Fukushima, Japan, home of the samurai and a place of magical beauty despite the disaster that struck region 10 years ago
- Cedar-scented forests, seductive spa towns, samurai castles and villages – Fukushima has a lot to offer despite its name still evoking catastrophic images
- Two hours north of Tokyo on a bullet train, the region underwent an unprecedented decontamination process after the fallout from the nuclear reactor
It’s nearly midnight and I’m neck-deep in hot water. I can hear the Ookawa River thrashing below, its jade green rush, so bright by day, now a torrent of inky black and frothy white. In front of me, the snow-covered walls of the Ookawa valley rise up from the darkness like the wings of an enormous angel. I wish it would snow.
Moments later it does. All alone in the open-air onsen, I stand up and let big feathery snowflakes land on my warm naked skin like celestial kisses. It’s nothing short of magical.
It’s late 2019 and I’m at the Aizu Ashinomaki Hot Spring Resort and Hotel in Ookawasa, in Fukushima, Japan. Yes, that Fukushima. Ten years on from the triple disaster that struck the region on March 11, 2011 – the earthquake, tsunami and meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant – the mere mention of the name still evokes the most catastrophic of images, rather than the beauty of the region.
And yet a quick online search would tell you that Fukushima is huge and, although the disaster killed and displaced thousands of residents, just 2.7 per cent of the prefecture was significantly affected by the fallout from the nuclear reactor.
Scroll a little further and you’ll read that Fukushima underwent an unprecedented decontamination process, and Aizu, about 60 miles from the coast, has radiation levels similar to those of any other city in the world.
Long before the events of March 2011, this part of Japan was best known as the home of the samurai – specifically the last samurai, who fought the final chapter of the Boshin War here in a valiant, yet failed, attempt to save the old imperial order. Ride two hours north of Tokyo on a bullet train and you’ll find a bounty of samurai castles, villages undisturbed by time and battlegrounds familiar to readers of Japanese history.
Visiting a few months before the borders closed as a result of Covid-19, I arrived at an Aizu blanketed in a thick layer of snow, which made the Edo-era post town of Ouchijuku, my first stop, appear like a precious ornament set in a snow globe. A former rest station on the route that samurai would follow on their biennial pilgrimage to the capital, its squat, thatched minshuku (inns), shops and restaurants have barely changed in 300 years.
After wading along a street decorated with icicles and knee-deep in fluffy snow, I warmed up with a piping hot bowl of negi soba noodles – a dish eaten not with chopsticks but with a big green leek, which has been cultivated into a handy J-shape.
They were earthy and delicious and just the fuel I needed for an afternoon at the Nisshinkan, a grand samurai school that dates back to 1803 that was destroyed at the end of the Boshin War, in 1869, and rebuilt 30 years ago.
“A good samurai must study and play sports,” school head Noritsugu Karina informed me. “The goal of a samurai is peace and harmony – not violence – so they must study for the benefit of society, they must learn cooperation, respect the beliefs of others, and be thankful for every experience.”
My eclectic training included shodo calligraphy, a tea ceremony class and kyudu archery. The children of samurai, who entered the school at the age of 10, would also have learned cooking and cleaning, astronomy, philosophy and Zen meditation, as well as martial arts, swordplay and swimming (in Japan’s oldest swimming pool).
Over the following days, I visited former samurai stronghold Tsuruga Castle, and tried my hand at kendo, at the Butokuden Martial Arts Dojo – going full O-Ren Ishii from Kill Bill in crisp white robes, wielding a wooden sword – fantastic fun.
Later, I strolled to the summit of Mount Inari, home of the strange snail-shaped Sazaedo temple with a double-helix staircase. This high point was also the site of one of the Boshin War’s lowest moments, when, outnumbered and outgunned, 19 samurai, aged 16 and 17, performed hara-kiri – Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment – in a mass suicide.
The heartbreaking tale was recounted to me at the samurai-era Tsuruga restaurant, by a ruby-lipped geisha with hair like a work of abstract art. As she serenaded the room, we feasted on fare the samurai themselves might have enjoyed: sesame tofu with wasabi, stewed tomatoes with yuzu, deep-fried Aizu chicken, curls of horse sashimi and a choice of 59 types of sake.
Fukushima’s pine-painted mountains are also home to Lake Hibari, which completely freezes over in winter; Mount Bandai, with its buzzy ski resorts; and the spa town of Aizu Ashinomaki (look out for the local station master, a cat called Love), which made for a peaceful retreat from the hectic sightseeing.
In and around the town you can hike through cedar-scented forests and spend your nights, as I did, soaking in mineral waters and snowflakes.
Lee Cobaj was a guest of the ANA Strategic Research Institute.