Aizu, the land of traditional crafts and rural lifestyle

There are many secluded places in rural Japan that retain the primordial spirit of a bygone era long forgotten, yet still very much alive in its sleepy arcadian surroundings. These hidden gems of complete harmony between pristine nature and well-preserved traditional culture are usually located in remote regions where modernity has restrained itself from its usual sweeping absorption. In times when the interest towards “off the beaten track” places has evolved into a commodified, well-structured branch of the tourism industry, the unspoiled locales of Japan appear curiously charming and attractively quaint in their artless ordinariness. They captivate, intrigue, magnetize our minds, yet challenge us with their geographical remoteness, as if desiring to reward only those who still possess both perseverance in their hearts and an adventurous spirit.

One of the many idyllic scenic views in Aizu region

One such example of bucolic simplicity in Japan is Aizu region. Comprising of a fairly large (5420 km2), predominantly mountainous area, Aizu is home to several first-class rivers, two highland plateaus, five volcanoes, four national parks and numerous lakes and swamps, as well as many natural hot springs. Historically the entire area formed the Aizu feudal domain during the Edo period and was known for its loyal samurai warriors and martial strength which secured the domain’s unrivaled presence in various military operations throughout the north-east part of Japan.

The interior of a traditional farm house

Those who embark on a journey to Aizu’s inner world of traditions, crafts and unique water resources will be transported back in time by the miraculous power of the idyllic local railway which connects Aizu to the modern life as we know it.

Aizu Wakamatsu, a city of brave samurai warriors

Aizu Wakamatsu

Aizu’s feudal domain was spectacular with its martial power and strategic importance for the shogunate’s military operations in the north-west. Throughout the centuries this resulted in the formation of a strong spirit of loyalty and obedience to the Edo bakufu government. Indeed, a visit to Aizu-Wakamatsu, the main city and center of Aizu region, reveals a marvelous historical legacy linked to the Edo period. Travelers will find numerous sites and iconic relics that recall the samurai spirit of the local feudal domain. It is not surprising then that Aizu played a significant role in the Boshin War (1868-1869) on the side of the old shogunate forces and against the newly formed Imperial army which went on to secure Japan’s modernization and industrialization.

Tsuruga Castle

The majestic Tsuruga Castle

The symbol of Aizu domain’s military influence during the Edo period is Tsuruga Castle, constructed in 1384. Initially the seat of the Hoshina and Matsudaira feudal lords for several centuries, the magnificent castle known for its rare and imposing red-tile roof fell victim to the Imperial forces after being besieged for over a month in a dramatic battle for Japan’s future development. The main keep and the other buildings were ultimately destroyed in 1874, but the castle was reconstructed in 1965 and currently stands as an iconic memory of Aizu’s glorious days. Travelers can immerse themselves in the world of samurai provided by the interesting display inside the main keep, or relax in the pleasant environment of many sakura cherry blossom treesthat bloom in the spacious castle park.

Iimoriyama Hill

The tombs of the Byakkotai soldiers

This hill and its tombs stand as a tragic reminder of the fate of Byakkotai, the youngest warrior troop of the feudal domain’s forces during the war against the new government. A total of 20 adolescent boys saw flames in the town and mistakenly thought the Tsuruga CastleTsuruga Castle – symbol of the authoritative power they had sworn loyalty to – was burning. Reared in the traditional bushido spirit of devotion and honesty, they did not think twice before committing suicide and all but one lucky survivor met their death on this hill. Byakkotai’s touching and admirable story adds a unique touch to the distinctive otherworldliness that the entire Aizu region possesses.

Ouchijuku – Japan’s best preserved post town

The panorama view of Ouchijuku village

The winding mountain roads of the Edo period acted as medieval arteries connecting towns with towns, people with people and different local cultures with each other. As if remaining from a bygone and long forgotten era, Ouchijuku village stands for what actually made Edo Japan a land of thriving economic and social interaction. Nestled between the mountains and built along the former Aizu-Nishi Kaido trade road, Ouchijuku is a quaint post town where local people still join forces regularly to repair the thatched roofs of the traditional-style buildings. A walk along the main (and somewhat only) street of the well-preserved village reveals the peculiar elegance that remote countryside areas of Japan are still imbued with.

The colourful nature of Urabandai

The impressive volcano Mt Bandai and Lake Hibara

Few places in the world have witnessed such a dramatic and abrupt change of landscape as Urabandai Highland in 1888. Nature manifested its turbulent force in an impressive manner which left no doubt about who has the final say in shaping the environment of Aizu’s northern area. The volcano Mt Bandai, until then held in reverence for its visual resemblance to Mt Fuji, erupted fiercely and reshaped entirely the highland plateau. As a result Urabandai transformed almost overnight into a magical land of outlandish scenery. Here colourful water can be found in mysterious ponds dotted along secluded forest trails. Goshikinuma, a group of five volcanic lakes hidden in the woods mesmerize visitors with their tranquility and variety of colours, ranging from red to cobalt blue. The mineral deposits in their water harmonize the acidic inflow from the volcano and create fairytale scenery that cannot be seen anywhere else in Japan.

One of Urabandai’s mystical colourful lakes

Mt Bandai’s devastating power can be observed from the shores of the large Lake Hibara, whose bottom forever preserves an entire village completely submerged under the water. The ghostly figure of a Shinto shrine’s gate and several gravestones sticking out of the lake’s surface testifies to the destructive force that transformed the entire landscape. While the spectacular fiery colours of the autumn foliage intensify the mystical appearance of the forest ponds, winter brings an entirely new array of traditional lifestyle experiences, such as ice fishing over the frozen surface of Lake Hibara.

Oku Aizu – a journey to the origins of Japanese traditional lifestyle

Locally made sake with local flavours

My journey to the deep rural, almost undiscovered parts of southern Aizu (also known as Oku Aizu) began at Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, the last haven of modernity before our group set out on the road that ultimately proved to lead back to times of pristine nature and ingenuous human relations.

With the local craft toy akabeko in front of the station

The first stop along this trip to the origins of the Japanese soul was Akebono Sake Brewery in Aizu-Bange district. Mr. Takaaki Suzuki, the local manager, welcomed us and took us on a tour around this splendid brewery opened in 1904, at the peak of Meiji period’s modernization of the country.

Mr Suzuki in the room where the sake is brewing

Akebono has a fascinating history. It is a rare example of a sake brewery that has been owned by several generations of women – something considered taboo in the old times. More than a decade ago the Suzuki family took a step towards independence from the local toji (sake brewers’) union and faced unseen hardships before establishing their most acclaimed sake brand “Issho Seishun”. Around 2011 both Mr Suzuki and his wife – the actual owner of the brewery –felt unable to carry on the family business due to health problems and their 27-year-old son returned from Tokyo to inherit the brewery, consequently becoming Japan’s youngest sake brewer. The hit brand “Tenmei” was produced and Akebono went on to win multiple national gold prizes in the following years.

A display of Akebono’s award-winning brands

Hearing this fascinating story of a family’s hardships in sustaining what has ultimately become a lifelong mission makes one cognizant of the inexhaustible human spirit and potential in this remote area of Japan where traditional values remain undisturbed.
During the tour around the brewery I was astounded to see an old-style large sunken vat for steaming rice, a traditional pressing machine for extracting the sake, and a gorgeous storehouse whose walls literally keep the hidden secrets of the Meiji period.

Naturally, you can taste Akebono’s exquisite sake

The legend of Oku Aizu’s unspoiled nature

Oku Aizu’s untarnished nature transforms the journey to the rural depths into a constant discovery of fascinating scenery. The winding road along the ravine formed by Tadami River offers truly spectacular views. At some places the stream is rapid and refreshing like a pleasant forest brook; at other spots the water surface is so still and calm that in halcyon weather one can observe a perfect mirror reflection of the surrounding wooded hills.

Can you tell where the reality ends and the reflection begins?

Numerous bridges traverse the river and entice visitors to climb a hill and wait excitedly with a ready camera in hand for thebrief moment when the rural train will appear out of the colourful autumn foliage. Significant temperature amplitudes between day and night evoke a mystical blanket of mist that spreads over the river bed to create an outlandish atmosphere. I could briefly enjoy this scenery during the afternoon rain along the way.

The wonderful short moment when the train crosses the river

But driving does not offer the same opportunities for experiencing Oku Aizu’s nature as a walk around the rim of the tranquil caldera Lake Numazawa. Local people remember the fearful legend of the giant snake (perhaps a dragon?) which used to live in this lake and bewitch the village men in its shape-shifting female apparition. A festival is held to appease the wild beast’s spirit every August. The virgin beech forests of the surrounding mountains complement the fairylike landscape that is truly unique in Japan.

The legend claims the giant snake used to live in this lake

Traditional weaving karamushi

Oku Aizu is a territory of well-preserved traditional local crafts that originate from the blessings of nature. The self-sustaining eco-system of which humans are an integral, but never dominant part guarantees the survival and continuation of life through various practices tested by time and inherited from generation to generation. The traditional craft of ramie fiber (karamushi) weaving in Oku Aizu’s Showamura village is said to have begun as far back as in the Jomon period. The arduous work necessary to harvest the ramie plant and extract the natural fiber from the inner bark of the stalks through a complicated process of scraping, washing, drying, and spinning takes an entire year, while weaving a cloth on treadle-operated looms extends to more than 30 days. This explains why the final products – kimono and kimono belts – can cost as much as 1 million yen per set.

Part of the museum’s display of traditional karamushi craft

I visited Karamushi no Sato, a pastoral little museum complex built in open nature, where expensive and exquisite masterpieces of the weaving art are displayed, some of them for sale. About 23 years ago Showamura village initiated an apprentice program to attract new orihime (female textile workers) and nurture the continuation of the precious local craft.The first orihime weaver from this program welcomed our group at the museum and told us how years ago Oku Aizu’s authenticity, food, and warm-hearted people enthralled her completely and convinced her to move from her hometown in Saitama prefecture to this idyllic village. Yet the highlight of the museum is the weaving experience offered on traditional Japanese looms. In less than 30 minutes even I could easily make a woven beverage coaster.

Weaving is actually quite easy and relaxing

Relaxation at Ebisuya Ryokan inn

Water is the source of life in Oku Aizu. It flows as a river throughout the ravine, sustaining life and energy; it springs from the depths of the earth delivering minerals which can heal our bodies even from the most obstinate diseases; it is indispensible in the production of fine sake. Water stimulates all our senses, and Oku Aizu’s harmonious blend between nature and lifestyle guarantees that we will experience water in ways never seen before.

The magnificent view from Ebisuya ryokan’s room

Such is the concept of Ebisuya ryokan in Tamanashi Onsen district where I had the pleasure to stay overnight. Following the motto of “an extraordinary way of recreation”, Ebisuya indulges guests’ desire for relaxation by offering them all the virtues of Oku Aizu’s powerful water. The ryokan is built on the shore of one of Tadami River’s rapid tributary streams and the bubbling water easily lulled me to sleep during the night. Before that, however, I could experience the beneficial effects of the inn’s three different onsen hot springs, one of which is private and boasts a unique pool with tepid carbonated water. Indeed, the local Kaneyama town is proud of its natural sparkling water hot springs. Visitors can scoop the fizzy drink directly from the wells!

Two pools in the private bath

Dinner and breakfast at Ebisuya ryokan, served as perfectly arranged multi-dish kaiseki ryori extract the very best of Oku Aizu’s natural resources. I was surprised and delighted to try a rather unique yoghurt-mixed local sake which wonderfully complemented the delicious dinner.

Here you can eat some of the most delicious food you have ever tried

The story of Oku Aizu’s traditional crafts

Life in Oku Aizu is simple and follows the natural cycle of seasons. Farm work dominates as the main way of living during the green season, yet the lengthy and constraining winter opens new opportunities for creative production and social interaction for the local people. Mishima town’s long-standing weaving and knitting craft has been acknowledged as the only state-designated traditional craft art from Oku Aizu.

A display of everyday items made by weaving

Its roots can be found in excavated woven baskets which date back to the Jomon period, 2500 years ago. The tradition of Mishima town’s craft is wonderfully fascinating with its simplicity and longevity. Ever since ancient times local people gather together around the sunken fireplace during the severe months of heavy snowfall with the intention to utilize the harvested blessings of nature for creating items of everyday use. The art of weaving bark of glory vine and silver vine, as well as ropes of sedges has been handed down from generation to generation around the fireplaces in the local farm houses. The items produced do not serve a simple decorative purpose but assist the town’s people in everyday life in the countryside: baskets made of enduring glory vine bark, sieves from elastic silver vine, bags from woven sedge ropes. Attention towards this local craft has been increasing in the past few decades and the town hosts several annual events exhibiting hand-made items produced by the 100 or so workers who continue the ancient tradition.

I tried weaving a keychain from vine bark…

My visit to Seikatsu Kogeikan, the town’s museum nested in a relaxing forest of paulownia trees, helped me realize how valuable the skills of the woven craft art are. Finely woven bags, humorously known as “the forest Hermès”, cost between 15 000 and 300 000 JPY! The facility offers numerous enjoyable opportunities to experience weaving the vine bark with one’s own hands (an activity of extreme precision in which I spectacularly failed) or making chopsticks and other carpenter’s items from the light wood of the paulownia trees.

…and failed (mine is in the middle)

Historcal townscape and delicious sweets

The akabeko at the entrance of Enzoji Temple

Oku Aizu is the birthplace of the notable akabeko (red cow) toy, strongly linked with the history of the astonishing Enzoji Temple. In the beginning of the 9th century a prominent priest named Tokuichi initiated the construction of a temple on top of a crag overlooking Tadami River. The process was arduous and almost bound to fail until the miraculous appearance of several red cows which, according to the legend, sacrificed their lives for the temple’s completion.

The grand hall of Enzoji Temple

Enzoji’s impressive grand hall now hosts a statue of Kokuzo Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, carved by none other than the famous monk Kobo Daishi. The akabeko, now popularly known as a toy which brings luck and repels diseases, is symbolized in a large statue of a cow that visitors caress upon entering the temple. The hot spring town Yanaizu located along the river under the temple complex welcomes visitors warmly with plenty of fancy shops and restaurants offering the traditional local sweet awa-manju(steamed buns made with millet, rice and red bean paste) whose history also reflects the hardships experienced back in the old days. Both the stunning panorama view from Enzoji Temple’s terrace and the walk around the quiet town contribute to experiencing the unique spiritual energy of Japan’s countryside.

The view from the temple’s terrace is magnificent

Embraced by nature’s energy

People in Oku Aizu are blessed with rich natural resources of which water stands out as the most significant. It has been sustaining life in multiple ways throughout the centuries and it continues to do so even in our modern epoch in which we need energy for everyday use. The technological genius of Oku Aizu’s people succeeded in developing clean, recoverable and eco-friendly ways of producing electricity from the region’s bountiful water resources.

The clean and eco-friendly geothermal power station

During my visit to Yanaizu Nishiyama Geothermal Power Station and Daini Numazawa Power Station I became acquainted with the ingenuous mechanism of creating electric power from the hot water located deep into the earth’s womb, as well as from ceaseless flow of Tadami River and the reserves of Lake Numazawa. Not only have local people achieved the challenging task of facilitating everyday life without finding themselves in a direct confrontation with nature, but the invisible underground tunnels of the power stations and the inventive systems for protecting the wildlife indicate the accomplishment of a complete harmony with the unique environment.

The beauty of the rural lifestyle

Oku Aizu offers the most authentic opportunities for experiencing traditional farming lifestyle as it has been handed down from generation to generation throughout the centuries of the region’s peaceful existence. Yamaneko Farm in the Nishiyama Onsen district is a wonderful and genuine farmhouse built over one hundred years ago. Guests can stay in this place overnight and live the everyday life of the Kaneko family, participating in their routine outdoor and indoor activities. The nostalgic interior of the farmhouse, with its sunken fireplace and classical Buddhist altar, evokes a longing for simplicity, return to one’s roots, and unencumbered purity of human relationships.

The Kaneko family in front of their idyllic farm house

Guests who seek authentic green life experiences can help the Kaneko family with the farm work in the field (a charming blueberry garden) or assist in making delicious jam indoors during the winter months. I was hardly surprised to see that Mr Kaneko’s daughter had brought her boyfriend from New Zealand for the summer – the tender moments of people from different cultures sharing the same enjoyments (such as soaking in the nearby village hot spring, or riding together on the back of an old pickup truck) proved that the human desire for a harmonious unity with nature is truly universal.

Mr Kaneko in his blueberry field; the blueberries are not so easy to pick actually

Without any doubt Oku Aizu’s pristine environment and pure-hearted people offer some of Japan’s best opportunities for experiencing a journey back in time to where our spirits feel uninhibited, free and greatly satisfied.

Access to Aizu

The easiest and most convenient way to access Aizu is by taking the JR Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Koriyama Station and then transferring to a local train (Banetsu-sai Line) to Aizu-Wakamatsu Station. The entire trip takes a little less than three hours and costs 9480 JPY unless you are traveling with the JR Rail Pass which completely covers the transportation expenses.