DAY 3 Aizu-Wakamatsu to Nikko
Fukushima’s castle town, Aizu-Wakamatsu is a place postcards were made for. The distinctive red-and-white Tsurugajo Castle was rebuilt in 1965, with the exterior recreated in the style of the period and the interior turned into a museum. It stays true to its original architecture, inside and out. It’s one of the final strongholds of samurai that remained loyal to the shogunate, and today stands as a symbol of courage and faithfulness.
Learn more in the tower’s museum, where swords and armour of the castle’s successive lords are on display. Or head to the fifth floor where the viewing platform offers panoramic views to Mt Iimoriyama, your next destination.
The mountain’s beauty belies a somewhat sombre past, remembered in temples, shrines – and gravesites, 19 of them at the summit marking 19 teenage Byakkotai, White Tiger Corps samurai-in-the-making who committed suicide here during the 1868 civil war.
It’s a place for quiet contemplation. And snacking – grab treats from the stalls at the base of the mountain before your ascent: hike up the 183 steps to the summit for free, or pay 250 yen to ride the escalator up. Be sure to linger at Sazaedo Buddhist temple, crafted from wood in a distinctive shape similar to the shell of a horned turban.
In need of refreshments? You’ve come to the right place. Historic Suehiro Sake Brewery has been fermenting Japan’s national rice drink since the mid-19th century. You can tour the site from May through October to glimpse behind-the-scenes action, while tastings are available year-round. Steel yourself – there are up to 10 varieties of sake to sample. The on-site café brews coffee using water normally reserved for making sake, and sake is also infused in cakes here.
Save room for lunch at Restaurant Kontsh, one of the city’s newest restaurants, but housed in a handsome 120-year-old building that nods to the arts – it was once a lacquerware store. Today it dishes up innovative vegan cuisine, with a Japanese twist.
Both the brewery and restaurant are in the vicinity of Nanokamachi-dori Street, a quaint shopping street with an olde-world atmosphere. The impressive collection of Japanese-style storehouses and wooden townhouses are fitted with boutiques selling lacquerware and momen (cotton made in the Aizu area).
When you’ve had your fix of retail therapy, it’s time for another Japan travel highlight: a ride south on the Ozatoro-Tembo sightseeing train. This journey is all about the scenery, and your ride pauses at lookouts along the way so passengers can take in the view and snap a photo or two.
While travelling through the tunnels, the trolley seats (first or last depending on the destination), are dark and are treated to ‘trolley theatre’: videos project onto the walls of the tunnel; another carriage has tatami mats and sunken tables. And then there are the stations – one has a cat as a stationmaster, another is an old-style Japanese building with a thatched roof.
Alight in Nikko at Yunishigawa Onsen Station, the gateway to a small town in a remote valley. Your base for the night is Taira no Takafusa ryokan; arriving here is rather spectacular thanks to the inn’s huge illuminated gate and steam billowing from the bathing area. The outdoor rotenburo onsen baths are a dreamy place to bathe surrounded by snow, and there are also private baths that can be booked for a soak.
When your limbs are sufficiently subtle, enjoy dinner at the on-site restaurant, where each dining group has a irori (hearth) to cook river fish and yams.