Exploring Aizu: From Samurai of the Past to Friendly Locals of the Present Part 2
January 31, 2018
After breakfast the next morning I reluctantly packed my suitcase and checked out. When I asked the staff for a ride back down the mountain to the Higashiyama Onsen bus stop, they took me in their van immediately.
I caught an Akabe (clockwise) bus to my next hotel, another ryokan called Tagoto, to drop off my suitcase. Tagoto is located in town, within walking distance of both Aizu-Wakamatsu station and Nanukamachi Street, one of the main drags.
From Tagoto I walked to Machikata Denshokan, a gift shop with a gallery on the second floor, which also rents electric-assisted bicycles for the day (1500 yen). Reservations are essential, because only a few bicycles are available for rent. With my new wheels I headed west along Nanukamachi Street until the buildings gave way to rice fields and apple orchards, but the cold weather soon chilled my enthusiasm for the outdoors, and I made my way back to Yui, a restaurant serving traditional Aizu food, for lunch.
Entrance to Tagoto
Nanukamachi Sabo Yui
Yui’s specialty is tofu-mochi, a local dish created in the hills near Inawashiro Lake to the north, in the small town of Minato. With only three tables, this tiny restaurant fills up quickly (it’s popular with locals as well as tourists) and it’s best to make reservations. Because of the limited seating, I recommend offering to share your table with other diners if there’s only a couple people in your group. Nevertheless, I think any inconvenience in this regard is worth it. The tofu-mochi was a delicious surprise to my mouth, and I look forward to returning to Yui to enjoy it again.
Budget: about 1000 – 2000 yen for lunch
Nanukamachi Sabo Yui, tofu-mochi restaurant
The chefs at Yui (owner right)
Cafe Taro (Taroyaki Honpo)
Taroyaki Honpo, or simply Cafe Taro, is a cafe situated on Nanukamachi Street that serves a yummy anko (red bean paste) filled donut with ice cream. I ordered the set (500 yen) which comes with coffee or other drink. When I visited (on a weekday afternoon) there were only a couple other people inside, but with its casual, retro vibe, I could imagine this cafe filled with university students studying, townspeople reading, and folks from all walks of life enjoying a break or chance to catch up on gossip.
First-floor seating at Cafe Taro
Taroyaki and coffee
Cafe Taro’s owner
Tagoto doesn’t have a natural onsen, but it does serve an amazing array of traditional Aizu food, and is a great lunch option even if you are not staying with them. The Tagoto staff were all super friendly and accommodating. They asked me when I wished to take a bath; they schedule guests at different times, and you have the bath all to yourself (for up to an hour). The bath was plain, but nice. Like Harataki, the rooms at Tagoto are all Japanese style with tatami floors and futons to sleep in, and I was very comfortable.
On my last day in Aizu I went window-shopping at two large lacquerware shops in town: Suzuki Yarihei and Suzuzen Lacquerware. Both sell exceptionally beautiful pieces of lacquerware, one of Aizu’s local industries. Suzuzen felt like a museum, but with friendly staff. Suzuki Yarihei had a lot of other items besides lacquerware, and the owner there was friendly as well.
Lacquerware for sale at Suzuzen
A Japanese tansu at Suzuzen
This burger restaurant in downtown Aizu-Wakamatsu, situated along Nanukamachi Street, serves big burgers in a fun atmosphere: Rubik’s cubes and Pop-up Pirate games serve as centerpieces for the long dining table, classic vinyl album covers decorate the walls, and yes, there are lots of smiley faces. You can order burgers with one to three patties and quite a variety of toppings. I opted to try the burger with slices of renkon, or lotus root, and I give it points for originality and extra crunch. With English-speaking staff, a friendly vibe, and lots of delicious burgers to choose from, I can wholeheartedly recommend Lucky Smile as a place that will put a – you know – grin on your face.
At 1:30pm I was due at a shop called Jiyu-an for a crafts workshop. A few minutes’ walk from Aizu-Wakamatsu station, Jiyu-an is run by Obara-san, a master artisan who has won numerous awards for her carvings of Japanese characters. For only 2,500 yen, she teaches you how to carve a name seal, the kind used all over Japan in place of signatures. To start with you need to decide on the characters to carve, and before my arrival she had written out two pre-modern Chinese characters that spell my name phonetically. Although the small size of the seal block requires very fine movements to carve, she showed me a paper covered in different stamps. “These seals were all made by kids I helped.” And despite my carving knife not always doing what I wanted it to, she was kind enough to praise my finished work. “The imperfections give it character!” And with that she placed my seal in a beautiful embroidered case and sent me on my way.
It was the perfect end to my time in Aizu.
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.