Anyone who has been following me for a while now will know this already but I absolutely loathe when people harp on about Fukushima. Yes, there was a terrible triple disaster back in 2011. No, the entirety of the prefecture isn’t still contaminated with deadly radiation. Can we all just get over this already? I mean, it’s been a decade now but many people overseas still act as if they are going to die the second they eat anything sourced from Fukushima. Allow me to bury the hatchet once and for all; this just ain’t the case folks! What’s more, Fukushima is HUGE, meaning that the reactors will be nowhere near you.
Now that I’ve got my rant out of the way, let’s move on to the main topic of today’s article. In the following sections we’ll be taking a look at a pair of hamlets that are known as Nishi-Aizu and Kitakata. Though I’ve covered the more well known spots in western Fukushima before in this article on Aizu-Wakamatsu and Ouchijuku, this time we’ll be getting even further off of the beaten path. While certainly not what one could call a logistically easy part of Japan to explore, these dual pockets of Fukushima are definitely worth considering if you’re looking for something unique.
On that note, know that you’ll really only want to challenge Nishi-Aizu and/or Kitakata if you have access to a rental car. While I am sure some intrepid souls could manage these destinations with an esoteric combination of buses and good old fashioned walking, I wouldn’t advise it. Should you not be able to snag yourself a set of wheels, do stick to the more well developed zones of Aizu-Wakamatsu and Ouchijuku. I’d hate for you to come all the way out to this part of Fukushima only to spend half the day waiting for your bus.
While I am (and likely always will be) someone who isn’t able or willing to drive, my recent trip throughout western portions of the prefecture was supported by my good friends at Fukushima Today. Thanks to their kind assistance, I was able to overcome the logistical hurdles that would have otherwise prevented me from conquering this rarely visited region of Japan.
How to Get There
While the more popular parts of inner Fukushima can be done by public transportation, you’ll want to do yourself a favor and get a rental car for Nishi-Aizu and Kitakata. That said, you’ll likely want to first find your way to Aizu-Wakamatsu via public transportation before heading out to a rental car lot. This way, you can cover a lot more ground on the more expedient bullet trains. The only time I would suggest otherwise is if you’re doing a tour de Tohoku via your own set of wheels.
To reach Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, you’ll first want to catch one of the Yamabiko bullet trains up to Koriyama Station. From there, you’ll need to transfer to the local Ban-Etsu West Line. As always just refer to Jorudan or a similar service to calculate the complicated train connections. I honestly don’t know what I would do without technology like this as I’d otherwise not be able to figure out how to get from point A to point B when traveling in Japan.
Anyway, assuming you can get a rental car, you’re also going to want to have access to a reliable internet connection when driving through these hilly sections of Fukushima. This part of the prefecture is quite rural and I found my pocket Wi-Fi device cutting in and out. Luckily, I was not the one navigating but if you’re trying to find your way to the towns introduced hereafter, you might find yourself in a bit of a pickle when traversing the more mountainous stretches without Google.
What to See & Do in Nishi-Aizu
The first destination that the Fukushima Today team and I went to see was an ancient sanctum known as Oyamazumi Shrine. Located very deep in the mountains, traditions hold that Oyamazumi Shrine was established as far back as 778. Since then, it has earned the locals endearing faith as the abode of the regional mountain deity. According to local folktales, if you visit three years in a row while praying for your most desired wish, it will come true. Sounds like I need to make a trip back here in 2022 and 2023!
The most easily accessible part of Oyamazumi Shrine is a part called the yohaiden. Basically, this is a convenient way for one to pay their obedience from afar. The actual main hall is located around 4 kilometers further into the mountains and this part of Oyamazumi Shrine cannot be accessed via car. Along the cedar-lined path to the main hall, you’ll encounter half a dozen statues which are said to encourage pilgrims making the ascent. Note that the trail is quite hard so you’ll want to have good walking shoes.
While exploring Oyamazumi Shrine, I couldn’t help but feel that this part of Japan had long been used for some sort of mountain asceticism. To be frank, it felt eerily similar to the likes of the Dewa Sanzan’s Mt. Haguro in Yamagata Prefecture. En route to the main hall, you’ll pass a pair of waterfalls that just had to have been once used for takigyo (lit. “waterfall meditation”). What’s more, the main hall isn’t actually the end of the line. Those looking to really get their wishes fulfilled can climb another 700 meters to the Oku-no-in.
For what it’s worth, I wasn’t able to go as far as the Oku-no-in. In fact, it seems that the ascent is so treacherous that you’re actually forbidden to go without a guide. Don’t be an idiot and go unaccompanied. That said, do note that the times when you can be guided to the Oku-no-in are few and far between. According to my pamphlet, there’s an autumn foliage walk during mid-October as well as the Physical and Mental Health Walk during late May. Other than these two timings though, you’ll have to skip the Oku-no-in.
In addition to Oyamazumi Shrine, there is also a rather ancient temple nearby by the name of Torioi Kannon Nyoho-ji. A bit of a mouthful to say, this compound houses one of the Aizu area’s three legendary Kannon statues. Unfortunately for overseas visitors to Japan, these magnificent specimens are not usually on display and are only ever unveiled for special events. Consider yourself lucky if you get a chance to see the one at Torioi Kannon Nyoho-ji as there’s only a handful of showings each year. Definitely don’t miss it if you’re in the area.
Before moving on to Kitakata, I have one final recommendation for you in Nishi-Aizu. While this is going to sound rather strange, I highly encourage you to stop by the Roadside Station Nishi-Aizu. Here at one of the service area’s eateries, I had the chance to savor one of the best meals I’ve ever had. The adorable lady who runs the joint made sure that we knew where each and every one of the lovingly chosen ingredients came from. Do me and the cult a favor and patronize her restaurant if you’re in this part of Fukushima!
What to See & Do in Kitakata
How much would you pay for a bottle of tap water? If you’re a sane individual, you likely wouldn’t but what if I told you the waters of Kitakata are so famous that people actually sell what comes out of their sink. Though a bit challenging to convey via the written word, the reason why Kitakata is so blessed with pure water is easily understandable when you look at a map. You see, this part of Fukushima is surrounded on all sides by towering mountains. When all that snow melts, it flows down into the valley basin and voila!
Thanks to its incredibly pure water, Kitakata actually is top tier when it comes to anything that requires H2O. All throughout these lowlands, you’ll find a shocking number of sake breweries as well as other industries to which water is a key ingredient. When I visited with the folks from Fukushima Today, we visited the Yamatogawa Brewery. Considered to be one of the finest sake makers in all of Japan, this facility has a mini museum which details how they’ve been making alcohol for centuries.
While Kitakata is famous for its waters, the spring that flows from where the Yamatogawa Brewery sits is even more special. Regularly hailed as the best tasting water around, locals flock to the free-for-all-to-use source that bubbles up in front of the Yamatogawa Brewery. When I first witnessed the site, I actually thought that the woman was washing plastic bottles. It was only upon talking with her that I learned this local secret of the Yamatogawa Brewery’s waters. Also, how amazing is it that the Yamatogawa Brewery leadership just makes their valued waters available for all for free?
In addition to its sake, one other thing that Kitakata is famous for is actually its ramen. In fact, along with Sapporo and Fukuoka, this rural part of Fukushima is considered to be one of three mecchas for ramen. Of the trifecta, Kitakata Ramen is a soy sauce variant. Though certainly quite heavy, the regional specialty is sure to fill your belly while also warming you up from the rather frigid autumns and winters that this part of Fukushima is subject to. If you’re in Kitakata, you absolutely need to give the local ramen a go.
While it’s not yet ready for the market, I actually got to take part in a ramen making experience while in Kitakata. The event took place at the Oguni Exchange Village. Here, I had the privilege of learning from a grizzled veteran by the name of Suganuma-san how to make Kitakata Ramen from scratch. Though a strict master who was obsessed with his craft, the Fukushima Today team and I were able to keep up and produce what can only be described as one of the best bowls of ramen that I’ve ever had.
Oh yeah, lest you be duped, one thing that Suganuma-san told me was that while there are places that you can get Kitakata Ramen all over Japan, it’s not the dish without the local waters. In other words, you can only eat authentic Kitakata Ramen while actually in Kitakata. Be sure to heed the advice of this many decades-long veteran of the ramen businesses while visiting this part of Fukushima Prefecture!
Other Nearby Attractions
On our way back from Kitakata to Fukushima Station, the squad and I elected to take Japan National Route 459 back. This highway passes through the Ura Bandai region that lies behind Fukushima Prefecture’s Mt. Bandai. Literally meaning “Behind Bandai,” this part of Fukushima is absolutely breathtaking during the months of autumn. Though I’ve seen some amazing fall foliage in my days, I actually think that Ura Bandai might just take the cake. It’s a toss up between here and Oirase Gorge in Aomori. I’ll let you be the judge…
During the drive back, the Fukushima Today team and I made a stop at a spot called Nakatsugawa Valley to take some shots for the Gram. Situated around a stream that flows into Lake Akimoto, Nakatsugawa Valley is home to around 10 kilometres of virgin forests. As you might imagine from the photo above, these trees come alive during autumn with spectacular hues that will leave your jaw on the valley floor. The only downside is that these beautiful views ensure that Nakatsugawa Valley always draws a crowd.
Unlike with the single modality of Oirase Gorge in Aomori Prefecture, visitors to Nakatsugawa Valley can experience the scenery from either the bridge up above or the gorges floor down below. Though you’ll need to go down quite a lot of stairs to get to where the river cuts through the valley, the contrast between the cool colors of the stream and the fiery foliage is worth the effort. Trust me on this one!
Until next time travelers…