There is no shortage of beautiful places to visit in Japan, and while I absolutely adored visiting more popular destinations like Nara and Kyoto, some of my favorite trips were to places a little off the beaten path. Today I’d like to share with you a day trip I took around historical Aizu-Wakamatsu located in the gorgeous scenic prefecture of Fukushima.
Located southwest of Fukushima city, Aizu-Wakamatsu strikes the delicate balance between having the amenities typical of a larger city and still being close to the countryside. In fact, after starting the morning off with a quick convenience store breakfast, the countryside was actually my first destination for the day. Roughly forty minutes to the south (18 miles or so), the preserved Edo-era trading post of Ouchijuku stands as a monument to the important trade routes north of Tokyo. The trading post itself is relatively small, consisting of a single main street on a gradual incline with traditional thatched buildings on both sides. When I visited, the shops were a combination of local specialty goods, craftspeople selling their works, restaurants, and tourist-focused stores. The area is absolutely beautiful and as you progress up the path, you are greeted by views of the local shrines and temple. Make sure to keep going, though! Look for a narrow staircase going up the hill – this will lead you to the observation deck where you can take in the entire view of Ouchijuku all at once. On your way back down, be sure to stop for some local soba noodles, or try the delicious ice cream at an open-air cafe. If you aren’t the driver, you can even stop for a sampling of local sake!
Alas, though I would’ve loved to linger and enjoy some snacks, the next stop on my trip was back in Aizu-Wakamatsu proper. No trip to such a historic city would be complete without visiting the local castle, Tsuruga-jo. Like many castles in Japan, it was rebuilt in the 1960s after being burned down. Nowadays, the castle acts as a museum dedicated to the history of Aizu-Wakamatsu. Also on the grounds is the Rinkaku Tea House. You can buy a ticket to enter the tea house when you get your ticket to the museum, which I highly recommend. Weather permitting, you can sit out and enjoy freshly made green tea with a stunning view of the castle in the background. On your way out of the castle, you’ll also pass through a gift shop. While you will find a lot of the usual souvenirs, if you look keenly, you can also buy small crafts made in the traditional lacquerware style of Aizu. While not cheap, such lacquerware is truly unique to Aizu-Wakamatsu!
After finishing up at the castle, there is one last stop to visit before dinner. For those who enjoy artistic architecture, there is a must-visit location to see in Aizu-Wakamatsu! In town, you can visit Iimoriyama, a short mountain on the east side of town. There is limited parking, though there is a small lot where you can park for free provided you buy something from one of the local shops on the way up the mountain (perhaps an Akabeko?). It is possible to walk up the mountain, or – if your knees are in as bad a shape as mine – buy a ticket for the conveyor belt to the top. At the top, you can visit Byakkotai Memorial Hall and Museum and the Sazaedo Pagoda. While relatively short, you can pay a small fee to enter and climb the pagoda and view the unique spiraling shape of the building up close!
At this point in a day full of walking and exploring, I was definitely ready for dinner. While there are plenty of restaurants to go to in Aizu-Wakamatsu, one really stood out to me. Aizu is famous for a style of cooking called wappa-meshi, which cooks seasonal ingredients inside bamboo boxes. Takino, a traditional restaurant with a 50-year history, has perfected and elevated wappa-meshi. Regardless of what you order, make sure to add on their kozuyu, a traditional soup of the Aizu region.
Despite being less known than other destinations, Aizu-Wakamatsu is a fantastic getaway. Should you find yourself north of Tokyo, visiting Fukushima prefecture is an amazing way to explore Japan and help support the recovering region!
About the author:
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!