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

Naked Friendship

One of the best ways to get to know someone in Japan is to take a bath with them. That might sound strange, but the Japanese have a phrase for this, hadaka no tsukiai, which translates roughly to naked friendship. Literally stripped of all clothes and outward formalities, the relaxed onsen vibe gives you the chance to go beyond the surface. It seems the only other way to do this is to consume lots of alcohol so I prefer the onsen.

Having been in Japan less than a month, I already have some great onsen stories. Like the other day when I got into a snowball fight against two Australian kids in the rotenburo (outside bath). It was awesome. Just as I was getting out, the 10-year old hits me right in the back. I had to fight back. I duck around the corner, make two quick snowballs and return with a vengeance, hitting the kid square in the chest as snow explodes everywhere. They try to retaliate but I quickly escape into the relative safety of the dressing room. All they could talk about after that was a rematch, which I was regrettably unable to oblige.

Then there was the onsen conversation about English grammar with a Korean friend. He works here at the hotel and apparently studies English in his free time. I don’t remember the question, but we talked for at least 30 minutes, completely naked, about some obscure grammatical question that I had no clue how to explain in simple language.

Also over a bath, I had conversation the other day about differences between Japan and the US. Specifically, my Japanese colleagues couldn’t understand America’s dieting/bingeing culture. They thought it was hilarious and ironic that people would become vegetarians, or not eat carbs, or do some crazy diet and still remain overweight. “Why wouldn’t you just eat healthy from the start?” was their simple response. Japanese people don’t exercise much and they eat an excessive amount of white rice but their waistlines and life expectancy are worth noting.

In the end, hadaka no tsukiai reminds me of my need to be more “naked” in my own friendships. It’s easy for me to coast along, never digging deeper or having challenging conversations. But those are the conversations that matter the most and I want to value the people I can have them with. Friendship takes longer in Japan but lasts for a lifetime. With old friends and with new, those are the types of friendships I want to intentionally cultivate and invest into.

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