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Fabulous Fukushima: Autumn day trips to Nihonmatsu and Kitakata

Fabulous Fukushima: Autumn day trips to Nihonmatsu and Kitakata

Fukushima (福島県) is a prefecture in the Tohoku Region that is famous for several things: unique cuisine, delicious fruits, magnificent natural scenery, and many more. And speaking of natural scenery, one of the best seasons to witness beautiful outdoor scenery firsthand is autumn (秋 aki), when the landscape is enveloped in hues of orange and yellow of the autumn foliage.

 

When it comes to the best autumn sightseeing spots in Fukushima, many would point to the historical former post town of Ouchijuku, the majestic Tsuruga Castle, or the fabulous lakes of Goshiki-numa and Urabandai. But do you know that there are smaller cities in the prefecture that offer incredible autumn views too?

 

Locations of Nihonmatsu and Kitakata in Fukushima Prefecture. (Image credit: illustAC)

 

In this article, I want to share with you what I found during my short excursions to two cities in Fukushima during autumn: the historical city of Nihonmatsu (二本松市 Nihonmatsu-shi), and the “ramen city” of Kitakata (喜多方市 Kitakata-shi). I visited these two places without knowing much about what to expect, but both left amazing impressions on me with their unique charms.

 

Want to know what I found in Nihonmatsu and Kitakata during autumn? Then join me and let’s find out!

 

① Onward to the historical city of Nihonmatsu

 

My walking route in Nihonmatsu. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

The city of Nihonmatsu is easily accessible from Fukushima Station (福島駅 Fukushima-eki) and Kōriyama Station (郡山駅 Kōriyama-eki) by train. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen to either Fukushima Station or Kōriyama Station, and then take a 20-minute train ride on the Tohoku Main Line (東北本線Tōhoku-honsen) to reach Nihommatsu Station (二本松駅 Nihonmatsu-eki).

 

Nihommatsu Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

It was my first time taking the Tohoku Main Line, and I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful outdoor views of rural Fukushima. In particular, the landscape featured faint orange and yellowish hues of the autumn foliage, signalling the arrival of autumn, as my train made its way towards Nihonmatsu.

 

It was also my first time visiting Nihonmatsu, and I embarked on a day trip there without knowing much about the city beforehand. The main reason why I wanted to visit Nihonmatsu was to see Kasumigajo Park (霞ヶ城公園 Kasumigajō-kōen), which is home to the ruins of Nihonmatsu Castle (二本松城 Nihonmatsu-jō), and features a breathtaking view of the surrounding city. Although the park is famous for cherry blossoms during spring, I wanted to know what the park looks like in autumn, as some have said that it is beautiful in its own way during this time.

 

Autumn foliage beginning to appear in Nihonmatsu. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As I made my way on foot from Nihommatsu Station to Kasumigajo Park, I spotted some trees that were already turning yellow and red alongside plenty of greenery around the city, which meant that autumn foliage was not at its peak yet. However, personally, I found the eclectic blend of colours to be fascinating. Looks like it’s in the midst of transiting between seasons, doesn’t it?

 

Climbing up to Kasumigajo Park. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Kasumigajo Park is about a 20-minute walk away from Nihommatsu Station, and features the ruins of the former Nihonmatsu Castle, which was originally built in the 14th century. Visitors can have a look at some of the remnants, including Minowa Gate (箕輪門), stone walls, and monuments.

 

When I reached the park, I was met with a glorious blend of greenery and emerging autumn foliage. The park stretches across an entire hill, and visitors can easily spend up to a day simply exploring the many historical remnants of Nihonmatsu Castle.

 

Plentiful attractions at Kasumigajo Park. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As I gradually made my ascent up the hill, I came across several unique attractions, which included picturesque ponds such as Kasumigaike Pond (霞ヶ池) and Ruriike Pond (るり池); soothing waterfalls such as Senshin Waterfall (洗心の滝 Senshin-no-taki), and some quaint shrines. There were just so many things to see at the park, and I hadn’t even reached the best part yet!

 

Kasumigajo Park’s lookout platform. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Along the way up to the top of the hill, I decided to take a small detour to its outskirts, and made a stunning discovery. On the western side of the park is a lookout platform that offers a breathtaking view of Mount Adatara (安達太良山 Adatara-yama) in the distance. The weather was thankfully clear that day, so I got to enjoy a full view of the mountain and its surrounding autumn colours before my very eyes!

 

Another spot with an amazing view of Mount Adatara. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

On my way up to the top of the hill, I discovered another spot with a spectacular view of Mount Adatara. There were some historical remnants around there, and visitors can take a seat at any of the benches here, and relish the view of the mountain. Fun fact: Mount Adatara is also one of the 100 Famous Japanese Mountains (日本百名山 Nihon Hyaku-meizan), and is known for its beautiful flora, namely flowers and autumn foliage.

 

Reaching the top of the park. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After about 15 minutes of slowly climbing up the slopes, I finally reached the top of the hill. The top features an open area where visitors can have a seat and simply take in the panoramic views of the city of Nihonmatsu and surrounding areas.

 

Breathtaking views of Nihonmatsu (left) and Mount Adatara (right). (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Speaking of panoramic views, the scenery from atop Kasumigajo Park has one of the most breathtaking landscapes I have ever seen. Visitors who climb to the top of the park will be rewarded with a stunning view of the city on one side, and the mountains on the other. And since the weather was fair, I got to enjoy a clear view of both the city and mountain to my heart’s content. Just look at how incredible the views were!

 

One last look at Kasumigajo Park’s autumn foliage. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After enjoying the fabulous views from atop Kasumigajo Park, it was time for me to head back to Nihommatsu Station and make my way back to Fukushima. As I made my way down and through the park, I couldn’t help but admire once again the beauty of the park’s seasonal colours. It was a unique experience to be able to see greenery and autumn colours side by side, and it made for an unforgettable experience for me.

 

Kasumigajo Park (霞ヶ城公園)
Address: 3-Kakunai, Nihonmatsu, Fukushima 964-0904
Access: 20-minute walk or 5-minute taxi ride from Nihommatsu Station (二本松駅)

 

Nihonmatsu Shrine. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Just when I was about to reach Nihommatsu Station, I made another serendipitous discovery: Nihonmatsu Shrine (二本松神社 Nihonmatsu-jinja), which was a 5-minute walk away from the station. The shrine complex was accessible when I passed by, so I decided to step inside and have a look.

 

Autumn foliage in the shrine complex. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

What drew me into the shrine was the spectacular autumn foliage that I could see right from the street. The stairs leading to the shrine complex were covered with a canopy of trees that were in vivid shades of orange and yellow alongside some greenery, which was a magnificent sight to behold.

 

Nihonmatsu Shrine (二本松神社)
Address: 1-61 Motomachi, Nihonmatsu, Fukushima 964-0917
Access: 5-minute walk from Nihommatsu Station (二本松駅)
Operating hours: 9am–4pm daily (shrine)
Admission fees: None

 

Hopping back on the train on the Tohoku Main Line. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As I hopped back on the train on the Tohoku Main Line, I looked back at how Nihonmatsu surprised me with its quiet charm and unexpectedly beautiful autumn scenery. It’s a place that would fly under the radar of most travellers, and after a brief visit here, I felt like I wanted to go back there once again, especially to Kasumigajo Park where there were still so many other monuments that I didn’t have time to see. Deep inside, I know that it would only be a matter of time before I set foot in the historical city once again.

 

Bonus: Enjoy enban gyoza in Fukushima!

Enban gyoza. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After returning to Fukushima from Nihonmatsu, there was just one more thing that I needed to do before I wrapped up for the day: eat enban gyоza (円盤餃子 enban gyо̄za)! Translated as "disk gyoza", it's a specialty of Fukushima where the gyozas are pan-fried and arranged on a plate to resemble a disk. It's a dish that I had been wanting to try for the longest time, and I finally got the opportunity to do so while staying in the city.

 

  

Close-up view of my golden-brown gyoza. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Do you know what sets enban gyoza apart from its regular counterparts? The dumplings are pan-fried to a golden brown, so their skins are light and extra-crispy, and they are generously filled with vegetables and pork. It was my first time trying them out, and I was amazed by how delectable they were. I could have easily finish a whole platter of it all by myself! It was the perfect way for me to end the night, and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Fukushima.

 

② Kitakata: Fukushima’s “ramen mecca”

 

My walking route in Kitakata. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

On the following day, I had the pleasure of visiting a city that was only a short train ride away from Aizu-Wakamatsu, located on the western side of Fukushima Prefecture. I was looking forward to the city’s autumn foliage, but on top of that, what particularly excited me was how the place was also known for being a mecca for its own distinctive type of ramen. Getting to explore its autumnal beauty and its local-style ramen? Sign me up, please!

 

Kitakata Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Kitakata is a town that lies just north of Aizu-Wakamatsu and is accessible by the Ban-etsu West Line (磐越西線 Ban'etsu-sai-sen). I arrived at Aizu-Wakamatsu just before noon and caught my connecting train to Kitakata Station (喜多方駅 Kitakata-eki) shortly after.

 

Upon arriving at Kitakata Station, I was immediately greeted with several photos of its famous Kitakata-style ramen all over the station walls. The city is famous for its unique variation of ramen, and it goes without saying that the city would like all visitors to try one while in the city. That goes for me too, and I couldn’t wait to try one later that day.

 

Autumn foliage along Kitakata’s streets. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

What I found to be a pleasant surprise about Kitakata was how walkable the city was, and I took the pleasure of exploring the city entirely on foot. While walking around and appreciating Kitakata’s serenity, I began to see its autumn foliage as well, with various shades of red and yellow colouring the sidewalks. It made me really glad to see that autumn had arrived there.

 

Kitakata’s traditional warehouses. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Apart from its ramen, do you know what Kitakata is also famous for? Traditional storehouses (蔵 kura)! The city used to prosper as a merchant town and had almost 4,000 warehouses during its peak, but today there are around 2,600, most of which have been converted to local shops, inns, sake breweries, and other businesses. While walking along the streets, I could imagine how Kitakata used to be back in the olden days, and how different the atmosphere must have been.

 

Kitakata ramen, at last. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Soon after, the time finally came for me to try Kitakata’s very own ramen for lunch. Did you know? Kitakata ramen is said to be one of Japan’s three major types of ramen, together with Sapporo’s miso ramen and Hakata’s tonkotsu ramen. Plus, there are over 100 Kitakata ramen shops in the city centre alone, and the locals even enjoy it for breakfast.

 

I have had many kinds of ramen before, and what stood out for me about Kitakata ramen is its noodles and broth. It’s a type of clear tonkotsu (豚骨 pork bone) ramen that uses noodles that are thick, flat, and curly, and the broth is seasoned with shōyu (醤油 soy sauce) and niboshi (煮干し dried sardines), resulting in a hearty bowl that’s light yet full of flavours. As a ramen lover, I would give Kitakata ramen a resounding thumbs up and I made sure I finished the entire bowl before leaving.

 

Kitakata Ramen Shrine. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

When I was looking at Kitakata’s map to check for interesting attractions in the city, I learned that there is a place called Kitakata Ramen Shrine (喜多方ラーメン神社 Kitakata Ramen-jinja). I couldn’t imagine what a “ramen shrine” would look like, but given how famous and loved the local ramen was, I guess such a place shouldn’t have been a surprise either.

 

Kitakata Ramen… ice cream? (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I learned that the Kitakata Ramen Shrine is a quirky, retro-style souvenir shop selling various local specialty goods and novelty items. But a message on a signboard outside the shop caught my attention: “Ramen Soft Serve Ice Cream” (ラーメンソフトクリーム Ramen Sofuto Kurīmu). I just had to find out what that meant.

 

Imagine this: a shōyu-flavoured soft serve ice cream shaped like ramen noodles, topped with a piece of fishcake and sprinkled with spring onions and black pepper. The shōyu flavour was very subtle, and the ice cream was more savoury than sweet. Of all the different kinds of soft serve ice creams I’ve eaten, this was one of the most unique ones I had in a long time, and strangely enough, I actually quite enjoyed it.

 

Kitakata Ramen Shrine (喜多方ラーメン神社)
Address: 4662 Nichome, Kitakata, Fukushima 966-0818
Access: 10-minute walk from Kitakata Station (喜多方駅)
Operating hours: 10am–4pm daily (closed on Wednesdays)
Admission fees: None

 

Nicchu Line Memorial Cycling Pedestrians’ Path. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

For my next destination, I walked over to the opposite side of Kitakata’s city centre to visit the main attraction of the city: the Nicchu Line Memorial Cycling Pedestrians’ Path (日中線記念自転車歩行者道のしだれ桜並木Nicchūsen kinen jitensha hokōshadō no shidare-zakura namiki). Although primarily known as a venue for viewing cherry blossoms, the path was also said to be picturesque during autumn, so I was curious to know what the path would look like at this time of the year.

 

Autumn foliage along the path. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

When I reached the path, I was stunned by the sheer beauty of its autumn foliage. The entire path was covered with a beautiful canopy of trees filled with yellowish-red leaves, and like my time in Nihonmatsu, I was witnessing a seasonal transition, with some greenery alongside the emerging autumn colours. Just look at how vivid the colours were!

 

A retired Type C11 steam locomotive train. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Fun fact: did you know that the path used to be a railway line belonging to the former Nicchu Railway? The 3km path was converted when the line was closed permanently in 1984, and since then, it had become a popular spot among locals for cycling and sightseeing. Plus, there’s a retired steam locomotive (SL) train on display along the path for visitors to see.

 

While looking at the elegant SL train, I couldn’t help but imagine what the path used to look like when trains used to run there. Gone are the days of SL trains running through there, and the area had now been replaced with sights of locals walking their dogs and taking leisurely strolls while admiring the surrounding views.

 

View from the train on the Ban-etsu West Line. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As the sun began to set, I slowly walked back to Kitakata Station and took the train back to Aizu-Wakamatsu. While journeying along the Ban-etsu West Line, I looked back at Kitakata and learned how nice the city turned out to be, blessed with a quiet sense of natural beauty and also a gastronomical haven for foodies.

 

Closing

Nihonmatsu and Kitakata’s autumnal beauty. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Autumn is a favourite season for many visitors to Japan, and Fukushima Prefecture has plenty of amazing spots for viewing autumn foliage. Although the prefecture has many popular autumn destinations, it also has a number of lesser-known places that have surprisingly stunning scenery, and visitors who choose to explore these places would be rewarded with splendid landscapes.

 

I took the road less travelled by visiting Nihonmatsu and Kitakata, and I left both places with wonderful memories. I didn’t know much about the two cities before visiting, so I didn’t know what to expect when I got there. Yet, they offer some spectacular autumn views that made me want to come back again in the future.

If you’re visiting Fukushima Prefecture, especially during autumn, I hope you give Nihonmatsu and Kitakata a try. They make for excellent choices for day trips, and they might just charm you enough to want to visit again, perhaps not just for autumn but for other seasons as well.

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Planning to visit Nihonmatsu, Kitakata, and other destinations in Fukushima and around the Tohoku Region? Then check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥20,000, it makes for a great option for travellers exploring the Tohoku Region. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

Header image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang, illustAC

 

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