Charming transport / traditional village and onsen one-night trip.
I wanted to see one of the largest castles in eastern Japan so I headed for Tsurugajo castle in Aizu-Wakamatsu City from my ryoukan on the tour bus. The castle was built about 600 years ago and was important to control Eastern Japan. The current castle was built about 400 years ago. The castle was attacked in 1868 by troops for the new Meiji restoration government during the Boshin war. It was the time when the Byakkotai, the child samurai warriors mistakenly thought the castle was burning and committed group seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide. There was one survivor in the group who lived to tell the story which you can hear while touring the multi-leveled castle which is also a museum telling the local area’s immense history. At the top of the castle I had a 360 degree view of the surrounding winter wonderland for some great photos! At the base of the castle is a gift shop for essential souvenirs and another one before you board the bus.
The grounds were equally impressive and included a tea ceremony room called Rinkaku which offers a unique and historic Rikyu style of tea ceremony started by Gamo Ujisato, a Christian daimyo. Rikyu’s 2nd son SEN Shoan built Rinkaku. It was moved fearing destruction but now it can be experienced in its original location.
After leaving the castle we boarded our bus to board the Aizu Train, a cute painted train by artist Hiroshi Abe. This was a great way to experience the Japanese countryside with snow-covered tracks and get some great photos. There is even free WIFI on the train, an added bonus. We arrived at Yunokami-Onsen station where our Hirota taxi retro bus was waiting to take us to the Ouchi-Juku historic edo village. You can get a very reasonable pass that includes the1-day bus and rail pass called the Ouchijuku Discount Ticket!
The bus is a step back in time.
The station is quite quaint as well, and includes a traditional fireplace and a foot-soaking bath for weary travelers!
A short retro bus ride through the beautiful scenery and we arrived at Ouchi-Juku a small Edo post town and part of the Aizu Nishi Kaidō, a famous highway. The village maintains its Edo-era look and feel with a strict policy not to “sell, rent, or break”. I loved this place because although you could buy traditional goods and meibutsu (famous area good), it didn't feel touristy. The buildings are maintained with original style thatched roofs and you can see and hear how they are repaired. The best view is a short walk up the hill where you can see the whole town for a great photo. One of the features of this village is the negi soba. We ate soba with a long onion at Komeya restaurant! After lunch we had lots of free time to shop, see a few yukidaruma (snowmen) and kamakura (igloos) and interact with the local people who are quite charming.
We boarded the retro bus once again and onto the train to Aizu Tazima station to take a very convinient and restful Revaty Limited Express train to Aizukogen Ozeguchi station on our way for a stay at Kaboku no Yado ryokan. The train is the 500 series run by Tobu Railways for all you train geeks and the short trip was the perfect time for a beer, snack and a short nap. From the station we boarded a bus to the ryokan.
Kaboku no Yado is a luxurious ryokan with gorgeous traditionally designed architecture. The facilities are well equipped with a spacious lobby traditionally decorated and a massage chair, a karaoke room, gift shop, the soaking baths separated for men and women including a roten-buro (outdoor bath) and private rental baths which include roten-buro and lounging spaces.
I went straight to my room to freshen up before dinner and I was great with a relaxing Japanese-style room which looked out on the winter wonderland which included a private toilet.
I changed into my provided yukata and felt immediately rested. As I walked towards the dining area, the halls are decorated with beautiful dried flower arrangements. I was greeted by a beautifully presented full course meal that never seemed to end. Food just keeps coming in! It was beautifully presented. Some of the standouts were the beef nabe, , grilled fish with pesto sauce, grilled scallop with apple cucumber sauce, tempura and fresh vegetables. I almost didn't have enough room for koshihikari rice but that would have been a mistake. Best rice I ever had in Japan, a local delicacy! My advice, take your time, have some of the Otokoyama Nihonshu, and enjoy the company you are with.
After dinner I headed off to the rotenburo nestled in the snow covered silent landscape. I had it almost all to myself. I wandered into the lobby after and bumped into some fellow travelers and we decided to make use of the karaoke room. It didn’t matter whether we both spoke the same language. We ordered some beers, sang and laughed for a few hours. Then back to my room where my futon was already set up by the staff during dinner and the lights were dimmed low. I had a few drinks and drifted off to sleep.The next morning after a restful sleep I woke up early before breakfast and wandered around the ryokan admiring the decor and the gift shop and off to another course meal for breakfast! Then we were on our way to explore Tochigi.