Ouchijuku - Travel Back in Time to the Samurai Period at This Charming Fukushima Village
If there's a place where you can feel the charms of ancient Japan and experience the ancient Japanese way of life, it's Ouchijuku. This small village of picturesque thatched-roof houses hidden among forested mountains in Fukushima Prefecture is so perfectly preserved you'll feel like you traveled back in time to the period of samurai. We got to explore Ouchijuku and enjoy an atmosphere and traditions unlike those of any other place in Japan, so read on to discover all the amazing activities and unique scenery Ouchijuku has to offer!
Dec 25 2020 (Jan 18 2021)
*This article was written in collaboration with Fukushima Prefecture.
History of Ouchijuku - A Traditional Postal Town From the Edo Period
Ouchijuku was a flourishing postal town during the Edo period (1603-1868). Built along the Aizu-Nishi Kaido, the trade route that at that time connected the Aizu domain in western Fukushima to Nikko and from there to the capital Edo (Tokyo), Ouchijuku was part of the Edo period's massive road system that allowed the shogunate (central government) easier control over the feudal lords. Ouchijuku not only served common travelers but also offered food, accommodation, and rest to high-rank samurai that had to periodically travel to the capital due to the "sankin kotai" (alternate residence duty), an order imposed by the government that demanded they keep two houses, in their domain and in Edo, and move between them every year, so that the financial strains involved made them unable to wage war against the shogun.
Why Is Ouchijuku So Special? An Authentic Glimpse Into Japan’s Feudal Past
In the recent past, Ouchijuku's now-iconic thatched roofs were the symbol of the poverty in this secluded area of Fukushima Prefecture, where the locals couldn't afford to change to the Edo period straw roofs made with modern materials. For better or worse, this saved the village's unique townscape from modernization, and finally, it led to Ouchijuku being recognized on a national level and designated as an Important Preservation District in 1981. Today, Ouchijuku stands as a rare example of an Edo period postal town, and it allows visitors to feel as though they have traveled through time thanks to the original scenery of the village, a striking ensemble of unpaved streets with running water on either side, majestic natural surroundings, no electricity cables in sight, and thirty 300-year-old thatch-roofed buildings that house a variety of shops and restaurants
6 Best Things to Do and See in Ouchijuku
1. Ouchijuku Food Hall Soba Dojo - Become a Soba-Noodle Master
Ouchijuku is famous for its delicious soba noodles made from locally harvested "soba" (buckwheat). Hence, there's no better way to dip in the village's culture and food traditions than trying a soba-making experience and learning the secrets of Ouchijuku's mouthwatering noodles. We headed to Ouchijuku Food Hall Soba Dojo, where their lovely soba chef welcomed us with aprons and tools from the restaurant, ready to teach us Ouchijuku's techniques for the perfect soba. Starting the preparation from scratch, we had great fun kneading the buckwheat-flour dough and mastering the movements needed to create the perfect soba base.
From the correct way to roll out the dough to the precise methods required to fold it, we found that soba making is a relaxing, yet challenging activity. Finally, under the attentive guidance of the local chef, comes the most fun part: the soba cutting where we got to test our concentration skills and attempted to cut the dough finely into 2mm-thin soba noodles. At the end of the lesson, we were rewarded with an abundant pile of the most fragrant and fresh soba noodles that we had just handmade, ready to be boiled and tasted.
2. Negi Soba - Test Your Chopstick Skills With a Delicious Local Specialty
After working hard to prepare our hand-made soba noodles, our stomachs were rumbling and we were ready to dig into the delicious lunch set Ouchijuku Food Hall Soba Dojo provides as part of the soba-making experience. The main dish is of course a local specialty, "negi" soba (leek soba), a unique type of soba that can't be found anywhere else in Japan, which utilizes an unusual eating method: instead of chopsticks, this soba is eaten with a leek as cutlery which, according to the local ways, you use to scoop the soba with and nibble on as you eat. This fascinating Ouchijuku tradition will be sure to make your meal even more memorable and fun! Negi soba can be enjoyed both hot and cold. For the cold version, you'll be served an incredibly flavorful cold broth to dip the noodles in, and a side of crunchy vegetables and shrimp tempura to garnish with some local matcha salt (salt with matcha powder).
3. Ouchijuku View Point - Admire a Scenery That Looks Like a Nostalgic Painting
After getting a taste of some of Ouchijuku's delicious food, why not take a refreshing walk? Ouchijuku Viewpoint is located just 5 minutes from Soba Dojo and makes for the perfect spot for an after-lunch stroll. On our way back from the restaurant, we noticed a stone "torii" gate and a very steep set of stairs that serves as the entrance to the viewpoint. We climbed up to the very top and were rewarded with the most incredible panoramic views of the village's streets and traditional buildings, including the natural surroundings that change their vivid colors depending on the season. The viewpoint also houses the very rustic, yet beautiful Itsukushima Shrine and the moss-covered Koyasu Kannondo Temple. Take your time before descending to the main street, and soak in the nostalgic and sacred atmosphere of the area.
4. Ouchijuku Honjin Machinami Tenjikan - Experience the Livelihood of the Edo Period
Located in the center of the main street, the Ouchijuku Honjin was the most luxurious inn of the postal town, providing accommodations to high-ranked feudal lords. Today, it is open as a museum, allowing visitors to not only learn more about the daily life of samurai and travelers of the Edo period, but also to take a look at the elegant housing interior of the 1600s. The Ouchijuku Townscape Exhibition Hall displays a plethora of Edo period tools and historical artifacts, as well as explains to visitors how Ouchijuku's traditional and beautiful thatched roofs are still made today thanks to highly-skilled craftsmen. As soon as we walked in, we were surrounded by the fragrant scent of straw and the smoke from the lit hearth on the floor floating into the air, and we felt like we had stepped back in time.
5. Ouchijuku's Traditional Snacks - Munch Your Way Through the Postal Town
Using an incredible variety of locally grown ingredients, Ouchijuku provides hungry visitors with a never-ending list of delicious snacks to try out. We started our traditional snack journey at Yamamotoya with some deep-fried sweet potato "mochi" (rice cake), so tasty that we were tempted to go for a second round right after finishing the first skewer. Continuing our savory hunt, we snacked on Yorozuya's konjac "dango," chewy dumplings made from a type of corm or bulbo-tuber, boiled in a flavorful broth and served with "karashi" (Japanese mustard). Other local treats include freshly grilled "shingoro," which are yummy skewered rice balls flavored with miso, soy sauce, and perilla (Minatoya sells some of the best in Ouchijuku), as well as the simple yet satisfying roasted char fish that you can find in different shops along the main street.
We suggest finishing the food tour with Ouchijuku's ultimate dessert, "tochi mochi," which are horse-chestnut rice cakes that are specially prepared by soaking the local bitter chestnuts in warm water until their flavor becomes slightly gentler, in order to create rich-flavored mochi. Stop at Yamagataya if you want to try some on the spot or buy them packaged to bring back home. Finally, if you prefer to relax while tasting your snacks you can sit in one of Ouchijuku's "kominka" (traditional house) cafes, such as Yamadaya, and leisurely enjoy the traditional interiors while sipping on a matcha latte.
6. Ouchijuku's Traditional Crafts - Bring Back Home the Perfect Souvenirs
No great tour is complete without a round of souvenir shopping! From local food to traditional crafts, Ouchijuku has an incredible variety of options to choose from. Wander around the many shops, and pick a jar of handmade jam of locally grown persimmon (the most common fruit in this area of Fukushima); grab a bag of "sobacha," a tea made from Ouchijuku's renowned roasted buckwheat; or bring back home some delicious local miso for preparing a heartwarming soup even at home. If you like spicy seasonings, "basashi" miso is a must. This local sauce was originally thought to go with meat, but it's great for giving a flavorful punch to any dish you like.
In case you prefer traditional crafts over food, Honke Kanoya has got you covered. This outstanding store is easily recognizable thanks to the many colorful crafts hanging from the ceiling and lined up along its veranda. At Honke Kanoya, they use Japanese silk crepe to create beanbags and decorations of animals, Japanese traditional plants, and vegetables such as "daikon" (a type of Japanese radish) and "hozuki" (a type of lantern-shaped flower).
3 Best Things to Do Near Ouchijuku
1. Aizuwakamatsu - Experience the Spirit of the Samurai
Aizuwakamatsu is a former castle town well-known for its long samurai history and culture. Standing in the center of the city is Tsurugajo Castle, a white Japanese castle originally built in 1384. The castle is especially beautiful during the cherry blossom season in spring, as well as during autumn when the foliage colors spread across the castle grounds. Besides the castle, Aizuwakamatsu offers many different samurai-related spots, a bountiful choice of restaurants focusing on local delicacies, and even outstanding onsen. Among the most famous spots, visitors shouldn't miss Aizu Bukeyashiki, a samurai residence that will help you understand the daily life of samurai, and Oyakuen Garden, a charming Japanese garden built by the local feudal lord to cultivate medicinal plants.
2. Yunokami Onsen - Visit the Only Thatched-Roof Station in Japan
Yunokami Onsen is a lovely onsen village that also hosts the only station in Japan with a thatched roof. This unusual station building is particularly popular, as both cherry blossom trees and momiji (Japanese maples) are planted near the station, creating gorgeous scenery throughout the year. The glorious cherry blossoms during spring, the deep green mountains in the background during summer, the bright red foliage during autumn, and the snowy scenery during winter allow different views depending on the season, creating a perfect photo spot. Right beside the station, visitors can enjoy the local "ashiyu," a foot bath where visitors can relax while dipping their feet in the local hot-spring water.
3. To-no-Hetsuri - Enjoy Breathtaking Views From a Suspension Bridge
Designated as a national natural monument, To-no-Hetsuri is renowned for its amazing scenery with tower-shaped cliffs overlooking the Okawa River. These interestingly shaped cliffs are thought to have formed millions of years ago, making it a very unique spot to visit. The view is especially spectacular during autumn when the red and golden foliage creates a beautiful contrast with the white cliffs. The nearby suspension bridge provides visitors with panoramic views and the thrill of crossing the valley below.
How to Get to Ouchijuku
Ouchijuku can be easily reached by a 45-minute drive from Aizuwakamatsu Station. If you're not planning to rent a car, fret not! Ouchijuku is also served by local transportation. Take a 25-minute train ride from Aizuwamakatsu Station to Yunokami Onsen Station. There you'll have to take a local bus called Saruyu-go that will take to Ouchijuku in 20 minutes. These local buses only operate from April to November around once per hour, and the ticket costs 1,000 JPY for a 1-day pass.
Ready to Travel Back to the Time of Samurai?
Ouchijuku is so beautifully preserved that its ancient atmosphere and traditions will make you think you've traveled back in time. We not only had the chance to soak in its one-of-a-kind culture and get a taste of its unique locally sourced food, but also got to experience the livelihood of Japan's fascinating Edo period, while admiring a scenery like no other.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.