-Wakamatsu, Higashiyama Onsen’s ryokans are the perfect location to spend the night before heading off to Ouchijuku on the following day.
  • Suehiro Sake Brewery
    Considered to be one of the top sake producers in all Japan, this brewery can be found a short distance from Tsuruga Castle. Founded as far back as the year 1850, this brewery is the official sake supplier of Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. The facility is open to visitors and guided tours are held every half- hour.
  • Aizu’s Shinsengumi Museum
    This tiny shop features a curation dedicated to the legendary Shinsengumi police force. Housed in a century-old warehouse, this museum is definitely something that appeals to hardcore Japanese history fanatics like myself. Entry to the shop is free but you’ll need to fork over a few hundred yen to view the artifacts on exhibit.

Until next time travelers…