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.

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Spring

This post is in response to the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge. This week’s theme is “spring“.

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In Japan, without the cherry blossoms, it’s not spring.

As nature transforms, so do we. Spring draws us outside. It re-energises us. Every year, after gloomy winter, I feel a change in the air. Walking down the street, a warm breeze brushing over my cheeks, sunlight sparkling throughout the trees, it’s like a sense of liberation. It’s about ‘now’ – being in the moment – and appreciating the finer things in life. For me, that is being able to enjoy the amazing wonders of nature.

One of the most memorable cherry blossom trees I’ve seen was in Miharu, Fukushima. Known as takizakura, which means “waterfall cherry blossom”, it is a GIANT of a tree! It’s over 1,000 years old, and is about 12 metres high. I love the character of the tree. From a distance, it’s quite bold and majestic. It demands attention… and gets it! Up close, it really does feel like you’re standing under a waterfall of petals! Then there’s the trunk… twisted, layered and wrinkled. It definitely shows its age. If only the bark could speak, imagine what stories it could tell us!

Takizakura Takizakura Takizakura Takizakura

3/11 Quake: Living with Hope

March 11 was my one-month anniversary of moving to Japan! I was thrilled to be following my dream of living in Japan, and excited for the adventures to come! I had been in Nagoya for a few ‘orientation’ days with my new company, and then had spent two weeks in training in Gunma. The final step was moving to my placement city. I’d moved to Koriyama, in Fukushima Prefecture, on the previous Monday, 11 days prior.

That day, Friday, I was scheduled to teach late-afternoon classes, but since I was still new to the job, I wanted to get there a few hours early to prepare and chill before the students arrived. It was about a 20-minute walk from Sukagawa Station to the classroom. Around half way, there was a busy main road and the only way to cross it was via an underground pass. I had entered the underpass, and was just approaching the stairs to exit the other side when I suddenly felt a strange sensation.

At first, I thought it was a massive truck grumbling past on the road above. The walls shook and groaned. When it didn’t stop shaking, I quickly realised it was an earthquake. My brain instantly went into survival mode! For a split second, I wondered if I would be safer underground. I looked around me and immediately pictured the tiles on the walls flying off from the force of the quake and hitting me in the face. I needed to get out of there as soon as I could! I bolted up the stairs. As I reached the top and looked outside, the first feeling I had was panic. I was about to dash straight out onto the street, but happened to look up and see a towering electricity pole violently shaking back and forth. I pictured the lines coming down and electrocuting me. It was scary. I knew I couldn’t go back, so I cowered down and prayed it wouldn’t fall on me as I ran past. I made it safely to the other side of the pole (the whole 10 metres), but at that point, I didn’t know what to do. It was like trying to stand on a jiggling balancing board. I tried to keep walking, but it was impossible.

On the corner of the main road was a convenience store. I noticed the store workers had come outside to the parking lot and were crouched down in the open space. That looked like a pretty good idea to me! I crouched down, grabbing onto a nearby pole for support. This is where I would spend the next five or so minutes. I finally got the chance to take a good look around and realise what was going on around me. It was the countryside, so the area was not that built up; there were a number of residential houses in amongst car showrooms and commercial buildings. The cars that had stopped on the road were being shuffled around by the shaking ground. No one got out of their cars, and no one seemed to be panicking. Everyone just seemed to be waiting it out. I guess that helped me stay calm, too. But, the grumbling got stronger and stronger until it was a booming roar. It was deafening. The image that flashed into my mind was that the earth was the tummy of a monstrous giant, and his stomach was growling and rumbling with hunger pains! My knuckles were white from gripping so hard, but there was no way I was going to let go!

Then all of a sudden, it died down. All was quiet. Feeling completely frazzled and overwhelmed and not knowing whether to stay low or get moving, I decided my best bet would be to get to the classroom. Just as I stood up, though, Mother Nature decided she wasn’t done yet. The tremors returned, stronger and more vicious. I was forced to the ground and reached back for the pole. The violence of the quake was terrifying. I could only see a few people, and they were now screaming, sobbing, wide-eyed in panic, or clutching onto someone or something. Seeing this reaction by the locals, I realised this was no ordinary quake. I knew there were many earthquakes in Japan, but there was no way they could go through this on a regular basis. The shaking eventually stopped and an eerie calm fell over the streets.

As if not only the earth had been awakened from a deep slumber, but the heavens also decided to open its wings, sending down flurries of snow and freezing winds. Within seconds, blasting sirens turned the calm into chaos. I really thought the world was coming to an end. As I made my way to the classroom, I passed by burst water pipes, toppled brick walls, massive gaps in the bitumen, shattered glass. Inside shops, shelves had fallen over and what was on the shelves was strewn all over the floor. The whole area was a mess. I was in shock and crying. I couldn’t phone anyone on my mobile because the line wasn’t connecting. I was however able to get on the Internet and post a status update (excuse the language – I rarely swear on Facebook – but this was my immediate reaction): “holy sh*t biggest mofo earthquake ever. so scary!!”

The aftershocks were coming thick and fast. Each time, I stopped in my tracks, prepared to get down on the ground again. I finally got to the classroom, feeling cold and distraught. The room was on the second floor of a building. As I stood at the base of the stairs and looked up, I prayed for my life again and hoped the stairs wouldn’t give way as I raced up. Opening the classroom door, the first thing I thought about was how am I going to clean this up before class starts! I used the landline to call my company’s head office in Nagoya. The quake had been felt all the way down there, and of course they already knew it was a natural disaster on a massive scale. I was told to leave the classroom as it was and go home.

The tears had stopped by now and I was focused on getting home safely. I walked all the way back to the station only to discover the trains weren’t running and the station was being boarded up. I was trying to phone my colleagues, the only people I knew there, but there was still no connection. My awesome brother in Australia was feeding me information and giving me advice through Facebook. If I hadn’t had that communication I can’t even imagine how I would have been feeling. But, I was still freezing, hungry, not feeling well, and didn’t know what to do. Miraculously, a bus pulled up at the station with Koriyama Station displayed on the front. This was my way out of there! The train ride between Sukagawa and Koriyama was just 10 minutes, but with the intense traffic congestion, the bus took well over an hour. From the bus window I could clearly see the gravity of the situation. Entire buildings had collapsed; fires had started; debris was scattered everywhere.

Koriyama was a very welcome sight. I’d lived there for less than two weeks, so I still didn’t know my way around that well, but just seeing the familiar train station was enough to put my mind slightly at ease. I had no food or water and the convenience stores and vending machines had long since run out of stock. A good point of not having lived in my apartment for long was that I didn’t have much in there that could get damaged! The washing machine had fallen over, the balcony door had unhinged itself and snow was coming in, an unfinished mug of tea was split over my pillow, but that’s about it. But there was no power or water supply and the constant aftershocks were stressing me out so I decided to go back to the station and wait for advice from the local authorities. I waited, and waited, and waited. There were no announcements being made, no signs, no warnings. It was zero degrees Celsius and I was sick and tired. Giving up, I retreated to my apartment. Thankfully, the power had returned so I cranked on the heater and sat glued in front of the television, heart in my mouth, seeing the horror of the tsunami roll over towns and villages.

Perhaps it was because I was completely exhausted, mentally and physically, but I actually managed to sleep until 10 o’clock the next morning. Still unsure what I should do, but getting restless in my apartment, I went outside to see the aftermath. There were a lot of people about. They were strangely quite calm and orderly. There were lines of people waiting to use public payphones. I walked to all the shops I knew of and checked for food. The shelves were bare. The only substantial thing I could get my hands on was yoghurt. I was so hungry. At a small park near my home, I noticed another line of people quickly growing. Curious, I went closer and realized they were queuing for water from a communal well. Since the water had been shut off in my apartment, I decided to follow suit. I gathered all I could find in my apartment to use as storage – a small kettle and plastic bag, which I later found out had a hole in it – and queued in the cold for what seemed like hours.

But, as if a guardian angel was looking over me, I didn’t even come to use that water. On Saturday afternoon, 24 hours after the quake struck, I was rescued by a Japanese colleague who I’d met the week before. She offered me a bed and food and even picked me up in her car although she had little fuel left. I knew I’d be okay once I was with her. The next day, another colleague joined us, and then another, and soon there were five of us taking refuge in her house! The feeling of ‘togetherness’ in our group was the most comforting feeling in the world.

By Tuesday, the news of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster was all we could think about. We were about 70 kilometres from the coast, and 40 kilometres from the no-go zone, but we didn’t know if we were safe or not. I didn’t even know if we should have been breathing the outside air. Not knowing enough about radiation or what was really happening at the power plant, and feeling aftershake after aftershake, was taking its toll on all of us. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so stressed in my life. We decided to have a ‘team meeting’ and figure out our next step together. We had been told we could stay in company apartments in Nagoya, but with the trains down and gas stations closed, we were finding it hard to come up with a solution on how to get there.

By another stroke of good luck, we discovered another friend had a car with enough fuel to drive to Nasu where we had heard the trains were still running to. We didn’t know if the roads would be drivable or the mountains passable, but food and water were diminishing, and we knew we couldn’t keep sitting around. Our friend had a hunch that the highways would be bumper to bumper with people trying to flee, so thinking smart, he decided we should drive down the winding back roads. It was now or never! It was time to get out of there. With a sense of hope and optimism, we packed up what we had – a few changes of clothes and toiletries – piled into the car, and headed south. Driving away from the chaos felt like we were escaping to freedom. Eventually, we made it to Nasu, left the car on the side of the road with a note explaining our situation on the windshield, and got on the train. From there, we would stay in Tokyo, in a deserted Asakusa, for a couple of nights before reaching our safe haven, Nagoya.

It all feels surreal, looking back on it now. Three years have passed, but I can still remember some things quite vividly. I don’t openly talk about it because taking my mind back to that day brings back feelings of anxiety and stress. But I do feel like it’s helpful for people to hear a real, personal story, rather than just seeing the death toll and statistics on the news. Everyone who went through the disaster had a different experience, and their history and circumstances would have altered the way they responded. For me, I was a complete rookie. It was one of the first earthquakes I had felt, and I was brand new to the area. I was not prepared at all. After the quake a few things changed. In terms of the little things, I now have an evacuation emergency pack ready to go at a moment’s notice. I’m always looking around me for safe zones. And I’m forever observing my surroundings, thinking about whether or not things would be capable of withstanding a major earthquake.

As for the long-term, I feel like the experience changed my perspective on life. Making the decision to stay in Japan, and not flee back to Australia, made me realise how strong I can be. I know I can get through anything; and I know I can rely on the good in other people to support and help one another through tough times. For months and months, we heard stories about people, especially farmers, in the Tohoku region committing suicide because they had lost all hope. It is so distressing and makes me feel sick thinking about them reaching that point in their lives. It has made me actively place more value on the notion ‘hope’ and how necessary it is to help us to get through life. Hope gives us determination and something to strive for, and a mindset to be able to achieve our goals no matter what. My hopes over the past three years have been to succeed at my job and influence my students in a positive way, as well as make the most of this wonderful opportunity I’ve been given to live in a beautiful and unique country. Going ahead into the future, I hope I can settle into a satisfying job and start my own family, and at the same time never lose my passion for adventure. That is, after all, what made me move to Japan in the first place.

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All photos courtesy of Isaac Medina Flickr.