The Allure of Aizu in Fukushima: Incredible Ramen, Woodworking Experiences, and Bountiful Nature!
Sitting in the south of Tohoku, Fukushima Prefecture’s western Aizu area is the scene of numerous historic events and dramas and remains as a rustic, quaint expanse brimming with landmarks and exotic cuisine. In this article, the tsunagu Japan editorial team will introduce a selection of Aizu’s incredible food, culture, and activities to enjoy together with local guides. Using a guided taxi service, the team went out and immersed themselves in several special experiences only available in Aizu, including a night foodie tour and Kitakata ramen cooking class. Read on to discover more about this lesser-known corner of deep inland Japan!
Jan 20 2022 (Jan 21 2022)
*This article was written in collaboration with the Fukushima Prefecture Tourism & Local Products Association.
What Kind of Place Is Fukushima Prefecture?
The Characteristics of Fukushima Prefecture
Fukushima is the southernmost prefecture of Japan’s Tohoku region and the country's third largest prefecture by size. It is divided into three areas, Nakadori, Aizu, and Hamadori, by a mountain range running north to south. These three areas differ not only in topography, but also in a wealth of other features including climate, economy, culture, dialect, and scenery.
Famous tourist destinations in Fukushima include Lake Inawashiro, the Bandai Highlands, Ouchijuku, and Tsuruga Castle. Temperatures across the prefecture range from about -4°C to 35°C throughout the year. Nakadori is generally hot in the summer and has little snowfall in the winter due to its topography, Hamadori has relatively mild temperatures year round, while Aizu boasts heavy snowfall and is renowned for gorgeous winter landscapes.
Fukushima Prefecture is likewise blessed with a variety of fantastic food. There are fruits to pick throughout the year, such as peaches, pears, cherries, and apples, along with high-quality rice and sake thanks to its mountains and pristine waters. Kitakata ramen, one of the three great ramen dishes of Japan alongside Sapporo and Hakata, is also adored for its light, soy sauce-based soup.
How to Get to the Aizu Area
Often said to be "the closest part of Tohoku to Tokyo," Fukushima and Aizu are easily accessible by public transportation from Tokyo. Below are the major ways to get from Tokyo to the central Aizu-Wakamatsu Station.
By Bullet Train (Shinkansen):
Tokyo Station (approx. 1 hr 22 mins via the Tohoku Shinkansen) → Koriyama Station (approx. 1 hr 5 mins via the JR Ban-Etsusai Line Rapid) → Aizu-Wakamatsu Station
On Local Trains:
Asakusa Station (approx. 3 hrs 11 mins via the Yagan Railway Aizu Kinugawa Line) → Aizukogen-Oze-Guchi Station (approx. 1 hr 12 mins via the Aizu Railway Rapid) → Aizu-Wakamatsu Station
On the Highway Bus:
Shinjuku Station (approx. 35 mins from the Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal) → Oji Station (3 hrs 45 mins) → Aizu-Wakamatsu Station
Sightsee With Ease on the Minamiaizu Shuttle Taxi
The Minamiaizu Shuttle Taxi is a local taxi service that introduces visitors to the lesser-known charms of Minamiaizu. Visitors can be picked up at various locations within Minamiaizu Town, such as Aizu-Tajima Station, to comfortably tour all the major Minamiaizu tourist destinations in 3-4 hrs. While you can request any destination within Minamiaizu, for this article, we visited the spots recommended by our local guide. Read on to discover where we went!
Apple Orchard (Akai Ringo-en)
Our friendly taxi driver entertained us with stories about the area while driving to our first destination, an apple orchard. While Aomori Prefecture is often most associated with apple production, Fukushima is also another one of Japan's top producers of apples (#4 by amount).
Being in a small group, it was easy to get to know the guide and relax. Plus, there was no need to feel shy about asking questions or having our photos taken!
The guide provided comprehensive explanations alongside written materials to help us understand more about the region. We learned a lot, including how the large variance in high and low temperatures plays a significant role in making the delicious apples of Fukushima along with the best way to choose tasty apples.
We were unfortunately not able to pick any apples, but we did purchase some fresh, juicy ones at a fantastic price before heading off to our next destination.
800-Year-Old Gingko Tree (Giant Gingko)
Southern Fukushima at the end of October was sunny but chilly and with plenty of visible snow caps on the surrounding mountains. The fall foliage was also particularly pretty at the time and we recieved beautiful views from the taxi window on the road to the next spot, the Giant Gingko of Furumachi.
Here we were met with a towering gingko tree that was more than 800 years old in the former yard of the Ina Elementary School.
This giant gingko is designated and managed as a natural monument of Fukushima Prefecture and is beloved as a rejuvenating center of spirituality. While the leaves of most other gingko trees had turned completely yellow, this ancient ancestor still had some greenish leaves as if to flaunt its good health despite its advanced age. The tree also served as a reminder of how short human lives are in comparison to the trees around us. The playground of the old school left us with a parting sense of nostalgia as we moved on to the next destination.
Byobuiwa (Folding Screen Rock)
About 20 mins by taxi from the 800-year-old gingko tree was Byobuiwa, one of the most iconic spots in Minamiaizu. Byobuiwa is distinguished by dynamic and strangely shaped rocks and topography formed by centuries of clear ravine water gushing into the Ina River.
Byobuiwa made for a lovely spot to eat the apples from the orchard and enjoy the scenery while snapping some photos. Lost in this magnificent natural spectacle, before we knew it, it was time to go again. It seemed like the world stopped moving as we basked in the breathtaking scenery woven together by the colorful leaves, blue sky, white rocks, and clear water.
Woodworking Experience (Kijinosato Club)
The most interesting part of the Minamiaizu Taxi Tour was the opportunity to make wooden vessels with a carpenter. Working one-on-one with an experienced carpenter, it was an invaluable lesson on the sheer amount of effort and skill that goes into woodworking.
After being attached to a machine, the wood is quickly spun and shaped by sharp tools. It seemed like a delicate and dangerous process, but with guidance from the reserved but kind carpenter, we were able to safely and successfully create our own wooden crafts!
After being shaved to smooth out the surface and treated with glaze, our wooden crafts were ready! The result was a surprisingly impressive bowl I could hardly believe I made myself. I’ll no doubt treasure it for the rest of my life!
This woodworking experience was truly a special treat and is highly recommended for those seeking to try something a little more interactive on their trip!
Maezawa Magariya Shuraku (Maezawa L-Shaped Farmhouses)
While Fukushima’s Ouchijuku is arguably its most famous traditional village, Maezawa Magariya Shuraku is an equally quaint, authentic village that locals still reside in to this day. It was designated as an “Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings” by the national government.
Seen through numerous call-backs to traditional ways of living, the tranquil, rustic scenery felt somehow nostalgic and exotic at the same time. Such sights included a mill with natural hydropower, buckwheat fields after the fall harvest, a Shinto shrine standing solemnly on a nearby hill, and smokey houses from traditional fireplace "irori" heaters.
Tending to fields, drying mushrooms, and chatting amiably amongst friends and neighbors, we were utterly charmed by the everyday routines of the local people!
Once you've toured the village, be sure to enjoy a soba noodle meal made with local buckwheat at Magariya, a soba shop in a traditional house at the village entrance.
A Wonderful Evening on the Aizuwakamatsu Historical Night Foodie Tour
Aizu-Wakamatsu City, which flourished as the castle town surrounding the Aizu Domain's Tsuruga Castle during the Edo Period, retains its gorgeous townscape through shops and restaurants housed in traditional buildings such as ancient storehouses. There is also a wealth of restaurants serving regional dishes enjoyed by locals over the centuries.
The Aizuwakamatsu Historical Night Foodie Tour, which we joined, was a fun and easy way to experience several local dishes with a guide from the historic Nanokamachi area of Aizu-Wakamatsu.
Here are the restaurants we visited!
Have you heard the Japanese expression "Taisho roman?" Taisho is a historical period in Japan between the Meiji and Showa periods that lasted for a short time from 1912 to 1926. It was a period of social stability and "romanticism" seen primarily through the popularization of Western products and styles. There remain many historic Western-style buildings in Aizu-Wakamatsu evoking a sense of "Taisho roman" today, and the first stop of the tour, Shibukawa Donya, is the epitome of such.
According to our guide, being far from the ocean, fish was once scarce and valuable in the Aizu area. As a result, it became popular to cook with dried Pacific herring, a common preserved food at the time. One dish that arose from this culture saw Pacific herring cooked in soy sauce and other condiments and is still served at Shibukawa Donya today. Here you can relish traditional regional dishes once enjoyed by samurai and other local residents to encourage a deeper understanding and appreciation for their lifestyles. The food is absolutely wonderful, but beware of overeating as there are still two more places left to visit!
Unlike Tokyo, which sits on a plain and has no large mountains nearby, Aizu is a nature-rich area surrounded by vast mountains. From the pristine water that flows down the mountains comes a crisp and delicious sake popular all across Japan.
Rakutenka is an izakaya bar that serves regional Aizu dishes like basashi (raw horse sashimi) complemented by carefully curated servings of local sake. The Aizu area is #2 in Japan for the production and consumption of basashi, a dish not common in other regions, so if you wish to try it, this is the place!
With an interior of traditional architecture invoking the lifestyles of the past, the comfortable and cozy 2F dining area felt more like a room in a private home than an izakaya.
At Rakutenka, be sure to try the fresh basashi together with the renowned Aizu sake Hiroki, which is rare and generally unavailable at supermarkets or liquor stores. The basashi boasts a delightful texture that is soft and firm at the same time and pairs perfectly with the sake! Aizu is also known for its traditional lacquerware called Aizu-nuri, and Rakutenka offers the luxurious experience of drinking your sake in a beautifully shiny Aizu-nuri cup.
Not being a big eater, I usually avoid all-you-can-eat deals and rarely go to after-parties. However, I found myself carried away by the jovial atmosphere of the tour and was able to thoroughly enjoy all the food and drinks! The final stop on the Night Foodie Tour was the famous local cafe Kura.
Crammed with an assortment of knick-knacks and decorations, including a large Buddha statue, Kura exudes a unique Japanese atmosphere reminiscent of a small museum.
The cafe was built by renovating a storage house used during the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912), which preceded the Taisho Period. It has a gorgeous retro feel and the cakes on offer were fantastic. A lovely place for some time alone or with a date!
Ramen-Making Experience - Make One of Japan's Three Great Ramen Dishes
Japan is a country filled with noodle cuisine and Japanese ramen is now popular all over the world. Within the tasty ramen noodles in Japan, the ramen of Hakata, Sapporo, and Kitakata are considered to be the top three. Kitakata ramen originates in Kitakata City in northern Aizu of Fukushima Prefecture. It is an utterly scrumptious dish with curly, medium-thick noodles and a soy sauce-flavored soup with a pork bone and seafood stock base yielding a surprisingly light taste.
The Kitakata Ramen-Making Workshop we joined allows for anyone to experience making and eating Kitakata ramen. It is held at Oguni Koryu-no-Sato, a studio built in an old elementary school.
Participants are able to experience the entire ramen-making process - from soup-making to preparing the toppings and crafting the noodles - alongside the guidance of a local ramen chef. Kitakata City has long been an area with numerous ramen joints. In fact, it once had the most per capita in Japan! Now said to boast more places to slurp down ramen than convenience stores, it was truly wonderful to be able to experience making this classic Japanese dish in its homeland of Kitakata!
While it usually takes 4-5 hours just to make the soup, this workshop speeds up the entire ramen-making process to just 2 hours. As the stock was being taken from pork bones and other ingredients, we took a stroll around the nearby village and the romantic Koibitozaka Hill for a final look at the rural scenery.
Pictured is the ramen that I made. The toppings are chashu pork, menma (fermented bamboo shoots), negi scallions, and naruto (steamed seasoned fish paste with a spiral pattern). While far from professional, our chashu pork was really quite good! While the pork soup base is similar to Hakata ramen, Kitakata ramen is further flavored with a sweet and savory soy sauce, making it unique yet quintessentially Japanese.
If you’re a ramen lover, this one-of-a-kind Kitakata ramen-making experience is a must-try!
Discover a Deeper Japan in Aizu!
Being the closest part of the Tohoku region to Tokyo, Fukushima Prefecture is one of Japan’s most popular sightseeing areas. However, within Fukushima remain several lesser-known gems, one of which is Aizu. Alongside helpful commentary by guides and taxi drivers, use this article as a reference to discover the countless charms of Aizu and unveil a brand new side of Japan!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.