Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Aizu (会津) - The Other Fukushima

This is Fukushima.

Yes, that Fukushima (福島). The prefecture in northern Japan brought to such suffering by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in March 2011, since when it has joined a very long list in the company of places like Chernobyl, or Hiroshima, or Jonestown, wherein the very mention of the name evokes fear and disquiet. Wherein its entire story, its entire identity, in the eyes of those not in the know, is reduced to one defining calamity.

But let us get some perspective. Fukushima is large and diverse, the third largest prefecture in Japan, and is divided into three regions: to the west, historic and mountainous Aizu; in the centre, the well-connected Nakadōri; and to the east, the coastal Hamadōri. Of these, the nuclear disaster exclusion zone covers a segment of Hamadōri, and the vast majority of the prefecture is still safe to visit.

Aizu (red), Nakadōri (green), and Hamadōri (blue).

I recently had the good fortune of a weekend visit to Aizu (会津), which warrants special discussion in its own right. Historically Aizu was not only a separate domain, but a leading power in its neighbourhood overshadowed only by the rise of nearby Sendai under Date Masamune, who briefly occupied parts of it during his conquests. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), when Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate, the Aizu lords became very close to the Tokugawa family and turned Aizu into one of the shogunate's most dedicated and loyal domains in the country. It was – and is – a proud territory, whose heritage reverberates to this day with echoes of the samurai and bushido warrior spirit.

This close relationship with the shoguns, however, transpired to Aizu's great sadness. Aizu is perhaps best known for its bloody defeat during the 1868-9 Boshin War, during the Meiji Restoration, in which the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown and the Japanese emperor restored to power. Even after Edo (Tokyo) fell to the imperial forces, whose leaders and members came mostly from the southwestern domains of Chōshū and Satsuma, Aizu continued to fight on the shogunate's behalf at the core of a coalition of northern domains. Long one of the revolutionaries' bitterest enemies due to its extreme loyalty to the Tokugawas, Aizu put up ferocious resistance until it was crushed after a month-long siege of its capital at Aizu-Wakamatsu (会津若松).

Given the southern domains' special hatred for it, Aizu was dealt exceptional brutality during and after this conflict, with many of its people massacred, tortured, imprisoned or sent into exile. Furthermore, in an insult as unpardonable as insults came, the survivors were prohibited from tending to the bodies of their fallen, and these were left to decay in the streets. Aizu' defeat made the northern coalition untenable, and what remained of the Tokugawa loyalists fled Sendai for Hokkaido by sea, pursued by the imperial forces to their final destiny at Hakodate.

Tō no Hetsuri (塔のへつり), in Shimogō, southern Aizu.

I have seen it written that to this day, significant enmity, or even hostility, towards Chōshū and Satsuma remains in the hearts of many people in Aizu, who find it hard to forgive this ruthless treatment. For example, in 2006, this commentator observed the following:

A few weeks ago when I was in the city of Aizu in Fukushima, Japan, there was a panel discussion which included the mayor of Aizu...(involving) a letter from the mayor of the city that would have been the capital of Choshu (presumably Hagi) asking the governor of Aizu whether they could forget the past and just get along. The incidents were over 130 years ago. There was a heated debate that involved a lot of cheering and jeering from the audience, but it was clear that Aizu would not forgive these two clans...The panel pointed out that it was the victim that should reach out for peace, not the aggressors...The conclusion of the panel was that there would be no “forgiveness” but that “dialog” should continue.


The same account goes on to mention that because tending to the bodies of fallen Aizu soldiers had been forbidden, they were never commemorated at the Yasukuni Shrine, as is the custom for Japanese war dead. This supposedly gives many people in Aizu a uniquely negative view of government officials' visits to the controversial shrine; including by the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who in a further twist, happens to come from Yamaguchi Prefecture – that is, Chōshū.

Under the Meiji government, the old system of feudal domains was abolished, and replaced by what would become today's prefectural system. This was the end of Aizu as an independent domain, for it was joined to the rest of what would become Fukushima Prefecture, but to this day it remains highly conscious of its historical clout. It tells its stories and exhibits its identity at every opportunity, retains the name of Aizu in many place names and railway stations, and has built up a very strong tourism sector upon this heritage.

Akabeko, a symbol of the Aizu region.

Alas for unforeseen consequences. When Aizu was incorporated as part of Fukushima, nobody could have predicted that some hundred and forty years later the March 2011 Triple Disaster, in particular the spectre of nuclear radiation, would batter that tourism sector in the stomach for no more reason than this mere association of names. Even though Aizu was not so directly affected by the disaster – indeed, Aizu-Wakamatsu now shelters some thousands of people evacuated from the nuclear exclusion zone – its status beneath the very name of Fukushima has frightened off hundreds of thousands of visitors, both Japanese and foreign, especially because of the lack of rigour and transparency in how radiation safety was assessed and communicated.

Nonetheless, I hope that this article can provide a few insights and images, and help persuade you that a journey to Aizu, Fukushima is not only quite safe but certainly worth your while. Unfortunately my own trip was short; time and resources limited me to a small exploration of its south (Minami-Aizu, 南会津), and I did not get the chance to go to Aizu-Wakamatsu. Nevertheless, I saw splendid things. Click below for the full article.

Villages, Hot Springs, and Local Heritage
My base for this couple of days was Tokusa (木賊), an old little hot spring village amidst the rivers and mountains of remoter Minami-Aizu. It is a peaceful place, in many ways a living time capsule of traditional Japan where very old houses still stand, the air and water are fresh, and people still grow and eat real food from the farm fields and rivers around them.

Tokusa (木賊).

The local fish is outstanding. These are freshwater fish, caught from the local rivers, and have the distinction that you can eat the whole thing like this, from tail to head, bones included.

Can you spot the protective talisman? Look attentively to the right.

As a hot spring village, Tokusa stands out for its onsen. There is an especially popular natural hot spring jointly managed by Tokusa's numerous ryokan (inns), hidden down by the river at the end of a path through greenery like a secret of nature. Anyone can bathe in it, and it features two baths – one with very hot water, the other with extremely hot water. You can see some photos here.

Being a traditional hot spring village, this onsen does not segregate men and women. Plenty of both came to use it, and all those I spoke with not only found this most natural, but were also quite aware that this was the way it has been throughout history. So after three years in Japan, it was only at this point, at last and with great joy, that I had come upon hot springs truly reflective of their pivotal role in centuries of Japanese culture: a place where all people can bathe together regardless of artificial social divisions, and relax, converse and commune as equal human beings. Needless to say, thank you Aizu, and thank you Fukushima.

Tokusa faces the same difficulties as much of rural Japan these days: people leaving for the big cities, and ageing communities with fewer people staying around to look after them, bringing a decline to traditional livelihoods and ways of life. I understand there used to be a good dozen ryokan in Tokusa; now there are four. The March 2011 disaster has only compounded the region's struggles. Revitalising these communities is surely one of Japan's most vital challenges today, for it is they that conserve so much of the cultural richness and natural sustainability in the country's inheritance. In our beleaguered world, there is much we can learn from them.

Not far from Tokusa is the village of Maesawa (前沢), which contains many traditional thatched-roof houses. Although something of a tourist attraction, people still live here. Its magari-ya (曲家) (“turning house”) L-shaped farmhouses particularly stand out, and one of them is open to visitors.

Maesawa (前沢).
This area is rich in fields of buckwheat for making soba noodles.
A water mill, whose water runs down to a little shed nearby and powers a wooden rice-pounder.
The Maesawa magari-ya (曲家).
This construction speaks of the harsh, unforgiving winters that Aizu experiences. The region spends half a year under deep snow, and the significance of this for daily life is visible everywhere – even the roads have frequent snow shelter tunnels and “chain stations” for you to attach chains to your car tyres. For farmers in the old days, facing plummeting temperatures and one-metre nightly snowfalls, this was no joke. In response they came up with the clever innovation of these L-shaped houses, whose advantages included low distance to the road, to minimise time and energy spent on shovelling snow, and stables built into the house for more comfortable horses.

Nowadays the magari-ya are slowly disappearing, but these in Maesawa have been designated as historic cultural assets and are now protected by law.

Some serious equipment here.
Again, look closely into the dark to see something interesting. For more of this kind of cultural imagery, see this article. The roof itself is extremely strong: we were shown photos of a guy shovelling snow as thick as a train off it in winter.
Seasonal faces of Maesawa.
The books on the pedestal appear incredibly old.

From these parts, Aizu-Wakamatsu is only about an hour away by road, up through Minami-Aizu's main town of Tajima (田島). Not far from it is Ōuchi-juku (大内宿), now one of the most popular destinations in Aizu.

Ōuchi-juku (大内宿).

Ōuchi-juku was originally an Edo Period post station on the Aizu West Highway (Aizu Nishi Kaidō), which connected Aizu-Wakamatsu with Tochigi and the south, including the important centre of Nikkō. This was a very significant road, and its many travellers included daimyo (feudal lords) and their retinues, travelling to and from Edo as required by the Tokugawa shogunate's sankin kotai alternate attendance system (explanation here). All these people needed to be fed, watered and looked after on their journeys, so post stations like these often attracted merchants and grew up as major economic hubs.

Many of Ōuchi-juku's traditional thatched buildings have been preserved as they were in those days. And although its clientele may have changed – most now visit it on purpose, rather than passing through – its function has stayed remarkably similar. It is packed with restaurants and eateries offering specialities like the highly reputed local soba noodles or varieties of dango and senbei, as well as souvenir shops selling local crafts.

This special type of dango with rice inside bears resemblance to the kiritanpo of Akita.
A more conventional, but no less tasty, variety of dango.

Speaking of local crafts, the akabeko (赤べこ), a lacquered papier-mâché red cow, is iconic of Aizu and a prominent mascot of Fukushima Prefecture. As with the kokeshi dolls of Tohoku's hot springs, there are various theories about their origin. The most common legend revolves around a mysterious red cow, or a herd of them – it is not clear which – that showed up in the ninth century to help transport timber to build a certain temple. When it was finished, the cow(s), depending on the version, either had a stone statue devoted to them in thanks; remained in the temple grounds and lived there; or gave its soul to Buddha and physically transformed into part of the temple.

The actual akabeko figurines appeared in the Edo Period, when it is said that one of Toyotomi Hideyoshi's officials heard about the legend and commissioned a toy based on it. As with kokeshi, they came to take on a supernatural air. During a smallpox epidemic around that time, it was thought that children who owned akabeko were not affected hence akabeko took on a role as talismans to protect against disease, with some sources attributing their black spots as a representation of smallpox.

The akabeko head is attached to the body by a string, so it wiggles around cutely when you move it. Also like kokeshi, production of akabeko is the exclusive craft of a very small number of family workshops, using skills passed down over generations and with subtle differences between them. However there are numerous locations where you can paint your own, Ōuchi-juku being one of them.

Mountains and Hiking: Aizu-Komagatake
Aizu's natural wealth is as deep as its cultural wealth. It is a region of thriving forests and mountains unfolding towards the horizon in every direction, and some of these, despite their remoteness, are popular hiking destinations with well-established routes and cultural prominence. Of particular note are Hiuchigatake (燧ケ岳, 2356m), the highest mountain in Tohoku; and Tashiro-yama (田代山, 1971m) and Taishaku-yama (帝釈山, 2060m), the former distinctive for its flat-topped marshland.

These stand in the northern reaches of Oze National Park, an area of stunning mountains, marshes and moorlands I had previously visited from the Tochigi side. So does another mountain, Aizu-Komagatake (会津駒ケ岳, 2133m), and it is from a nine-hour climb up and down this through superb autumn colours that the following images come.

If you are of a mind to climb some of these, autumn is perhaps the best time to do so given the spectacular autumn colours (kōyō, 紅葉). Be aware that in Aizu's long, deep winters these mountains get colossal quantities of snow dumped upon them, so bring suitable clothing and equipment if attempting them at any time between November and June.

Aizu-Komagatake is steep, but not maddeningly so, and is of little technical difficulty; on this occasion I encountered small children and dogs doing it, even as far up as the summit. Instead, its principal challenge is the sheer length of the route: almost 15km up and down an elevation change of a kilometre and a half. Plan your daylight hours well. An exceptionally early start is recommended.

From the trailhead (Komagatake tozan-guchi, 駒ケ岳登山口), there is a short climb along tarmac road until you come to the path proper, whereupon there follows three to four hours of slogging up through gorgeous mixed forests.

Along the way you come to this little junction, where you can head off left for a few minutes to find a source of drinking water (mizuba, 水場). Needless to say, all the local water I drank on this trip was invigoratingly fresh.

As you climb higher past some especially impressive beech trees, the forest gradually thins, and views open up across the surrounding mountains.

Note the deeper autumn foliage of the trees on the right of that ridge. The higher forests' autumn colours were generally more advanced.

Towards the top you break from the forest to emerge on splendid high moorland. The upper reaches of these mountains are a breathtaking landscape of rolling grassy ridges and marshy ponds. While those rich deciduous forests mass beneath, fewer trees are evident up here above 2000m, save some intrepid bunches of evergreens at home on the high slopes.

Today the moors were mostly dry, although evidently this is not always the case: most of the paths up here are lined with wooden boardwalks.

Hiuchigatake (燧ケ岳, 2356m), Tohoku's highest mountain, looms in the distance.

At the shoulder of the ridge you come to this mountain lodge called Koma-no-goya (駒の小屋). It is a well-reputed place where people on more extended hikes can stay the night, and there are toilets and picnic tables which make this a popular place for a lunch break.

Koma-no-goya (駒の小屋).

From here, it takes some sustained but not too strenuous walking along the gentle ridge to reach the summit of Komagatake.

Looking back towards the koya from the final ascent.
The top of Komagatake.

The peak is quite small and enclosed in greenery, but there are good views across it and a helpful display board for identifying mountains.

Hiuchigatake (燧ケ岳).
The view north, further along the ridge.

If you have made it all the way out here, you might as well go on for a final hour north to the end of the ridge, for more outstanding mountain views and exhilaration.

A lot of the evergreens up here look suspiciously like Christmas trees.
Chūmondake (中門岳, 2060m) is the final “peak”, though it is really more a little plateau. The wildflowers here are said to be remarkable earlier in the year. The ridge and its trail end a bit further on, concluding with some lovely perspectives north.

Chūmondake (中門岳).

After spending four to five hours clambering all the way up here, you then face the exciting prospect of a comparable length of time labouring back along the ridge and down the way you came.

By now you will surely be getting tired, and there will be times it feels like the path will never end. But on the other hand, at least you get the privilege of feeling that in a setting like this.

As a final suggestion, there is a separate path off the tarmac part near the beginning/end that leads up through a different section of forest to a beautiful waterfall. I did not get the time to explore it on this occasion, but some local people strongly recommended it.

And if you survived all that, what could be better than a long soak in the natural, non-segregated hot springs nearby?

Needless to say, all this comes from just a two-day glimpse into the bottom corner of Aizu, Fukushima. It was more than eye-opening, and I hope to go back some day to explore it further. 

If you get the opportunity, you should too. In which case, I would heartily recommend these ryokan I stayed at in Tokusa:

Fukumoto-ya (福本屋):

Minshuku Miyasato-sō (民宿みやさと荘):

They are ryokan in the true original sense, with comfortable tatami rooms, full meals included, and authentically friendly and well-informed staff. They are also just five minutes walk from the aforementioned hot springs. Be aware that because Tokusa is a small village, capacity is limited, so book in good time if you plan to go there in popular seasons.

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