Summertime at the Fairytale Village of Shirakawa-go

It was a typical August day. The sound of cicadas filled the air and it was hot and humid like the build up to a summer storm. Only, I was not in Tokyo, or even remotely near any city for that matter. I had found myself deep in the mountains of northern Gifu Prefecture, at a place that very much looked straight out of a fairytale.  Continue reading “Summertime at the Fairytale Village of Shirakawa-go”

Vine Bridges of the Iya Valley

Has there ever been a place you’ve dreamed of going to for years? You’ve seen it in pictures, you’ve read about it, you’ve heard about it from other travellers… but you just haven’t been able to get there yourself. Continue reading “Vine Bridges of the Iya Valley”

Off the Beaten Path in Fukushima

Living in Tokyo, the public transportation system is so extensive and reliable that there really is no need to own a car. So these days when I travel around the country, I actually try my best to plan trips to places where you need a car! That’s how much I miss driving. Besides, who doesn’t love a road trip!? Not only does it let you do things at your own pace, but it gives you the chance to go where no trains or buses go. In other words, it gives you the chance to step off the beaten path. And that’s exactly what I did on a recent trip to Fukushima.

Day One – Exploring Aizu

We left Shinjuku Station on the 9am bus bound for Fukushima Prefecture. We made our way out of the metropolis, past farmlands, through mountains (literally), and deep into the countryside, before arriving at Aizu-Wakamatsu Station just after 1pm. The most well-known attraction in Aizu-Wakamatsu is Tsuruga Castle, and it seemed like the entire town was an extension of it. The streets were dotted with preserved warehouse-style buildings that you can see in many ancient castle towns in Japan. Even the train station and underpass entrances replicated the castle’s roof design. I felt like we’d stepped into an open-air museum or a movie set.

We decided to use the town’s hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus for the afternoon. The first stop was the castle for a history lesson. Many castles in Japan look similar, but one thing that makes Tsuruga-jo different to all the others is its red tile roof – which I imagine looks exceptionally beautiful when the 1,000 pink cherry blossoms trees surrounding it are in bloom. Aizu’s bloody history is also well known in Japan. During a 17-month civil war in the late 1800s called the Boshin War, there was a large group of teenage samurai in Aizu called the Byakkotai. After one battle in particular, 20 boys were separated from the rest of the clan and retreated to a nearby hill. From afar, they thought they saw the castle on fire and decided to commit seppuku (suicide for samurai) thinking the war had been lost. Sadly, the smoke they had seen was actually from a fire outside of the castle walls. 19 of the boys died, and one survived to tell their story. The tragedy has been adapted into novels, TV dramas and movies and their tombstones are visited by many people each year.

Our second stop for the afternoon was Higashiyama Onsen, a hot springs town located in the mountains just outside of Aizu. A river runs straight down the middle of the town, with ryokans lining each side. I’d read that this area was in need of some TLC and unfortunately those reviews weren’t wrong. It felt like an abandoned town for the most part, with ugly cables running along the water’s edge and the buildings looking old and worn. Further up the river, however, things were a little different. Wild flowers were everywhere, and the river felt more natural without the invasive concrete structures. The streets were clean and atmospheric and whole place felt peaceful. We chose a ryokan and soaked in a hot spring by the river. Bliss!

To end the day, we tracked down a Kitakata ramen restaurant. This is one of the most famous regional ramens in Japan, and is originally from Kitakata, the town next to Aizu. The noodles are thick, wavy and soft; and the soup is made using soy sauce. Delicious!

Day Two – Road Trip

On day two, we were up early to have some breakfast before going to pick up our rental car. We’d reserved the car from 9am to 6pm and weren’t going to waste a minute! From Aizu, we headed south to a place in the middle of nowhere called Ouchijuku. In the old days, Aizu was connected to Nikko via a trade route through the mountains. Along the route were a number of post towns like Ouchijuku where samurai, travellers and farmers could put their feet up and grab a bite to eat. Ouchijuku is especially picturesque because all of the houses feature thick thatched roofs, similar to those in the World Heritage Shirakawago, to protect the buildings from snow during winter.

Ouchijuku is fairly small and there is just one main street lined with houses, but I found it fascinating. I loved the traditional houses. I loved eating the local dishes – DELICIOUS tempura manju and very interesting Ouchijuku-style soba eaten with a long leek instead of chopsticks!! I loved all the colourful flowers blooming everywhere you looked – cherry blossoms, rapeseeds, tulips, snowbells. I loved talking to the local people who were so cheerful and friendly. Needless to say, I’d 100% recommend a visit if you ever get the chance!

From Ouchijuku, we headed further south to an even more remote place called To-no-hetsuri. We had happened to see this place on a local map earlier that day, and then were recommended to go there by some people we met at Ouchijuku, so we made a detour to go check it out. Over thousands of years, the river and wind have eroded the soft, white walls of the cliff to create some very unusual formations. Some gaps are so large that they have created caves that you can walk into. As usual in Japan, they have even built a shrine inside one of the caves. I loved the deep green-blue colour of the water, too. And with the bright green foliage up top, it made for an impressive sight.

On the road again, we travelled a couple hours north, around the huge Lake Inawashiro, into the forest between Mt Bandai and Mt Adatara, and down a lonely dirt track. We were very, very far from the beaten track, that’s for sure. From the car park, we walked through a few natural wooden torii gates and followed a shallow stream full of moss-covered rocks. Everywhere we looked, everything was green. Bright green. I could feel the negative ions swirling around us, purifying our pores and taking away any stress and worries.

We passed under one final torii before the gorgeous and graceful Tatsusawa-Fudo Falls came into view. I hear the autumn colours are stunning here, and in the winter, the waterfall freezes over. In summer, the weather is nice enough that you can walk behind/under the waterfall! During spring though, the water and air temperatures were still very cold, and we made do with admiring the waterfall from afar.

The sun was starting to set and eventually we pulled ourselves away and hit the road back to Aizu, making it back to the rental shop at 6pm on the dot. The following morning we caught the bus back to Tokyo, wrapping up our adventurous trip to Fukushima.

 

Hiking the Kiso Valley

Right in the centre of Japan is a very old highway spanning over 500km: Nakasendo. Between bustling villages, the road winds through misty woodlands, farmlands and valleys full of mossy rocks and waterfalls.

Nakasendo used to serve as the main road connecting Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo). In the Edo Period (1603-1867), samurai, government officials, peasants and pilgrims would frequent this route. There were 69 post towns between the two cities – 11 of these in the Kiso Valley. Many of the towns no longer exist, but since WWII a number have been restored to their original state as part of a preservation project. There are many sightseeing/hiking spots, and it’s common to drive the length of the road making pit stops at certain places along the way. My friend and I decided to do an 8 kilometre hiking trail that stretches from Tsumago in Nagano prefecture to Magome in Gifu prefecture. It was a completely spontaneous decision to go but it turned out to be one of my favourite trails in Japan!

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To hike this part of Nakasendo, you can start at either Tsumago or Magome. Although we started at Tsumago, I believe most people start at Magome because it has easier access from the train station. That, and it has more downhill sections so is a bit easier!

Walking down the streets of Tsumago, you feel like you’ve stepped through a time portal. Everything from the traditional wooden buildings to the lamp posts to the street signs, are a reminder of how things used to be. In restoring this town, they went as far as concealing all electricity wires, TVs and satellite dishes. And although the town looks like an open-air museum, the buildings are actually fully functional. Some are used as inns, souvenir shops and cafés!

Kiso Valley Kiso Valley

After soaking up all that history in Tsumago, it was time to hit the road. Once we passed through the township, we followed a road over the river and towards the forest. The scene changed dramatically once we were outside of the tourist area. The shops disappeared and were quickly replaced by agricultural fields and quaint country houses.

We noticed a few bells along the way. At first I thought they might have been like a shrine where you ring the bell and say a prayer. But actually the sign below them said to ring the bell to scare off bears! I wonder how often a bear is sighted here?! After the bear bell, we came across a rest stop manned by a really nice old guy. We had a chat with him and he gave us some delicious warm soup from this very traditional fire place which you see in old houses. At the Nagano/Gifu border, we stopped at another rest house to try escape the rain that was pouring down. I bought a few sticky rice cakes wrapped in leaves. I’m not the biggest fan of mochi, but I loved how they were presented! I bet travellers back in the Edo period would eat this to give them energy, too.

I imagine this road was once a lively, busy place. There are actually a few famous ukiyo prints that depict farmers herding their ox along the path, or peasants balancing woven baskets on a rod over their shoulders as they make their way between the towns.

But now, it’s a very different story. There are many sections of the trail where you literally feel like you’re the only person in the world (apart from your hiking partner). The woods are so peaceful; all you can hear are birds chirping, trees rustling in the winds, streams bubbling, and the occasional waterfall. The trail twists and turns through the valley. While some parts were steep and slippery in the wet weather, most of the trail was either gravel, bitumen, concrete, grasslands or forest floors.

It was a very do-able and well-marked hike and took us about 3 1/2 hours with a few rest stops due to the rain. The thing I loved most was how the trail passes through so many different types of landscape, rather than just going up and down a mountain. The scenery was always changing, but always beautiful!

Even though the weather wasn’t great, we did see a few other hikers every now and then. The ‘hiking spirit’ in Japan always makes me smile. In the city, nobody pays any attention to anyone else, but as soon as you hit the countryside, we all magically change and greet each other with こんにちは (hello) and sometimes even a 頑張って! (keep going!) during more difficult parts of the trail.

Kiso Valley