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With stunning countryside, a rich and storied history, and deep connections to samurai culture, visiting Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima prefecture is a must if you want to get off the beaten track in Japan. Travel through the area and not only will you find a slew of lesser-discovered gems, but you’ll also avoid the flock of tourists that tends to crowd some of the country’s more well-known hotspots.
One of Aizu-Wakamatsu’s most famous attractions? Its Buddhist pilgrimage route, which takes in a grand total of 33 statues of the goddess Kannon – not to mention many temples dating back thousands of years – from start to finish. The pilgrimage is one of 104 Japan Heritage ‘stories’ designated by the country’s Agency of Cultural Affairs, which aim to connect locations, artefacts, festivals, food, and cultural traditions, and share their historical context with visitors.
I was lucky enough to visit Aizu-Wakamatsu and take on a section of the pilgrimage route back in October 2019. These are a just a few of the special places and experiences I encountered along the way…
is a temple shrouded in nature, located within the . It is believed that this temple was built by an imperial general in the late 8th century or early 9th century, for men and horses who fought and died in battle. The graceful building shows its age, but nestled amongst the trees, it has a unique charm – with an indescribable atmosphere that forces you to stand still and take a breather.
Sakudari Kannonis a 14.5-metre stilted temple built against a cliff face… and it would give the famous Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto a run for its money! Built in 830, with the last known major repair works believed to have taken place in 1358, great care must be taken if you decide to enter. When I visited, I climbed to the top of the temple to be presented with an uninterrupted view of the Aizu Basin. Further exploration of the temple grounds led me to find a small cave with several deity statues taking up residence inside.
is famous for its unusual double spiral structure. It was built in 1796 and is currently designated as an Important Cultural Property. The 33 Kannon deities of a separate pilgrimage route called the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage (located in the Kansai region) are all said to be enshrined in this temple. Following the double spiral route is believed to be a shortcut to completing the entire pilgrimage, making this a highly practical trip!
One thing I could not leave Aizu-Wakamatsu without trying was Aizu Ramen, known for its smooth, rich soup. Though the flavours vary by shop, all of the restaurants in the area use a pork broth. A small, modest ramen shop by the name of was initially hard to spot, but its homely interior and generous portion size made it an ideal place to have dinner. Be sure to order a side of gyoza pork dumplings to compliment your ramen!
While in the Aizu-Wakamatsu area, I decided to go a little further afield and visit another onsen town by the name of Yanaizu – though not for the purpose of grabbing a bath. What I wanted to see was the spectacular Enzoji Temple, one of the oldest temples in the region, dating back to 807. Built on top of a cliff, the temple provides fantastic views of the river and the eye-catching foliage below, which changes with each season – from cherry blossoms in the spring to red maple leaves in the autumn.
Akabeko: a legendary cow
Enzoji Temple is home to the legend of a red cow that’s said to have helped construct the temple buildings after a major earthquake in 1611. Eventually the cow itself (Akabeko, combining “aka”, meaning red, and “beko”, meaning cow in the local dialect) became a symbol for the Aizu region. Several statues of the cow – complete with bobbing heads, naturally – can be found amongst the temple buildings, and visitors can buy a range of cow-related souvenirs!
Traditional thatched-roof houses
Got an afternoon to spare? Head to Ouchi-Juku, a post town from the Edo period (1603-1868). The traditional thatched buildings give an insight into how people lived around 200 years ago, with many of them now converted into accommodation, shops and restaurants. The surrounding mountains give this place a striking atmosphere, making it a must-visit if you’re in the area.
Aizu sauce katsu-don
I don’t know about you, but I always love to travel with food in mind – so after a long day visiting some of the local highlights, why not eat a local highlight to end your trip? I recommend giving Aizu sauce katsu-don a try: dish consisting of a bowl of rice, a layer of shredded cabbage and a generous portion of pork cutlet, coated with a special sauce. It is said that each restaurant in the area has its own recipe for the sauce – but in general, it’s a sweet brown sauce that compliments the meat. I, without hesitation, bought a couple of bottles to take home!
For further information about some of the sites mentioned in this article, be sure to head over to the Japan Heritage website.