Fukushima is ready for tourists again

Fukushima (福島県) is the third largest of Japan’s 47 prefectures and stretches over 150 kilometers from the Pacific coast into the mountainous interior of northeastern Honshu.

Reached in just over an hour by shinkansen from Tokyo, Fukushima offers ample of natural beauty, historic sites and leisure activities, including spectacular volcanic landscapes, excellent hot spring waters, outstanding cherry blossom and autumn color spots, prominent castle towns, high-quality sake, pleasant ski resorts and Japan’s first ever theme park, the Spa Resort Hawaiians.

The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated the coastal areas of Fukushima Prefecture and caused a nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant which forced tens of thousands of residents to evacuate.

The no-entry zone around the nuclear plant makes up less than 3% of the prefecture’s area, and even inside most of the no-entry zone, radiation levels have declined far below the levels that airplane passengers are exposed to at cruising altitude. Needless to say, Fukushima is perfectly safe for tourists to visit. Wide areas of western Fukushima, in particular, escaped much contamination, including the mountainous interior around the historic city of Aizu-Wakamatsu. And even in most of the eastern parts of the prefecture, radiation levels have by now decreased to pre-2011 levels due to natural decay and decontamination efforts.

Eight years have passed since the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck off Tohoku’s coast, concern over radiation is the most common response you’ll receive if you announce you’re heading for Fukushima.

Maybe that’s why just 120,000 foreign visitors stayed overnight in 2018, despite the fact that the contaminated evacuation zone now comprises just 2.8% of Fukushima Prefecture.

Japan’s third-largest prefecture but with fewer than 2 million inhabitants, Fukushima is mostly rural, with winding mountain roads, forests, rushing rivers, waterfalls, marshlands and highlands.

Getting there is easy with the Tohoku shinkansen, Fukushima airport, and Japan’s highway system all getting you there in no time at all.

Among Japanese, Fukushima is famous for changing autumn leaves, heavy snowfall, historic sites in Aizuwakamatsu that embody the samurai spirit, peach and persimmon trees, local cuisine you won’t find anywhere else, over 130 hot-spring resorts and more than 60 sake breweries.

Fukushima is home to historic samurai sites, hot spring resorts and sake breweries.

The prefecture was selected for the commencement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics torch relay, at J-Village, the nation’s top soccer training facility. Because of J-Village’s location just 12.4 miles from the nuclear meltdown but saved from the tsunami due to higher ground, it was the operational base for 1,000 people dealing with the disaster and is now considered a symbol of revitalization. From there, the torch will journey north through coastal towns that have steadily recovered since 2011, including Soma, southern terminus of Japan’s newest and longest hiking trail, the 620-mile Michinoku Coastal Trail that passes through four prefectures and was created to promote healing and attract international visitors.

Turning inland, the relay will pass through towns like Fukushima City, prefectural capital and famous for its onsen (hot-spring baths).

Just 92 minutes from Tokyo on the fastest Shinkansen bullet train, it offers the Iizaka Onsen area, you can soak your cares away at nine public baths and experience ryokan (Japanese inns) like Nakamuraya, where 7th-generation innkeeper Hiroshi Abe proudly points out antiques and architectural details, from the lobby’s open-hearth fireplace to rooms once used by samurai.

The Iizaka Onsen area has nine public baths and many ryokan.

Throughout Fukushima, are up to 20% lower than what you’d pay in more touristy cities like Kyoto.

South of Fukushima City is the castle town Nihonmatsu, where Daishichi Saké Brewery stands out for devoting more time to sake production than pretty much anywhere else in Japan.

Founded in 1752 and under the helm of 10th-generation owner Hideharu Ohta, Daishichi uses only the time-consuming traditional kimoto method for brewing sake, developed around 1700 but now mostly abandoned in favor of quicker modern practices. It also developed an innovative super-flat rice polishing technique that assures a high-quality taste. The result is sake that’s resistant to oxidation and grows and matures over time, making it comparable to wine.

Tsuruga Castle contains a history museum as well as a traditional garden and a teahouse on grounds.

Fukushima Prefecture’s most famous castle town is Aizuwakamatsu, which dubs itself Samurai City and is located in Aizu, the westernmost region of the prefecture.

After the Tokugawa shogunate, which had ruled over Japan for more than 250 years, was overthrown and the emperor resumed power, the Boshin War broke out between samurai loyal to the shogun and Imperial forces.

It was here, in Tsurugajo Castle, that the mighty Aizu clan fought and lost the last samurai battle. Thousands died, including female samurai warriors and the Byakkotai (White Tiger Force), a contingent of samurai teenagers who saw what they thought were flames engulfing Tsurugajo Castle and committed suicide.

Today, Tsurugajo Castle contains a history museum while on its grounds are a traditional garden, teahouse, and 1,000 cherry trees.

Nearby is Aizu Bukeyashiki, where the chief retainer of the Aizu clan, Saigo Tanomo, lived with his family, servants, and soldiers. The restored 38-room mansion illustrates a grand lifestyle, which ended tragically during the final hours of the Boshin War when Saigo’s wife killed their three youngest children and then committed suicide along with her teenage daughters, sisters and other family members. Saigo, off in battle, lived into his 70s.

Aizuwakamatsu is also known for sake breweries, onsen, and local cuisine like kozuyu, the go-to soup for weddings and other special occasions made from root vegetables, dried scallops, mushrooms, and other foods.

Wappameshi is a simple dish of rice and other ingredients steamed in a circular cedar container, while sauce katsudon is breaded pork cutlet topped with thick sauce and served on rice and cabbage.

Ramen has long been popular, and in nearby Kitakata — where there are 120 ramen shops alone — it’s also popular for breakfast.

South of Aizuwakamatsu is Ouchijuku, Fukushima prefecture’s most-visited destination. It’s an old post town that once served as a major stop along the Aizu Nishi Kaido connecting Aizu and Nikko. Such roads were for transporting rice and for feudal lords, who were required by law to spend every other year in Edo (modern-day Tokyo).

Remarkably, 48 original thatched buildings from the Edo Period (1603–1867) survive, lined up on both sides of the old road and home to restaurants serving buckwheat noodles, souvenir shops, and a handful of minshuku (the Japanese equivalent of a bed-and-breakfast).

West of Aizuwakamatsu is Yanaizu, a delightful onsen village on the Tadami River. Home to 3,400 people and seven ryokan, it’s famous for Fukumankokuzobosatsu Enzo-ji, a temple built on a crag above town where one of Japan’s several Naked Festivals is held annually.

Thanks to Fukushima Prefecture’s geography and climate there are a lot of fruit farms. The variety of fruits include peaches, pears, grapes, apples, and cherries amongst many others. There is a big enough variety of fruit that almost every month has a different fruit being harvested!

There’s even a road called the “fruit line” that has orchards on either side of it for over 14 kilometres! Along this road, lots of orchards offer “fruit hunting”, where they’ll teach you how to tell between ripe and unripe fruit and let you wander around and ‘hunt’ for your own fruit to harvest.

Lots of fruit from Fukushima Prefecture is made into sweets, pastries, and cakes.

Fresh water from the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture provide a great base for sake so you can expect to find a lot of local bottles of sake at izakaya and bars! From Fukushima City is Kinsuisho, a brewery that has won a gold prize every year between 2010 and 2017 at the Japan Sake Awards – it has a mellow aroma and a refreshing taste.

But there are so many local sake that there’s no way we’d be able to tell you which one to try, so talk to a bartender and see what they recommend!

Wappa actually refers to the wooden bowl this dish is served in. The round box was used as a lunchbox but woodcutters in the Hinoemata Village for over 600 years, so it has strong traditional roots to the area. The lunchbox always contains rice and seasonal ingredients like mountain vegetables. The rice is cooked three quarters of the way and then put into the box with toppings and steamed to finish it all off, so the flavour of the toppings soaks into the rice a bit.

If you think chopsticks are hard to use, you might want to skip this dish as instead of chopsticks they use a stalk of spring onion! Hot soba noodles in soup are scooped up with the spring onion stalk and when you’re finished you have the choice to eat your unusual utensil too. This is a unique dish that many Japanese people haven’t experienced as it’s only found in Aizu, so if you visit the area make sure you check it out!

From the town of Kitakata, this ramen bowl is a concoction of many soups – niboshi sardine, tonkotsu pork, and chicken all blended together with soy sauce and simple toppings. Another focus point for the ramen is the noodles, which are thick and fat, cooked slightly soft. It’s one of Japan’s top 3 ramens, alongside Sapporo style and Hakata style.

© Times of U