Exploring Aizu: From Samurai of the Past to Friendly Locals of the Present Part 1
January 31, 2018
My end destination was the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, sometimes spelled Aizuwakamatsu, which is reachable from Tokyo in about half a day by taking a combination of Shinkansen and local trains. If you have a JR rail pass, take advantage of it by using the Shinkansen as far as Koriyama, the nearest Shinkansen stop to Aizu.
Instead of taking “the Shink” I rode a Tobu express train from Asakusa, leaving in the afternoon and stopping overnight in Nikko, famous for Toshogu Shrine (Tokugawa Ieyasu’s final resting place) and many other important shrines and temples. Since Nikko is on the way to Aizu from Tokyo, combining the two would make a lot of sense for first-time Japan visitors.
Instead of seeing the sights in Nikko, however, the next morning I left my hotel early and was on a Tobu train at 7:46am. The early departure proved to be an excellent idea, because it gave me lots of time to enjoy the Aizu countryside en route and even soak in an onsen hot spring overlooking the river (more on that later).
Staying in Nikko before heading on to Aizu does require changing trains at Shimo-Imaichi station, just a few minutes south of Tobu-Nikko station, and there are a few things to watch out for. First of all, buy a paper ticket for your destination at Tobu-Nikko station. Secondly, the “Revaty” express leaves Shimo-Imaichi station from a different platform, and you must board one of the first two cars (at the front of the train) – the rear cars split off and you’ll end up somewhere else otherwise.
After traveling through miles of steep hills painted red and gold and stopping often at stations with “onsen” in the name, we arrived at the transfer point, Aizu-Tajima station. Leaving the express, I walked across the tracks with most of the other passengers and boarded a single-car train with both tourists and students.
Board the front of the Revaty train (shown top, with “R.AIZU”)
I disembarked at Yunokami Onsen station, the center of a small onsen town that also serves as a transfer point for visitors going to Ouchijuku by bus. It’s a tiny, delightful station where you have to cross the tracks (with no crossing gate) to reach the exit when traveling northbound. The maples were in lovely color, but even more picturesque was the station building itself, which features a traditional Japanese hearth, called irori. The irori at Yunokami Onsen station is lit during all but the hottest months of the year, and in addition to providing a warm place for travelers to sit around while waiting for their train, the smoke keeps the traditional thatched roof of the station building dry and free of mildew.
There is a little store with various omiyage, mostly pickled or otherwise preserved foods, but also puffed rice cakes, rice crackers, and cookies in cute boxes. They also sell traditional Aizu folkcraft called okiagari-ningyo and Akabekko dolls.
The ticket “gate” at Yunokami Onsen station
Irori hearth at Yunokami Onsen station
Onsen at Hotel Ōshima
The purpose of my stop here was to check out the hot springs open to day trippers at Hotel Ōshima. Just a minute’s walk down the hill from the station, Hotel Ōshima doesn’t look like much from the outside, but opposite the hotel itself is a small wooden building with the onsen. When I visited on a weekday the hotel wasn’t busy and the bath was unoccupied, but I found out it’s a good idea to call ahead and reserve an hour time slot for the bath – if there’s a tour group or other guests using the bath, you’d either have to wait, throwing off your travel plans, or possibly not be able to enjoy the onsen at all.
Nevertheless, having to book ahead is a small price to pay for pure bliss. 60 minutes of onsen time overlooking the turquoise river below and red, green and golden hills towering above – all to oneself or one’s family – for 500 yen. Japan’s countryside at its best.
A couple notes regarding the onsen at Hotel Ōshima:
- Bring your own towel if you can. They might rent you a towel; if not, air-dry.
- You’ll need to pay cash at the hotel reception. English was not spoken.
The onsen building at Hotel Ōshima
Indoor hot spring bath at Hotel Ōshima
View from the outdoor bath
After my soak I walked back up to the station and asked for a ticket to Aizu-Wakamatsu on the Ozatoro train. This special train has three types of cars connected together: an old-fashioned “trolley” style car called torokko, with open windows in the warmer months; a car with Japanese-style seating on cushions instead of regular seats,; and an “observation car” with a raised floor and reclining seats, for enjoyed the scenery in comfort. The station attendant asked me which car I wanted, but subsequently told me the seats weren’t actually reserved and I could move between the cars as I liked.
After boarding the Ozatoro I discovered that the zashiki (Japanese-style seating) car was crowded with a tour group of seniors, and I immediately understood the appeal: without row after row of chair backs, you have a completely unobstructed view out the huge windows. Sitting around the tables, chatting with your family or friends, would be just like sitting around a Japanese dining table at home, except with the beautiful Aizu countryside going by in Ultra HD.
A ticket on the Ozatoro train costs an extra 310 yen. Souvenirs are available for purchase directly on the train.
The Ozatoro train
Zashiki car on the Ozatoro train
View from the train
Souvenirs available on the Ozatoro
I was scheduled to visit both Tsuruga Castle and Oyakuen Garden the afternoon of my arrival in the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, and finding myself short on time I bought a couple onigiri rice balls from the small New Days shop inside the station and headed off to the bus terminal.
The sightseeing buses in Aizu-Wakamatsu have two names, depending on the direction they’re headed. Buses following the loop clockwise are called Akabe, and ones going counter-clockwise are called Haikara-san. The pamphlet I received from the tourist information center said the former were red and the latter green, but the first Haikara-san bus I rode was red.
Tsuruga Castle’s main tower was torn down by the Meiji government in the late 19th century, but a reproduction was constructed in the 1960s and stands testament to the Aizu area’s importance during the Warring States period. Don’t overlook the stonework of the castle’s walls, either – these walls have been standing for centuries and show the immense effort that went into defense.
After climbing the steps to enter the tower you find yourself in the castle’s salt storehouse, or shiogura. Castle towers in Japan were not used for living quarters, but rather for storing precious goods and weapons. Only when under attack would the daimyo and his samurai warriors remove to the towers.
The floors above the salt storehouse are filled with artifacts, including samurai swords and reproductions of kabuto helmets and armor. From the top floor you can look out at the city and the surrounding mountains in all directions.
I ran into one gotcha: at the ticket counter I told the lady, “One,” and without asking any questions she gave me a 510-yen ticket for entrance to both the castle tower and the tea garden, 100 yen more than a ticket to the tower only. So beware when not speaking Japanese!
Historical information in the “museum” is mostly in English as well as Japanese. Although translations don’t cover 100% of the information, it’s more than sufficient to develop a good understanding of the people and events of the period, and history buffs could likely spend an hour digesting everything.
Fall colors at Tsuruga Castle
Tsuruga Castle’s main tower seen from the east
Oyakuen originated as a traditional Japanese garden for the feudal lords living in Aizu. Having indulged in photography a bit too much at the castle, I arrived at Oyakuen Garden just after 4pm, and unfortunately missed the opportunity to enjoy a cup of matcha while viewing the garden. I did enjoy the red and yellow colors of the Japanese maples and gingkos contrasted against the darkening sky and pond as I walked the loop. The garden is nice, and would be a great place to pause in a busy schedule.
I walked back out to the bus stop to wait for the Haikara-san bus as dusk fell. There was a bit of a wait past the scheduled time but nothing unreasonable. Before long I was at the furthest point toward Higashiyama Onsen traveled by the bus. After disembarking at the Higashiyama Onsen stop I used my mobile to call the hotel, a ryokan called Harataki. A few minutes later the hotel van came rumbling out of the dark to pick me up, and I knew my request in English had been understood.
The entrance to Oyakuen garden
Along the path inside Oyakuen
The Higashiyama Onsen bus stop
My stay at Harataki included both dinner and breakfast, and each meal consisted of kaiseki-style dishes and access to the buffet, a combination guaranteed to leave you satisfied.
Harataki is an onsen ryokan with both indoor and outdoor hot spring baths. I opted to write and relax before dinner at 6:30, and visited the baths afterwards, from about 8. This turned out to be an ideal choice, because ninety per cent of the other guests were Japanese seniors who apparently all took their baths before dinner (the more traditional schedule), and I had the entire bathing area to myself, a good three-quarters of an hour without another soul.
The shower area and indoor bath were spacious, with large windows looking out onto the trees lining the riverbanks below. The indoor bath was the perfect temperature but rather unremarkable for a Japanese onsen bath. The real treat is the rotenburo, the outdoor bath perched on a short cliff above the river, with a view of the whitewater rushing down from the rocks and Japanese maples lit up in the darkness. The cool wind rustled the trees and it would have been freezing if not for the hot spring. The perception of isolation and roar of the river waterfall, combined with beautiful fall foliage, was stunningly beautiful.
My room at Harataki ryokan
Originally from San Jose, California, Kevin has trekked, hitchhiked, camped, and traveled by bus and rail from Yakushima to Hokkaido. Nowadays he raises a family in Tokyo while dreaming of new adventures.