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Fun Fukushima train trips: The best of Aizu Wakamatsu with geisha, onsen, and samurai

Fun Fukushima train trips: The best of Aizu Wakamatsu with geisha, onsen, and samurai

With the Tadami Line back open since fall 2022, Aizu Wakamatsu (会津若松) is calling! And whether you're planning to catch the views from this famous train line or not, you'll definitely want to see more of the Aizu region's samurai warriors, hot springs, and geisha!

 

Aizu Wakamatsu: From the Tadami Line to back in time

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

For travellers planning to visit Fukushima while exploring Japan, Aizu Wakamatsu is an indispensable part of any itinerary. The city is not only the starting point of the Tadami Line (只見線 Tadami-sen), one of the world's most beautiful railway lines, but it's also a stop on the way to other famous sightseeing destinations like Ouchijuku (大内宿 О̄uchijuku) and Ashinomaki Onsen (芦ノ牧温泉). But more importantly, as the very heart of the historic Aizu Domain—where warriors once defended the Aizu Wakamatsu Castle and their samurai spirit still lives on—the city positively vibrates with its unique history and living culture. Aizu Wakamatsu is even home to some of Japan's few remaining geisha performers, living embodiments of Japan's artistry and traditions.

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

In recent years, the renowned Japanese "samurai sword artists" of KAMUI (剱伎衆かむゐ) have also arrived in Aizu Wakamatsu to team up with the illustrious Fukushima onsen ryokan Ookawaso (大川荘 О̄kawasо̄), and bring guests their own blend of traditional arts and martial prowess. This unique samurai experience would be a highlight of any trip to Aizu, but if you have any interest in Japan's history (and its martial arts), there's a lot to enjoy in this part of Japan.

 

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(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

Even for the most traditional sightseers, and fans of the picturesque scenery out the windows of the Tadami Line trains, adding Aizu Wakamatsu to the itinerary will promise you an exciting journey.

 

Transportation tips: JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

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(Image credit: JR East)

 

When planning a trip to Fukushima's Aizu region (including Aizu Wakamatsu City), you won't want to miss out on the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) issued by East Japan Railway Company (JR East). The railway pass costs ¥20,000 for five days, and can be used for unlimited free rides on JR East lines within the designated area. That includes all the regular lines, plus shinkansen (bullet trains), limited express trains, and sightseeing trains, saving you time and money! To get to Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, you can take the Tohoku Shinkansen to JR Kо̄riyama Station (郡山駅), and then transfer to the JR Ban-etsu West Line for some fantastic views of the mountainous countryside on the way to Aizu Wakamatsu. You can use the JR Pass to ride the picturesque Tadami Line, too!

 

For sightseeing within Aizu Wakamatsu, a 1-Day Citywide Excursion Pass (まちなか周遊バス1日フリー乗車券) will also come in handy. For ¥600, this ticket can be used for unlimited rides on the Haikara-san (ハイカラさん) and Akabee (あかべぇ) sightseeing buses, which stop at all the city's major attractions.

 

Aizu Wakamatsu Castle (Tsuruga Castle)

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

Known as Aizu Wakamatsu Castle, Tsuruga Castle, or Tsurugajо̄ (鶴ヶ城 "Crane Castle"), this fortress is a symbol of the city, close to the hearts of Aizu Wakamatsu locals. It was first built in 1384 by the local feudal lord of the Ashina clan, which means its history stretches back about 640 years. Tsuruga Castle is largely famous for the part it played in the 1860s Boshin War. Even after a month of siege warfare, the castle's defences could not be broken, earning it the title "The Impregnable Castle". But unfortunately, that same storied structure fell into ruin and was eventually demolished in the early Meiji Period (1868–1912), towards the end of the 19th century. All that was left was the sturdy stone walls. But calls to rebuild Tsuruga Castle gained support a century later, and construction finished in 1965. In 2010, red tiles were used to finish the roof of the castle tower, adding the final touches to the Tsuruga Castle we see today, one of Japan's 100 most famous castles.

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

The modern-day Tsuruga Castle has been transformed into a local history museum, and new renovations and additions coming in April this year (2023) promise a captivating new look at the history of the Aizu Domain and the castle itself. The facility is also planning an exhibition put together with the Japanese digital art team "Naked", which will feature an immersive digital projection display called "Tsuruga Castle Light History Emaki".

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

After touring the castle and learning all about the history of Aizu, don't forget to stop by next door at Rinkaku teahouse for a cup of matcha and some Japanese wagashi sweets. The little teahouse was once the sanctuary of tea ceremony master Sen Shoan, who was the adopted son of Sen no Rikyu, the man who single-handedly defined traditional Japanese tea ceremony before dying as a result of offending the great samurai Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Centuries later, Rinkaku teahouse can still be visited today, tucked away in a little garden next to Tsuruga Castle, where guests are served a casual cup of tea and traditional sweets from a famous local shop.

 

Aizu Wakamatsu Castle / Tsuruga Castle (会津若松城/鶴ヶ城)
Address: 1-1 Otemachi, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima 965-0873
Nearest station: JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (会津若松駅)
Access: From JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, take the Haikara-san or Akabee bus to Tsurugajo.
Opening hours:
 Castle Tower: 08:30–17:00 (Last entry 16:30)
 Tsuruga Castle Light History Emaki: 08:30–17:00 (Last entry 16:30)
 
Rinkaku Teahouse: 08:30–17:00 (Last entry 16:30, last order 16:00)
Tel: +81 242-27-4005

 

Aizu Bukeyashiki (Samurai Residence)

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

Not far from Tsuruga Castle, the Aizu Bukeyashiki (会津武家屋敷) was once the home of a real local samurai, and now it's a must-see for travellers interested in samurai culture from the former Aizu Domain. The sprawling 2,300m² garden wraps around a collection of structures that once made up the residence of Saigo Tanomo, a chief senior councillor of the Aizu clan who ruled over 230,000 vassals. The complex was burnt down in the Boshin War, but it was later carefully rebuilt to reflect the same elegant wooden structures, gardens, and functional buildings that were once a part of everyday life, allowing visitors a peek into the lifestyle and culture of Japan's Edo Period (1603–1868) samurai.

 

The gardens are also known for their many cherry trees, which make Aizu Bukeyashiki a popular hanami (花見 cherry blossom viewing) spot. From time to time, the facility hosts unique workshops and immersive experiences as well, like archery or painting Fukushima's popular akabeko (赤べこ) cow figures.

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

After exploring the traditional old homestead, you can also check out the museum's souvenir shop "Local Crafts Shop Kokon", which sells traditional handicrafts and gifts, Japanese sake, traditional foods and snacks (including local specialties like brown sugar manju cakes and mochi-like walnut yubeshi), Aizu lacquerware, and more. On this particular trip, the JAPANKURU team even had the chance to meet local geisha visiting from Higashiyama Onsen (where they're traditionally called geigi instead), and we were able to take some pictures together. Of course, if you want to see these artisans at work, you can experience a real banquet in Higashiyama Onsen attended by the local Aizu geigi.

 

Aizu Bukeyashiki (会津武家屋敷)
Address: 1-1- Innai, Higashiyamamachi Oaza Ishiyama, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima 965-0813
Nearest station: JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (会津若松駅)
Access: From JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, take the Haikara-san or Akabee bus to the Aizu-bukeyashiki-mae bus stop.
Opening hours: 08:30–17:00 (April–November), 09:00–16:30 (December–March)
Tel: +81 242-28-2525

 

Higashiyama Onsen Ryokan Harataki

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

Higashiyama Onsen is a long-established hot spring resort in the Aizu Region, and as mentioned above, it's one of the rare areas of Japan where geisha culture still flourishes. The sulphurous hot springs started to attract visitors about 1,300 years ago, and in the Edo period (1603-1868) the onsen became an important sanctuary and place of relaxation for the Aizu clan. The traditional geisha (or geigi) performances at the local onsen ryokan are another historic feature, and there were once as many as 150 geisha living and working in the little onsen village, helping to attract famous guests like illustrator Yumeji Takehisa, and feminist intellectual Yosano Akiko. Even today, the geisha we saw at Aizu Bukeyashiki—Chiyono and Fuyuka—were just two of the twenty artisans still active in Higashiyama Onsen. If you're interested, you can follow Fuyuka on Instagram.

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

Higashiyama Onsen has plenty of onsen ryokan (温泉旅館 traditional hot spring inn) to choose from, but for luxurious baths and a premium experience, we recommend Harataki (原瀧). The long-standing hotel has its very own hot spring source, and the gorgeous open-air baths come with a view of a mountain stream flowing past, rushing down a majestic waterfall. After admiring the natural beauty of the mountainside from the comfort of a steaming onsen, it's no wonder travellers have been visiting this area since ancient times. And at Harataki, you can not only enjoy the ultimate bath experience, but also their summertime kawadoko dining.

 

(Image credit: Harataki)

 

In recent years, renovations at Harataki have opened up stylish new kawadoko dining options in the open air, with views of the river running past, and dining spaces exclusively for the use of overnight guests. But travellers in the area can enjoy the ryokan's onsen even without booking a room for the night! Their day plans include access to the shared baths, including those beside the river, and a variety of smaller private baths to rent.

 

Aizu Higashiyama Onsen Harataki (会津東山温泉 原瀧)
Address: 235 Shimohara Higashiyamamachi Oaza Yumoto, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima 965-0814
Nearest station: JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (会津若松駅)
Access: From JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, take the Haikara-san or Akabee bus to Aizu-bukeyashiki-mae or Higashiyama Onsen bus stop, then take the hotel shuttle bus (Please call when you arrive at the bus stop) 
Tel: +81-242-26-4126

 

Lunch recommendation: Wappa-meshi at Takino

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

Wappa-meshi is a local dish from the Aizu region, and it mainly consists of rice topped with a variety of seasonal ingredients, but what makes it stand out is the round bento-like box called a wappa (輪箱 literally "wheel box") that the food is served in. Nestled in among the many traditional buildings of Aizu Wakamatsu's Nanukamachi (七日町) area, Takino is said to be the originator of this classic dish, and you can still enjoy authentic wappa-meshi there!

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

The restaurant has even been chosen to provide breakfast for passengers on JR East's luxurious Train Suite Shiki-shima in the past, so you know it must be good! Takino's wappa-meshi comes with a variety of different toppings to choose from, so you have the option to try whichever local delicacy sounds most delicious.

 

Takino (元祖 輪箱飯割烹&会津料理 田季野)
Address: 5-31 Sakaemachi, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima 965-0871
Nearest station: JR Nanukamachi Station (七日町駅)
Access: 17-minute walk from JR Nanukamachi Station.
Opening hours: 11:00–20:00
Tel: +81 242-25-0808

 

Suehiro Sake Brewery's Kaeigura Warehouse

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

Fukushima is famous for sake, and to find a prime example of a classic Fukushima nihonshu (日本酒 Japanese sake), look no further than Suehiro Brewery. Initially founded in their Kaeigura Warehouse towards the end of the Edo Period in 1850, this brewery has a history of well over 150 years, and its original brewery building still stands close to the old-fashioned atmosphere of Aizu Wakamatsu's Nanukamachi area. Even just the high ceilings, sake brewery architecture, and retro stylings are reason enough to see the old "warehouse". But high-quality local rice, fresh water, and the yamahai (山廃) brewing method introduced by Taisho-era (1912–1926) brewer Kinichiro Kagi are what make the brewery so renowned. Suehiro Brewery's sake has not only won a number of awards, but it's also enjoyed by Japan's imperial family, and has been served at events like the G20 Summit!

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

Sightseers visiting Aizu will be glad to hear that not only is the tour of the original Edo-era Kaeigura Warehouse totally free, but reservations are also not required. Sample the sake at the tasting counter, and buy a bottle to take home if you like what you've tasted.

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

One room of the Kaeigura Warehouse has also been transformed into a coffee shop, where the same fresh water that is so important in sake brewing is used to make coffee. The menu includes a chiffon cake infused with high-quality daiginjo sake, so even those who don't drink can enjoy the sweet, mellow flavour of Japanese sake.

 

Suehiro Sake Brewery Kaeigura Warehouse (末廣酒造 嘉永藏)
Address: 12-38 Nisshinmachi, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima 965-0861
Nearest station: JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (会津若松駅)
Access: From JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, take the Haikara-san bus to the Yamatocho bus stop.
Opening hours: 09:30–16:30 (Brewery tours held on the hour from 10:00–16:00, except 12:00)
Tel: +81 242-27-0002

 

A walk around Nanukamachi and Japanese sweets at Nagatoya

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

After the Suehiro Brewery tour, you're in the perfect spot to head out on a walk exploring the Nanukamachi area of Aizu Wakamatsu. The neighbourhood's many well-preserved traditional buildings have been transformed in recent years, filling up with trendy stores selling handmade crafts, gift shops, cafes, and other unique establishments. One such traditional building contains a wagashi sweets shop with a long history and innovative new products—Nagatoya (長門屋).

 

Fans of Japan's many historically-inspired games and shows might also be interested to hear that the area is thought to be the final resting place of Saito Hajime, captain of the third unit of the Shinsengumi (a small group of swordsmen who played a big role in the goings-on around the end of the Edo period). If you can't get enough of Ruroni Kenshin, or any number of other samurai stories, you'll want to stop by when visiting Aizu Wakamatsu!

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

Nagatoya has been making traditional sweets in Aizu since the days of samurai, and has now been in business for more than 170 years, long outlasting the Edo Period. The shop boasts of a history catering to Aizu's feudal lords, but Nagatoya is also known for offering snacks and sweets for the masses, first produced by the shop's original owner. Changing with the times, they now offer new products that might be called a fusion of wagashi and modern aesthetics. Appealing to the modern eye (and taste buds), without losing the traditional elegance of Japanese sweets. One eye-catching example is their "Fly Me To The Moon Yokan Fantasia," a confection that won Japan's Good Design Award in 2017. 

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

A far cry from the look and feel of a traditional yо̄kan (羊羹 a firm jelly-like cake made with red bean and agar agar), the inner layers of this fantastical dessert are flavoured with lemon and champagne, and topped with Japanese walnuts, raisins, and cranberries. The Fly Me To The Moon yokan is sold in long rectangular loaf shapes, and when carefully sliced, a series of changing pictures appears in the centre like an edible picture book. The magic of the yokan's inner transformations creates a sense of anticipation with each new slice, but the excitement starts with the outer packaging, which features a dreamy illustration from native Fukushima illustrator Masuda Reika.

 

Of course, the Fly Me To The Moon Yokan Fantasia is just the tip of the iceberg at Nagatoya. You're bound to find something to bring back as a souvenir, or to take home to enjoy on your own.

 

Aizu Nagatoya Nanukamachi Store (会津長門屋 七日町店)
Address: 3-30 Nanokamachi, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima 965-0044
Nearest station: JR Nanukamachi Station (七日町駅)
Access: 2-minute walk from JR Nanukamachi Station
Opening hours: 09:30–17:30 (09:30–17:00 in winter, and closed during the New Year Holidays)
Tel: +81 242-29-7070

 

Accommodations and samurai sword art experiences at Ashinomaki Onsen Ookawaso

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

On the outskirts of Aizu Wakamatsu, Ashinomaki Onsen is another of the region's popular onsen resort areas, thanks to the steaming hot water and gorgeous natural surroundings. One of Ashinomaki's most well-established hotels is Ookawaso, an onsen ryokan beloved for its open-air baths, traditional shamisen performances, and superb dining options.

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

And among anime fans, Ookawaso has also gained a reputation in recent years thanks to architecture that somewhat resembles Muzan Kibutsuji's Infinity Castle in Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba (鬼滅の刃).

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

To add to all the hotel's traditional charms, Ookawaso began working together with The Samurai Sword Artists KAMUI (剱伎衆かむゐ) in 2021 to bring the samurai spirit of the Aizu Domain to modern Aizu Wakamatsu, offering martial arts experiences to the public.

 

KAMUI is a samurai arts group that combines art, beauty, and martial expertise to produce unique performances and workshops. Founder and leader of the troupe Tetsuro Shimaguchi now promotes Japanese samurai culture around the country and abroad, but he also has years of experience in movies and on the Kabuki stage. Film buffs might recognize Shimaguchi from his cameo in Kill Bill, where he not only appeared on screen, but also worked with Quentin Tarantino to choreograph and direct all of the movie's sword-fighting action! 

 

With KAMUI, this martial arts expert has merged the performing arts with the way of the samurai sword, and to help people learn even more deeply, Shimaguchi has also founded his own "original samurai method" he calls Kengido. Students practising Kengido's unique combination of traditional Japanese sword-fighting and performance techniques can be found all over the world, and Shimaguchi has even established a permanent training studio in Tokyo. Through the collaboration with Ookawaso, the globe-trotting sword artists of KAMUI carry on Aizu's long-held samurai traditions—providing a perfect addition to any samurai-focused trip through the area! In the meantime, check out Tetsuro Shimaguchi's Instagram.

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

Ookawaso has maintained its reputation as a go-to onsen ryokan throughout the years, and recent changes have included both a dojo for KAMUI, and also a selection of newly renovated guestrooms. The new room designs come directly from the hotel president himself, and they use a base of cherry wood to provide a warm atmosphere. In fact, most of the hotel's room decorations, toiletries, and products in the gift shop are locally-made items carefully selected by the president as well!

 

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

Ookawaso provides a classic onsen ryokan experience, with the added treat of a one-of-a-kind samurai swordplay workshop. For travellers with an interest in Aizu's samurai history and the echoes that now influence modern culture, memories of this trip are bound to last a lifetime. Details on KAMUI's workshop dates can be found on the homepages of Ookawaso or KAMUI.

 

Ookawaso (大川壮)
Address: 984 Shitadaira, Ashinomaki, Otomachi, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima 969-5147
Nearest station: JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (会津若松駅)
Access: From JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, take the hotel's free shuttle bus (About 30 minutes)
Business hours: 15:00–18:00 (Check-in) / 10:00 (Check-out)
Tel: +81-242-92-2111

 

Experience Japanese tradition in Aizu Wakamatsu

(Image credit: JAPANKURU)

 

From performances of the samurai arts, to the geisha of Higashiyama Onsen, plus all the old hot spring hotels, local cuisine, and historical sites you can pack into an itinerary—Japan's history and traditions are still alive and well in the Aizu region of Fukushima, letting you slip into the past even as you explore the modern-day city of Aizu Wakamatsu.

 

If you're the kind of traveller who likes a little bit of "time travel" while exploring new places, then you'd want to find the time to visit Aizu Wakamatsu. And once you're there, you might not be able to resist seeing more of all that Fukushima Prefecture has to offer. To find out more, check out this article on where to go from JR Fukushima Station!

 

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