The Aizu region in central Fukushima is one of Japan's most scenic regions, filled with fairy-tale picturesque forests, hidden villages deep within lush green mountain valleys, and fields extending as far as your eyes can see. Unfortunately, there are still lots of persistent stigmas and skepticisms associated with the word "Fukushima", and efforts to revive the region's tourism and agricultural sectors have proven to be a challenging uphill battle. By going on a road trip in the summer through the beautiful Aizu region in central Fukushima Prefecture, I sincerely hope that I can change your impression of Fukushima with its natural sceneries, and all the friendly faces of the resilient locals who have gone through tremendous lengths to recover and rebuild the reputation of Fukushima.
Starting from Tokyo, the journey towards Fukushima takes you north of the capital to Nikko, a charismatic town known for photogenic autumn foliage views and many impressive shrines. Alternatively, you may also choose to drive towards Kinugawa Onsen, a pretty Onsen resort town, part of Nikko National Park and incredibly popular amongst Tokyoites for short day trips and weekend getaways.
Moving onwards from Nikko, Highway 121 takes you on a scenic drive through twisty and windy roads towards the town of Minami-Aizu. Along the way, you will drive alongside the Ikari Dam, a popular spot to admire autumn foliage during fall season.
Once past the town of Minami-Aizu, head towards Ouchi Juku, a preserved post town from the Edo period that takes you on a journey to the historic heydays, a time when life was much simpler and basic. Lined with Edo style farmhouses along the main street, the post town depicts a stark contrast to the glitzy neon lights and skyscrapers in Tokyo. Yet these farmhouses are so incredibly well constructed, and they are still standing to this day after hundreds of years. Withstanding earthquakes, rain and windstorms, ice and snow in the winter, sweltering heat and sunlight during summer, these sturdy farmhouses are seemingly indestructible.
Continuing on towards the city of Aizuwakamatsu, the city itself is not particularly interesting, but be sure to visit Sazae Temple, a wooden temple built in 1796 featuring an interesting double-helix structure and spiral staircase. For a nice relaxing stroll, consider heading into Oyakuen, a beautiful Japanese garden harvesting medicinal plants with a koi pond in the centre. Within walking distance from Oyakuen is Aizu Bukeyashiki, a reconstructed samurai mansion burnt down in 1868, also a fantastic museum providing historical insights into the old ways of living in the Aizu region. Finally, for a bird's eyes panoramic view of the entire city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, head up to the Byakkotai "White Tiger" historical site up on the hills.
From Aizuwakamatsu, follow the JR Tadami rail line through the towns of Yanaizu and Mishima towards Kaneyama. It is a very scenic drive that starts out with wide open sunflower fields like this
As the journey progresses, the road trip takes you through the heart of the mountainous part of the Aizu region, following along the Tadami River towards Niigata Prefecture. Be sure to make a stop at Tadami River Bridge, one of the most iconic views of central Fukushima. For the best photos, be sure to time it right with the rail timetable, so that you can photograph a train going across this iconic bridge! Access to the viewpoint requires a short 10 minute hike from the visitor's center parking lot, so make sure you have enough time to get to the photo spot before the train crosses the bridge!
Along the way towards the town of Kaneyama, you will see lots of Fukushima style farmhouses with red tiled rooftops.
For the best view of Tadami River, all the surrounding mountains and the signature Aizu red roof farmhouses, there is a fantastic viewpoint accessible with a very small car driven by an experienced driver, or best to just ditch your car at the bottom altogether and hike for an hour to the viewpoint!
Finally, you need a place to stay for the evening. In the heart of the Aizu mountain valley, you will find plenty of Minshuku style (Japanese Bed and Breakfast) hotels in the region. Most of these hotels look like ordinary homes from the outside, and they often provide dinner and breakfast when reserved in advance. Since restaurants and convenience stores are difficult to find in rural Aizu, it is best to reserve for dinner service when making a booking, while breakfast is usually complimentary for all guests. This is what a Minshuku style hotel looks like:
Most likely, you won't be able to see everything mentioned in this article within a day, especially if you want to take in the experience nicely and slowly. After all, no one is ever in a hurry while traveling through Aizu. Most certainly, the locals in Aizu are never in any kind of hurry, for they embrace their slow-paced and laidback lifestyles, where time is always abundant, and life is meant to be relaxing and enjoyable. For more travel tips and latest information for attraction sites and nearby accommodations, visit Wanderplans and start planning your future visit to Japan! Be sure to add Fukushima to your destination checklist.