Why Fukushima Should be on Your Japan Travel Bucket List

To the casual observer zipping by on the bullet train, everywhere in Japan can look similar at first glance. Japan is after all surrounded by ocean, 70% mountains and the rest is mostly either rice paddies or houses. But within this chain of islands the size of California, there is actually a tremendous amount of cultural, climactic, seasonal and culinary variation packed in. It takes a little digging, but Japan is a place that one can continue learning about forever. For me at least, that is what keeps me interested and constantly exploring Japan’s fascinating history, culture and natural treasures.

What makes Fukushima Prefecture special then? In the 10 years since the tsunami, by outsiders Fukushima has been defined by the tragedy that shaped it. I have to confess that I’m also guilty of this too. It’s easy to get an image of a place fixed in your head. But Fukushima is so much more than that. It has incredible natural beauty. It has a long, interesting history. Its food is sublime. And most importantly it is filled with people that love their home and want to share it with people like you and me. Let me tell you a little more about my time in Fukushima and why its worth checking out on your next trip to Japan.

First, nature in Tohoku is some of my favorite in Japan. Because it is one of the largest and least populated areas of the country, nature in Tohoku somehow seems more untamed and wild than the rest of the country. Indeed during the early part of Japanese history, Tohoku was the untamed North, the area past the wall that no respectable Japanese dared enter. A good example is Numajiri Onsen, where I got to visit on my last trip. Hiking 45 minutes into the mountains from the top of Numajiri Ski Resort, the trees give way to rock and a pungent sulfur smell permeates the air. This is how you now you are near Numajiri Onsen. Dropping down into the valley that can only be described as other worldly, there is a milky white hot spring river with the timber from abandoned mining buildings scattered around. Indeed up to a few decades ago, these were active sulfur mines used for weapons. They are abandoned now though and hot springs water has taken over the network of tunnels. We look around for an unclaimed bathing spot and hit upon one. Putting on my helmet and bathing suit, I bathe in my first ever completely natural river onsen, a truly unique experience. The coffee and cheesecake provided by the guide hits the spot and I finally feel like I have arrived.

A Lazy Onsen River

Another reason to visit is that the food in Tohoku and especially Fukushima is some of my favorite in Japan. While it doesn’t have Michelin star restaurants like Tokyo, the refined flavors of Kyoto or the loud street stalls of Osaka, food in Tohoku is unpretentious and comforting. It’s the soul food that will put some meat on your bones and get you through the long harsh Winters. Examples include Kitakata Ramen and Sauce Katsu in Aizu Wakamatsu, Kiritampo Nabe in Akita, Gyutan Yakiniku in Sendai. These are just some of the famous dishes that people from all over Japan come to try. I think the purity of the water and the environment create delicious ingredients and you can actually taste the difference. You can’t forget the sake too because some of the oldest and most famous breweries in Japan are from this region. Newer trends like craft beer are gaining popularity as well but whatever your preference, you’re going to like what is on offer.

Sake Tasting at Yamatogawa Shuzo

Next, Fukushima has some fascinating history and culture. During the Boshin War that ended the Edo Period, the Aizu Domain was the last supporter of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The plot for The Last Samurai is partly derived from a French military captain’s accounts during the Boshin War. Driving around the town of Aizu Wakamatsu, the taxi driver mentions where such and such battle took place or where the imperial army invaded etc. and as a student of Japanese history, it’s fascinating. Not only that, buildings like the Sazaedo Temple and Tsuruga Castle remain, adding to the impression that you have taken a step back in time. And for an even earlier Edo Period post town experience, you can visit the nearby Ouchi-juku thatched roof village.

Sazaedo Temple

Finally, people in Fukushima are just so darn friendly. From the waiter at the ryokan in Higashiyama Onsen telling us about which order to drink the sake in to bring out the most flavor, to the owner of Shiokawaya explaining every step of their farm to table ramen process, people here really love Fukushima and want to talk about it. They are proud of their home and their heritage. I never visited Fukushima before the tsunami, but I get a sense that it has brought people together rather than torn them apart Everyone is bonded by that common experience and while they will never forget, they also want to move forward and make this place better. Fukushima Friendly really is a thing, kind of like Minnesota nice or Southern hospitality.

Kitakata Ramen at Shiokawaya

Overall, I had a great trip and wanted to share my experience. Like I’ve said before, the Tohoku region and especially Fukushima are worth putting on your Japan travel bucket list when international travel resumes. For more ideas or itineraries, visit activetraveljapan.com. Thanks again and I hope to see you in Japan soon!

Hiking to Namekawa Onsen

Team Japan

I often wonder what it is that drew me back to Japan. I grew up here of course and have that sense of belonging but so did my siblings and they are happily living in the US. What specifically made me want to come back and not them?

First, I can’t discount the influence of a single encounter. I was living in Colorado at the time when my sister told me about a ski resort that was looking for staff. Having nothing better to do I thought, “what the heck” and spent the Winter snowboarding in Shiga Kogen. I didn’t have any plans to move back to Japan until then and that single introduction probably changed my life. Who knows if I would have found a different path back to Japan (I have the feeling I might have) but when I spent that Winter in Nagano I knew I had to stay.

Now that I’m here though, there are a few specific reasons that I just like Japan better than anywhere else. First, Japan is an endlessly interesting place to study. Churchill’s riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma quote actually describes Japan better than Russia. There is a simultaneous depth of culture and weirdness that in my opinion is not found anywhere else. For example, any aspect of Japanese culture from its history, food (which has it’s own branches), art forms, religion etc. is a rabbit hole that you could spend years going down. As a guide, I’m constantly making new discoveries because of the sheer volume of things I want to know. After living here 23 years I’m still asked questions about Japan on every tour that stump me. Second, I relate to Japanese peoples’ personalities better. Most Americans are willing to bare their life stories within a couple of meetings but in Japan – as with myself – it takes some time. It’s not that Japanese people don’t open up, someone just has to be in the inner circle before they do. There are a few ways to get into that inner circle including alcohol and speaking Japanese so I often experience a side of Japanese people that someone who doesn’t speak Japanese simply can’t. And perhaps superficially, Japanese food is just healthier and higher quality than American food of the same price. It’s easy to eat healthy and feel good here whereas in America it takes a conscious, concerted effort.

Another reason I have stayed is that I feel like I have more to contribute than I would living in the US. Speaking English and Japanese in Japan is a valuable skillset whereas in the US it wouldn’t be a significant advantage. In the US the competition for everything from houses to jobs to venture funding is fierce whereas in Japan, there just aren’t as many people competing for the same resources. Macro economically competition is good so it’s the reason the US is so far ahead but as an individual, it’s nicer being in a small pond. I definitely have a competitive advantage here that I wouldn’t in the US. I stand out here and while I hated that as a kid, I realize that it’s valuable as an adult. It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone who meets me remembers me because I’m this weird white guy that speaks perfect Japanese and those connections often come in handy sometime later.

Finally, this is a bit simplistic but despite its issues, I fee like Japan is still one team. I hate to say it but being ethnically homogenous probably helps. And while I am not, as you may have noticed, ethnically Japanese, I do feel like I’ve been let onto the team. I feel like I have skills that can contribute to making a better society, to brining more business here and to diversifying Japan in a positive manner. That’s what makes living here interesting for me.

Permanent Residency

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I recently made the decision, with advice from my immigration lawyer, to apply for permanent residency in Japan. I realized that even though I have lived here around 23 combined years, I still feel like a guest of the Japanese government. Permanent residency, if I get it, is just that: permanent. Excluding the ability to vote, I will be treated like a Japanese citizen, no need to ask permission to start a business or provide a reason when I leave or enter the country. Applying for visas every 3 years isn’t that big of a deal to be honest, but it’s the mentality more than anything that bothers me. I have spent most of my life here but I could be denied a visa at any time. The life I built up in Japan could vanish at any moment at the whim of an immigration official having a bad day. Perhaps that is a bit dramatic, but that’s how entering the immigration office feels anyway.

Before they grant permanent residency though, they definitely do their research. They want to know everything… how much I paid in taxes, how much my parents paid, my Japanese language certification, my work history, my bank statements, my driving record, my school records, a guarantor, my pickleball credentials, recommendations letters, the list goes on. I even have to write an essay about why I want to live in Japan and how I am going to contribute to society. It feels a bit like begging but I have to remind myself that it’s all part of the process and that once I finish, I never have to do it again.

I will say though, if I am denied permanent residency I will have a seriously diminished view of the Japanese system. Japan says it wants to become more international by increasing immigration. And for both demographic and economic reasons, it desperately needs more people. If I am not the type of international who Japan would want here, frankly I’m not sure who is. The one catch is that typically permanent residency requires 10 consecutive years of living in Japan (I had to start over when I left at 16) but I am applying after 6 years because of exceptional circumstances. Not to toot my horn but I have lived here 23 years, have the highest level Japanese language credential, bought a house, pay taxes, have brought hundreds of people here and started a new sport in Japan. Also I’m not saying this is right but I am one of the “desirable immigrants” from Western countries, not a “suspicious character” from Southeast Asia, Africa or the Middle East. It sounds simplistic but it’s true. I don’t agree with categorizing people like this, but the reality is that it happens in all countries and I got a lucky roll of the dice for being born American.

Concurrent to applying for permanent residency, I am registering my house as a Japanese style inn or Ryokan and registering it on Airbnb. Why do I have to register as a ryokan? Great question. To prop up the hotel industry, the Japanese government basically cut the number of airbnbs in half a few years ago. If you aren’t registered as a hotel, you can literally only rent out the property for 180 total days a year. In addition, the local ryokan association in my town got together and decided to limit rentals on certain days when they make money. So rentals during golden week (early May), silver week (late September) and the entire months of August, October and December are not allowed. Since I can’t beat ’em I decided to join their ranks, which is why I am registering my house as a Japanese style inn. It’s more expensive up front, but I’m choosing to see it as a barrier to entry. Like many things in Japan, the bureaucracy makes it expensive and difficult to get started, but once you push through the crowd there are fewer players to compete with. I’m playing the long game, even though it means investing more up front.

All that to say, my life in Japan feels much more entrenched than before the virus. I enjoyed my globetrotting life before but I’m not sure it was the healthiest. In the last year I’ve started working out, eating healthier, and made more friends/business contacts in Japan than ever before. Like the permanent residency or the airbnb registration, circumstances are what they are so it’s better to make the best of them. Dealing with the Japanese bureaucracy is a practice in stoicism but there is a lot of good in it. I’m hoping to take some of the lessons from this pandemic into the post-pandemic world. Before, I tended to think of work as a sprint to make as much money as possible, saying yes to everything as a result. Being somewhat bored for a year, I have realized that I never want to retire anyway. I will go back to traveling the world and a busy lifestyle but I want to remember that it’s a marathon. The pace needs to be set accordingly, running but taking time to take it all in as well.