I’ve been to Tohoku again, this time on a family trip in the middle of July. We spent two nights and three days in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture. Yes, that is the Fukushima Prefecture that has the broken nuclear power station. However, it’s one of the largest prefectures in Japan, and the Aizu region is at the other side, a hundred kilometres or so from the nuclear power plant. In terms of radiation, it’s safe, as evidenced by the fact that this is where a lot of the people who used to live near the power station have been evacuated to.
The Aizu region is in the mountains of southern Tohoku, and apparently gets a lot of snow in the winter. While we were there, the temperature was generally pleasant, although there were occasional showers that held our sightseeing back a bit. On the up side, the train ride from Koriyama (where we got off the shinkansen) to Aizu Wakamatsu (where we were staying) was very pleasant, winding its way along mountain valleys, and through occasional tunnels. Mayuki certainly enjoyed herself, but I don’t think that was primarily the scenery; she was having much more fun climbing all over us.
The original plan was to get the bus from the station to the ryokan where we were staying, but that left us about 45 minutes to kill at the station. Fortunately, there was a festival/market being held just outside the station, and Mayuki decided that she wanted to go there, and eat shaved ice and fried noodles. This is hardly a local speciality, being standard festival food in Tokyo, but that is presumably why Mayuki wanted to eat it. Since she was enjoying it, and we were on holiday, I decided that we would get a taxi to the ryokan, so that we didn’t have to worry about the times. We left the festival as they were starting to clear up, and got in the taxi just as it started raining, so the timing was perfect there.
The ryokan where we were staying, Kutsurogijuku Shintaki, is in Higasiyama Onsen, on the edge of the town, and the area is very pretty, in a steep-sided forested valley, with most of the ryokan along the river. Quite a bit of the ryokan was accommodating evacuees, so the number of tourists was fairly small. That meant that we could book the open-air bath by the river on both nights of our stay, and go in as a family. Mayuki really enjoyed that, and since no-one else was there, she could play without Yuriko getting worried, or having to avoid bothering other people.
We spent our full day looking around the town of Aizu Wakamatsu. This was the centre of one of the important domains of feudal (Edo-period) Japan, and is famous as the site of one of the important battles around the Meiji Restoration, in the late 1860s. There is a very well-known tragic story associated with it, as well. The domain had a number of groups of samurai, divided by age, and the White Tiger Group was made up of boys aged 16 to 17. When the domain was attacked, they were sent to relieve one part of the army, and attacked unexpectedly. Many of them managed to escape through a tunnel to a hill overlooking the town, but when they got there they saw the castle wreathed in smoke, and thought that it had already fallen. All but one of them committed suicide. The castle had not fallen, however. As a result of this, Aizu Wakamatsu is strongly associated with samurai.
It’s also associated with a number of traditional crafts, and we spent quite a lot of our time looking at those. One is lacquer ware, and we visited a shop with centuries of history, full of beautiful items. Another tradition is a particular style of cotton, while a final one is the manufacture of candles with lovely pictures of flowers on. We did quite a lot of shopping, partly to support the local economy, and partly to get presents for the people we would be visiting in the UK.
Apart from the samurai, the region’s other claim to fame is that it was where Hideyo Noguchi was born and raised. He was a famous Japanese scientist (a bacteriologist), and is the face on the current 1000 yen note, so he’s become very well known. He trained as a doctor in Aizu Wakamatsu, and we had a break at a cafe in the building that used to house the hospital where he pursued his initial studies.
Around that time, Mayuki fell asleep on me, and I was also getting a bit tired, so we debated going straight back to the ryokan. Yuriko, however, wanted to go to see the collection of Edo period houses, which were on the way back, so we did, getting there just before closing time. They were very interesting, in part because these were houses for more ordinary samurai. One was, admittedly, the former house of a chief retainer, but the chief retainer to a domain lord is a long way down from the shogun. One interesting point was that the toilet reserved for the head of the household had no ceiling, so that assassins could not hide between the ceiling and the roof.
I really like the traditional Japanese architecture, from an aesthetic viewpoint. From a practical standpoint, I’m not good enough at sitting on the floor to really be comfortable living in a house that was all Japanese style, and I’d need to find somewhere to put my books, but if I can ever afford an actual house somewhere in Japan, I’d like to have a Japanese-style section, not just a Japanese room.
On our final day we went to Inawashiro, a small town on one of the larger lakes in Japan, Lake Inawashiro. The first thing we did was go out on the lake on the tourist cruise. We were the only passengers on the boat, so we went to the upstairs lounge and took it easy, enjoying the scenery and the commentary. The fact that we were there on a weekday outside high season probably partly accounts for how quiet it was, but I fear that the nuclear accident may also have been scaring people away.
From the boat, we went to a late nineteenth/early twentieth century house that was built for a member of the Imperial family. Yuriko finds these really interesting; I find them very similar to a lot of houses in the UK. Indeed, the main difference between this house and my friend’s house that we stayed at in the summer is that my friend’s house is biggerâ€¦ After we’d looked around, Mayuki enjoyed watching the ants hunting for food in the lawns outside the house, before we got a taxi to our lunch stop.
This was also on the shore of the lake, and as well as the restaurant it had several museums and similar. One was the Aizu Folk Museum, where several houses from the region had been reconstructed. These were farmers’ houses, so they were smaller than the samurai houses, and much more practical. Most only had one tatami room, with earth floors elsewhere, but they had upper floors, both for living and storage. Mayuki really liked one of the houses, and went round it three times. There was a route marked out, so that at busy times people would keep flowing, but Mayuki was able to go in whichever direction she wanted.
The other museum was the Hideyo Noguchi museum, because this is where he was born. If I understood the explanations correctly, it is literally where he was born; one feature of the museum is that house, and there was no indication that it has been moved and reconstructed. A famous part of Nogushi’s story is that, when he was eighteen months old, he fell into the hearth at home and burned himself very badly, so badly that the fingers of one hand fused together. Because the house is in the museum, you can see that hearth, and the story made a really big impression on Mayuki. She kept wanting to see the hearth again, and asking about the accident. When we got home, we bought her a picture book biography of Noguchi, and she still asks for it to be read. When Noguchi was in his early teens, his friends got together to pay for an operation on his hand, which was a success, and that is what set him on the path to studying medicine.
After we’d seen the museums, we still had a bit of time before our train, so we went to the big glass shop across the road and had a drink in their coffee shop. While Yuriko looked around, Mayuki and I “painted” the milk and syrup pots using the paper on the end of the straws. When we’d finished, we put everything back the way it had been, and Mayuki didn’t even need much prompting.
Mayuki fell asleep on the train back, but woke up when we got on the shinkansen, and immediately started crying that she didn’t have a packed meal like Yuriko and me. So I took her to find the lady with the trolley, where I bought her a drink and a box of chocolate almonds. That cheered her up, and she happily took bits from our meals to eat, in between dozing a bit.
It was a very nice part of Japan, and apparently it’s glorious in autumn, when the leaves on the mountains all change colour and get reflected in the lake. I’d like to go back, but I don’t know whether we’ll get round to it; there are so many new places to go. In any case, I can recommend it to people visiting Japan.