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Aizu

Japan's Pride of Samurai Culture & Nature in Tohoku

Streets Dating Back to Edo Period:Samurai Culture

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A business establishment thriving since the Meiji period (1868-1912). You can enjoy local cuisine here, and may come upon local people dressed as samurai.

Aizu, an inland area of Fukushima Prefecture in the Tohoku (northeastern) region of Japan, retains precious legacies of "old Japan": a postcard-perfect Japanese-style feudal castle, streets with the authentic look and feel of the Edo period (1603-1867), and the rustic ways of life of local people. The scenic beauty of Aizu is the area's other big attraction. There are abundant hot spring spas as well as mountains and nearly 300 lakes, including the Goshiki-numa (five-colored) lakes. Getting to Aizu is easy too, as it takes just three hours to get there by train from Tokyo. Although Japan is a big industrial power, nowadays possibly best known for its auto manufacturing industry, Aizu presents "another face of Japan."

Mt. Bandai & Colorful Lakes of Goshiki-numa

Aizu has two well-known physical features. One is volcanic Mt. Bandai, rising 1,816 meters above sea level. It boasted a beautiful line of mountain ridges in the past, but an eruption in 1888 caused a portion to collapse. The mountain now comprises four peaks. The eruption also created nearly 300 lakes around an 800-meter-high plateau beneath the mountain. Today, it is one of the best tourist spots in Japan.

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Mt. Bandai, rising 1,816 meters above sea level, is a symbol of Aizu. Its eruption in 1888 created a group of lakes, including the Goshiki-numa lakes. (Photo courtesy of Urabandai Tourist Association)

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In the lake district, the Goshiki-numa lakes never fail to charm visitors. Goshiki-numa refers to a group of 40-some large and small lakes in an area surrounded by Lake Hibara, Lake Onogawa and Lake Akimoto. You can enjoy the whole area in a leisurely one-hour walk.

Following the path, you are surrounded by the singing of cuckoo birds and bush warblers among the trees and suddenly come upon the vista of a dozen lakes. Some are emerald green, others brownish red, cobalt blue and other hues and colors. It's said the lake surfaces have different colors owing to the various minerals produced by the eruption, which then dissolved in the water. Other factors, such as the angle of reflected sunlight and the impact of aquatic plants, also contribute to the kaleidoscope of colors. Lake Bishamon, only a five-minute walk from the path's starting point, is the largest of the Goshiki-numa lakes. Here you can enjoy a row-boat ride on the cobalt blue water -- and from Lake Bishamon see the magnificent volcanic crater of Mt. Bandai right in front of you, just beyond the lakes. Everyone should see this view at least once in their lifetime!

Wakamatsu Castle: Pride of Samurai

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Wakamatsu Castle is one of the most admired -- and photographed -- castles in Japan because of its beautiful style. (Photo courtesy of Aizu-wakamatsu Tourist and Product Association)

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Wakamatsu Castle, in Aizu-wakamatsu City, is another Aizu landmark. The castle was the bastion of samurai (warriors) in the Edo period. The castle, with its five-story tower, is surrounded by cherry blossoms in the spring. In the summer, its white walls reflect the young green leaves of trees. And in the autumn, the brilliant yellow leaves of the surrounding ginko trees and scarlet red of maple trees wrap the castle in breathtaking color. Still some say this magnificent castle is most spectacular when viewed through falling snow. Up close, it is truly grand.

Inside its doors, you will find an exhibition of historical materials as well as armor and helmets worn by samurai when they went to war. It is an excellent place to get to know the life of samurai and the history of Japan.

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A picture candle is a local folkcraft article of Aizu. It's adorned with a picture of colorful flowers.

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In the center of Aizu-wakamatsu City, you will find museums converted from traditional Japanese storehouses dating back to the Edo period, and Western-style buildings dating from the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods. There are also gift shops and eating places. And on the streets, you may come upon "samurai." There are no samurai in modern Japan, of course. But here, you'll see people clad in old samurai gear in tourist areas where great effort is made to recreate Japan as it was centuries ago. And these samurai are camera-friendly. You can take pictures with them.

Visitors will also find exquisite craft items for sale. Aizu produces Aizu lacquerware, which is one of Japan's traditional folkcraft products. Other "truly Japanese" gift items include Aizu lacquerware accessories and traditional Japanese candles adorned with images of colorful flowers. Milky-white Aizu "picture candles" are made of the wax of urushi (lacquer) tree nuts, then decorated with colorful images of the blossoms of plum trees or peonies. The candles are produced even today by dipping the wick, which is made by wrapping Japanese washi paper with rush plant, repeatedly into wax. During the Edo period, these exquisite items were used as offerings to those in power, and at Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines.

Old Town of Ouchijuku

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A street in Ouchijuku with rows of old traditional Japanese houses with thatched roofs. You can experience what it was like at a post station in old Japan. (Photo courtesy of Ouchijuku Tourist Association)

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Ouchijuku, about an hour's car ride from Wakamatsu Castle, is a town with a street that makes you feel as if you really have been transported back in time to the Edo period. Ouchijuku was once a post station -- a place to relax and recuperate -- along the politically and economically important highway that connected Aizu and Edo (now Tokyo) by the shortest route.

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"Negi-soba", also known as "Takato buckwheat noodles," is a local delicacy at Ouchijuku.

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Grilled fish from local rivers go well with noodles.

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Today, Ouchijuku features a 450-meter-long street lined on both sides with traditional thatched-roof buildings, meticulously recreating the look and feel of Ouchijuku's storied past. The town warmly welcomes visitors, and offers a level of authenticity which surprises even many Japanese tourists. For example, the "negi-soba" (buckwheat noodles with leek) served here is eaten with a thick leek instead of chopsticks. This local dish is garnished with grated radish and dried bonito flakes. When you eat this dish, scooping noodles with a leek, the pungent, yet sweet, taste of grated radish fills your mouth.


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"Akabeko", a local mascot of Aizu. It is beloved as a charm to keep evil spirits away or ensure the safe delivery of babies.

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"Akabeko", a local toy in the Aizu region, is also a very popular souvenir. It is a papier-mache red cow or bull, as "beko" in the local dialect means cow or bull, and "aka" in Japanese means red. Since ancient times, the color red has been believed to keep away evil spirits. When you touch the humorous face of the beko, it sways up and down and from side to side in an amusing way.


Hot Springs & Japanese Cuisine

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The Higashiyama hot springs are said to have been discovered about 1,300 years ago. At inns such as this, you can gaze at star-filled skies while soaking in an outdoor bath. (Photo courtesy of Shosuke-no-yado, Takinoyu)

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If you are tired from walking, you can visit the Higashiyama hot spring spa, with a history stretching back 1,300 years. It is only a 10-minute car ride from the center of Aizu-wakamatsu City. There you can soak in hot spring water pools at one of the many Japanese inns along the river.

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From an inn guest room, you can enjoy the beauty of nature.

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From the guest rooms of these inns, you can look out on the river and surrounding scenery and enjoy the area's natural beauty year round. Soaking in an outdoor bath, you can listen to the murmuring of the stream or gaze at the star-filled sky. This is a true Japanese resort. At mealtime, you'll be served river fish such as char or masu (trout), vegetables and meat, all from local sources. You can also try sushi with meat toppings. In the Higashiyama hot spring village, there is a beautiful inn with its own Noh stage, which you seldom find at other inns. (Noh is a traditional Japanese theatrical art.)

In Aizu, you can enjoy the history and culture of old Japan as well as magnificent natural scenery such as Mt. Bandai and the Goshiki-numa lakes. Aizu is a place all Japanese wish to visit at least once in their lives.


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A Japanese kaiseki dinner prepared with river fish and other local ingredients. (Photo courtesy of Shosuke-no-yado, Takinoyu)
Sushi with toppings of three types of meat. (Photo courtesy of Shosuke-no-yado,
Takinoyu)
At Higashiyama hot springs, one inn has a Noh stage by the ravine, where dances are performed and old tales narrated.

(July 2012)

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