Aizu: Delicious Food and Tradition in Deep Japan Part 1
January 31, 2018
A native of France, Jean-paul sent us this detailed report of his travels to Aizu, following a three-night itinerary. Jean-paul’s English has been edited for clarity, but be sure to read with a French accent.
I departed from Asakusa Tobu train station on an afternoon in November. It was 1h 50 min aboard a new train (Tobu Limited Express SPACIA Kegon) perfectly designed to give you maximum comfort and space during your trip. The train ticket price is not expensive, but you have to care about a seat reservation.
Arriving in Tobu-Nikko station is easy after a relaxing trip. The tourism office in the station was very busy, with lots of foreigners asking for information. This station has a little countryside flavor, well designed between tradition and modernity with an elegant façade.
I stayed the night at Nikko Station Hotel Classic, which is very close to the station, a 2 min walk. A comfortable hotel with all commodities, a clean, medium-size room, and large bathroom. A safe deposit box and electronic keycard ensure your security. The hotel desk staff are all English speakers, and the atmosphere was very quiet.
On the first floor, you can find two small onsen baths, one for ladies and one for men. You can find also a souvenir shop and two comfortable restaurants with local or occidental cuisine. The breakfast buffet is great, held in the big restaurant hall with very clear, large windows. This breakfast buffet is full of choice from Japanese style to cafe croissant a la francaise or other western style.
Near the hotel you can find a big omiyage (souvenir) shop, coffee shop, small restaurant and a big supermarket in case you want to buy food or drinks for your journey.
Leaving Tobu-Nikko station on my way to Aizu-wakamatsu, I started off on a small local train, sharing the travel with schoolboys, schoolgirls and local workers. You need to transfer at Shimo-Imaichi, a small station, and ask the station staff to be sure to get on the right train. They were very kind and directed me to the right place on the platform. This is important because the next train is in two parts – only the first two cars go to Aizu-Tajima, my destination.
The Tobu Tokkyu Revaty train, from Shimo-Imaichi, is another modern train similar to the train from Tokyo to Nikko. It was a very comfortable trip. Arriving in Aizu-tajima, a very small city, just transfer to another train. The station has a shop full of food and local handcrafts, so if you have time, it’s a nice place for buying salad dressing, sauce, soba pasta, sake or any kind of gift.
From Aizu-tajima to Aizu-wakamatsu, the train is another very small, one-car train. This train takes you deep through the countryside, with mountains, valleys, and rivers, crossing little villages. I think it’s best to have seats on the left side of the train to better see the beautiful views to the west.
When arriving at Aizu-wakamatsu, first check the tourist information center in the station. They can help you with sending luggage from the station to your hotel for example, or of course give you all information you need in English about the area.
Outside in front of the station is a small building – this is the bus ticket counter, for the special tourist bus line called Haikara-san and Akabe. It’s easy to recognize these buses by their vintage design. Haikara-san and Akabe buses can drive you to the most interesting places to visit in the city. A ticket for one trip is 210 yen, but it’s possible to buy a one-day pass for 500 yen.
During the ride in the bus, I realized that Aizu-wakamatsu seems to be a large city, but with no skyscrapers. Lots of houses are painted in white with large visible beams – this is the typical local style.
VISIT TO TSURUGA CASTLE
After around 10–15 min of bus travel I arrived at the stop for Tsuruga Castle. I thanked the driver who helped me to be sure to stop at the right station. As I walked toward the castle I stopped to admire the red leaves. The more I approached the castle, the more red leaves I saw around.
Before the castle is Tsurugajo Kaikan, a kind of big gift shop, with restaurants, a terrace, coffee shop, and with a very nice little waterfall with red, white, yellow and multicolor carp swimming. Nearby is a small temple (torii inari). Here I really could feel peace and quiet.
I walked along the street by the castle moat, and enjoyed the beauty of the big red leaves on the trees by the water bank. My first impression of the castle was the large, strong stones used to build the wall to protect the castle. According to the old map, the castle used to be quite big, but today only the tower is still here, transformed into an interesting museum.
The museum is dedicated to the story of the Aizu clan of samurai. I followed the story along five floors, looking at antique or replica dishes, furniture, katana, matchlock rifles, helmets, maps and manuscripts. Many battles destroyed a part of the castle, including this tower too, now rebuilt to be nearly identical. So, the tower’s white plaster wall is the Aizu tradition. The top of the tower offered me a fantastic view of the city and the mountains around.
Surrounding the tower is a nice big green area, like a garden, so I took time to walk around. I finished by the tower gift shop, where I found toys, souvenirs, photographs, tableware, and cotton fabrics like tenugui and handtowels. A visit to the castle requires about a total of one hour minimum.
The garden area of Tsuruga Castle
I returned to the bus stop by the same way, but before the bus stop, I stopped and enjoyed a traditional Aizu meal in a restaurant called Ni-no-maru. I had “Sauce Katsudon” with rice and soba (buckwheat noodles). Sauce Katsudon is a local recipe of tonkatsu, pork cutlets fried with breadcrumbs, over rice. In Aizu the breaded pork cutlets are dipped in a special Worcestershire-like sauce (called tonkatsu sauce) before serving over rice. The dish also came with slices of marinated pickles. I can recommend this restaurant for several reasons: the menu is available in English, it’s a very clean place, and you don’t have to wait long to be served. I enjoyed this traditional lunch very much.
After lunch I returned to the Haikara-san bus stop to wait for the next bus. (It’s better to pay attention to the bus timetable, because only one bus comes each 30 min.)
Sauce katsudon with soba, at Ni-no-maru restaurant
After arriving at the bus stop for Oyakuen garden, it’s important to look for a black sign with yellow kanji that points you in the right direction. By a small street I arrived in front of the garden.
View upon entering Oyakuen Garden
Oyakuen is an old garden, created around 1380. Its name, oyakuen, means garden of medicinal herbs, so it’s no surprise to discover part of the garden has around 400 medicinal herbs. The other part of the garden is a park where you can feel quiet, seasonal plant scenes, such as red leaves or sakura flowers.
Matcha and sesame cake at Oyakuen
A particular thing is the possibility to taste matcha tea with a sesame cake, absolutely traditional, which completed the Japanese garden feeling. This matcha tea and sesame cake cost 600 yen. Afterwards I finished the tour by the garden gift shop. In that shop, I enjoyed looking at a lot of herbal infusion recipes, including cookies, soba noodles, honey, and jam. I really enjoyed buying some sakura soba (buckweat noodles, with sakura cherry flower taste) and sakura honey too.
Oyakuen entrance fee: 320 yen
STAY AT A TRADITIONAL RYOKAN
I stayed at Ashina Hotel, which is what Japanese people call a Ryokan, a kind of auberge, an inn with maximum care from the staff. In Ashina the staff made such beautiful efforts to communicate with a non Japanese speaker. All is done for the guest’s comfort. This is Japanese comfort, which means the room is a large tatami room and the bed is futon, so you sleep on the floor (but it was very comfortable).
Tatami room at Ashina
One particularity is the room’s furniture was all vintage, so I felt like I was in another time.
Because Ashina has an onsen (a large public hot spring), there is no bath room in the room. So the hotel organizes private bath sessions for each room.
Ashina hotel, as many onsen ryokan, asks you to decide a particular time for your breakfast and dinner. At Ashina meals are served on the tatami in a dining room, seated on the floor, around a private irori, a kind of hearth where they grill or heat your meal. The menu is already decided, but you can arrange with them in case there is something you cannot eat.
Cooking on the irori
Traditional Aizu local food, mountain mushrooms, river fish, vegetables in salad, or steamed or marinated, grilled salmon and grilled beef. Another particularity is the raw horse meat, served as sashimi, with soy sauce, garlic and ginger. This was delicious.
Of course white rice and rolled omelette are served with breakfast or lunch. This kind of meal is typical Japanese ryokan style. Excellent!
A rolled tamagoyaki omelette and miso soup
The onsen baths are separated for ladies and men (except private baths for a family). They offer a first room to keep your clothes, then inside the onsen bath there is a shower area, one hot spring water inside bath and another outside bath, with rocks to form a natural scene. Each bathing area has shampoo, conditioner and body soap, towels too.
It was a good and quiet night, and I felt warm and cosy under my futon.
Jean-paul Richard is a French teacher in Japan, where he has taught for 7 years. He is also a French cooking consultant and musician who tours all around Tokyo and other parts of the country. He likes culture and enjoys meeting new people and discovering new landscapes.