From the lively streets of Tokyo’s historic east side to the natural surrounds and samurai traditions of Fukushima’s Aizu region, getting off the beaten track in Japan can be as easy as hopping on a train. Tobu Railway, Yagan Railway and Aizu Railway are three train services that combine to take you off the beaten track in Japan to discover some of the lesser known cultural and natural places...
This trip begins in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighbourhood, a part of the city which has flourished as a temple town since the Edo period, after originally having developed around the capital’s oldest temple, Sensoji—said to have been established in 628 A.D. to house a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, fished out of the nearby Sumida River.
A succession of earthquakes and fires mean there are no original buildings left, but Sensoji’s current structures consist of traditional style buildings such as the famous Kaminari-mon Gate, Hozo-mon Gate, and the Five-storied Pagoda and its main hall which attracts 30 million worshippers annually.
While Sensoji is a fully functioning spiritual site, the complex is lively, rather than solemn, especially with the colourful Nakamise Street that runs between Kaminari-mon Gate and Hozo-mon Gate. Roughly 250 metres long, it’s lined with close to 90 stores selling souvenirs, crafts, and snacks.
If you fancy getting hands on with the latter, try making amezaiku, a type of candy that’s been made in Japan for at least 1,000 years in fun, lifelike shapes such as goldfish, dragons and frogs. At Ame-shin in Asakusa, you can learn how the candy is heated, stretched, shaped, and then painted with edible dyes to create all sorts of artistic candy designs, and then make your own to take home.
After that, it’s time to say goodbye to the city, heading to Asakusa Station to catch Tobu Railway’s Limited Express Revaty just under three hours north to Minamiaizu town’s Aizukogenozeguchi Station. Surrounded by mountains at an altitude of 1,000 to 2,000 meters in the southern part of Fukushima Prefecture, Minamiaizu is home to four ski resorts, plus a good mix of accommodation to choose from. It’s also got clear winter skies that are ideal for ending the day with a stargazing tour.
After breakfast, soak up some local culture at the Okuaizu Museum. As well as housing exhibits that offer glimpses of traditional life in the region, the museum's thatched houses are the setting for craft workshops where visitors can try their hand at traditional crafts such as indigo dyeing in Aizu.
Next, grab a taxi about 35 minutes (25km) to Ouchi-juku, located in Shimogo town, Fukushima Prefecture, on the way stopping for a photo op at the scenic To-no-hetsuri ravine—a 200-metre-long cliff face with rock formations that look like a collection of animal-shaped towers. In the Edo era (1603-1868), Ouchi-juku became an important staging post on the old Aizu-Nishi Kaido trade route. Today, rows of thatched houses remain like a time capsule from those days, some of them still homes, others now guesthouses, museums, and restaurants serving local specialties like soba (buckwheat) noodles or char fish cooked on skewers around open hearths.
To immerse yourself more deeply in the traditional surrounds, you could rent a kimono or yukata gown to wear while strolling around the old town. Away from the preserved buildings—about 500 metres from the main carpark—you could also learn to make your own soba at the Ouchi-juku Shoku-no-Yakata.
When you are done, settle in for a 45-minute taxi ride (30km) to the Higashiyama Onsen district of Aizu-Wakamatsu city, where you can spend the night in a traditional ryokan inn. There are plenty of ryokan offering similar traditional experiences, with tatami-mat guestrooms, soothing hot-spring baths, and multi-course dinners based on local, in-season produce.
Although Aizu-Wakamatsu is a modern city home to almost 115,000 people, it still wears its samurai past with pride. For a glimpse of that, start day three by taking the Aizu Loop Bus from Higashiyama Onsen to the Oyakuen Medicinal Gardens. The garden of Oyakuen is said to belong to Chisen Kaiyushiki Garden (a type of Japanese garden with a pond in the centre) which emerged in the Edo period, and was actually extensively renovated in 1696 to take its present form.
Next, another short trip on the Aizu Loop Bus brings you to Aizu-Wakamatsu’s most striking samurai remnant, Tsurugajō Castle. Originally built in the late 1300s, the castle has a storied past, having been won and lost by a succession of regional rulers until it was eventually destroyed in the Boshin War of 1868. It was then rebuilt in the 1960s, with the main keep now featuring multiple floors of engaging exhibits on the region’s history and samurai culture, as well as a top-floor observation deck that gives great views over the city.
After that, Nanoka-machi Street about a kilometre north of the castle is a good place to head for lunch and souvenir shopping. Its Taisho-era (1912-26) storehouses and wooden townhouses, interspersed with a dappling of historic Western-style structures, house everything from sake breweries to stores selling Aizu specialties such as Aizu lacquerware and Aizu cotton. The restaurants around here also serve regional flavours like Aizu ramen, wappameshi (steamed rice topped with seasonal produce), and skewers of tofu coated in miso (miso dengaku).
Then it’s time to begin the journey back to Tokyo, an easy, comfortable and convenient trip with the help of the Tobu, Yagan and Aizu railways.