I, my husband and a couple of friends from Tokyo who accompanied us to the race arrived at our ryokan in the town of Higashiyama Onsen in the late afternoon before the race. The train journey from Tokyo station to Aizu Wakamatsu station consisted of a Shinkansen ride, a local train ride and about half an hour of waiting time in between. From Aizu Wakamatsu station, our inn was a short taxi ride away. The journey was pleasant as I had great company and the May countryside landscapes outside the train window were lovely. We saw not just vibrant green mountains and late spring wild cherry trees (yamazakura), but also snow-capped mountain ranges (Mt. Bandai and the Azuma Mountain Range) in the distance.
The ryokan (原瀧 Gen Ryuu) was located next to a gorge and from our window we looked up to a towering green mountain and down to a roaring river. The sound of the river and a short waterfall lulled me to sleep but kept my husband awake. I suppose that most, if not all, of the hotels and inns in this town would be beside the river, the mountain and perhaps one of the several waterfalls. All would have onsen or hot springs in the premises. Our hotel has an impressive rotenburo or an outdoor bath overlooking the river and secluded from prying eyes by the mountain. After dinner, I spent time in the hot waters of the rotenburo which soothed my muscles and prepared my mind and body for bed.
We were joined for dinner by a Japanese friend who is an active long-time member of our ski club and her sister who are both Fukushima residents. Although it was colder and windier than we expected, the experience of dining while surrounded by nature – moving water, leaves, trees, wind and there was a small slice of the moon that evening – was worth the cold, especially since it was cold enough to ward off any mosquito. The meal featured local beef, Aizu wagyu, which was incredibly rich and utterly delicious, and seasonal local vegetables which were as fresh as one could hope for. I’m not an expert on wagyu but it was just heavenly and most likely cheaper than Kobe beef.
The following morning, the morning of the half-marathon, we had Japanese breakfast at a beautiful room overlooking the river. I remembered not to overindulge since I did not want to spend my running time in a toilet. I can disclose now that I did not step inside a toilet during the race, as you may have concluded from my previous post since I made no mention of stomach problems during the race. As you can see below, I finished with a grin. (I should have posted this photo in Part 1 but, well, I forgot.)
After the race, we took an afternoon tour of the city. We first went to Iimoriyama to visit the graves of the Byakkotai, a unit of 16 to 17 year old sons of the samurai of the Aizu clan, and other warriors of the Battle of Aizu. When Tsuruga Castle, the last resistance against the Meiji government, fell, the Byakkotai members committed seppuku, the last honorable thing they could do. The graves are located atop a hill where you can get a good view of the city. In addition to the graves, there is a gift of friendship from the city of Rome. The pillar was excavated from the ruins of Pompeii.
We later visited the streets of central Aizu Wakamatsu where old warehouses, some turned to restaurants, others to shops, are still standing. These streets are along the bus routes and are definitely worth visiting.
One of the cool places we found was Ragtime, a funky coffee house which also alternates as a jazz place. The owner was such a cool fellow, who had travelled around the world and obviously loves jazz. Next door was an antiques store whose proprietor managed to get my husband and our friend to part with their money for a few purchases. We would have wanted to visit more shops but it was late Sunday afternoon and most shops were already closed.
After some more walking, we ended up at Ristorante Luce, an Italian restaurant which (unless I misunderstood the staff) opened after the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake. We were so tired that the restaurant was an oasis, even if it wasn’t a local Japanese restaurant. But it had Aizu wagyu steak, which was as good as the one I had the night before. I’m now hooked on Aizu wagyu.
The following day, we visited Tsuruga Castle where, in 1868, samurai warriors loyal to the Tokugawa shogunate tried to hold off the army of Emperor Meiji as Japan entered the industrial era. The castle is now a museum commemorating the Byakkotai.
One of the warriors who protected Tsuruga Castle but was not a member of the Byakkotai was Yaeko (or Yae) Yamamoto, the daughter of a samurai. Unlike most women in those days in Japan (probably even in present day Japan), she favored shooting guns and was essentially what you’d call a tomboy. She disguised herself as a man so she could enter the castle and fight in the Battle of Aizu. After the battle, she settled in Kyoto, studied English and Western knowledge, and was a “liberated woman” during her times. She and her husband were the first Japanese couple to marry under Western marriage rites. Plus, she had a career as a nursing educator.
The entire city celebrates Yae. I don’t know if they’ve been doing that for a long time, or if it’s because NHK televised a historical drama about her, called Yae no Sakura (Yae’s Sakura). I have no problem with that, except for the fact that posters of the actress who played Yae were plastered all over the city. I found that annoying as I am not fond of the actress.
From the castle, we stopped by a sake brewery for sake tasting and some sake shopping. The short sake tour was educational, and the sake tasting was, well, thirst quenching.
To get around town, we rode interesting “historic” buses, which I doubt were historic or old. We also saw a couple of London taxi cabs, yes, black London taxi cabs, one of them driven by a female driver (I point this out because female taxi drivers are not that common). Too bad, we did not have the opportunity to ride one.
My overall impression of Aizu Wakamatsu is that it’s a beautiful town. I believe that this is the first time I’ve ever described a Japanese town or city as beautiful. Japan has an abundance of beautiful sights and destinations but I cannot describe the cities and towns which I’ve visited as beautiful. Aizu Wakamatsu, however, in my eyes is a pretty city. Not in the European sense, but pretty nonetheless.
My husband and I are planning to visit it again. If you get the chance, please visit it. It’s worth a day or two.