Weekend Away in Fukushima
In March 2011, Japan experienced one of the worst earthquakes in its long history. Called the Tohoku (north-east) earthquake, it created a tsunami like nothing I had ever seen before that tore through towns and villages in the region and resulted in great damage and many lives lost. I remember the moment clearly. While I was many hundreds of miles away in Fukuoka during my exchange year, a teacher came into our classroom (which, I must say at the time was covering earthquakes) and reported to the classroom teacher in somewhat broken English that there had been a massive earthquake.
Without any more information than that, there was small panic in the classroom with everyone instantly looking out the window to see if there was an earthquake. We were quickly reassured that it would not reach us. Needless to say now, we were very safe indeed. The result of the earthquake for me and my classmates was that we would eventually be ordered to leave by our uni and then subsequently relocated to Paris for three months to learn Japanese. That, however, is a story for another time.
Despite the safety that me and my friends all over Japan were able to secure, Fukushima prefecture was not so lucky. The tsunami that ripped through the Tohoku region not only destroyed houses and people’s lives, but also heavily damaged one of Japan’s major nuclear power plants causing what is now often referred to as the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
While the impact of this event on me is barely a sliver compared to the thousands of people who would either be killed or displaced by it, it did affect me and changed the course of my life, even if only by a little. Fukushima has continued to be affected by it even nearly ten years since the incident, the image of Fukushima continues to be one of danger and risk. Only recently the new prime minister of Japan declared that the only way to deal with the issue is to gradually release the nuclear waste into the sea in attempt to dilute it. I’m sure the fish would protest if they could, but the locals sure are giving it their best. Fukushima has a bad enough reputation as it is without the need of making it worse by dumping nuclear waste into its waters.
In attempt by the prefecture to increase tourism, improve its image and assure people of its safety in the run-up to the now Tokyo 2021 Olympics, they have invited a number of foreigners (that’s right, no Japanese allowed) from North American, Europe and Australia to go on a few bus tours and take part in various activities throughout Fukushima over the course of three weekends. I feel lucky enough to have been invited by my friend along with his wife who works for company, to one of these weekends with them, their little daughter and another friend Jon. Particularly after what happened in 2011, I never really thought I would ever visit Fukushima; and to be honest I don’t think I would have ever thought to visit there anyway. Well, now is my chance.
I treated myself to a day off from work to travel up to Tokyo the day before – there was no way that I’d make it up to Saitama by 8 am from Nagoya! The journey from Nagoya alone is a good hour and a half on the bullet train, which otherwise would take much longer. In doing so, I was able to meet up with a friend of mine and his family and we went out for some drinks together. We found a small craft brewery that was offering a nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) of their personally brewed beers and then went to a Japanese izakaya afterwards for dinner. Getting home that evening was a major undertaking.
After not much sleep, we all got up before 6 am to rush to the nearest train station to make it up to Saitama from Tokyo. The bus was a little hard to find, but eventually we made it and were greeted by a very nice elderly man who would be our tour guide for the coming days. I’m afraid I’ve totally forgotten his name, but I do remember that he wanted to point out that despite his age and broken English, he would keep up with us youngsters and ‘would go all the way’. Exciting stuff. The bus ride was roughly 3 hours long with a couple of stops along the way as the tour guide used his ‘very smart phone’ to share some information on the day head. We finally arrived to Aizuwakamatsu city and to our first destination: Tsuruga castle.
Day 1: Castles, Samurai and the Locals
After a lunch break at the nearby souvenir shop, we were herded to the castle itself where we were sprayed with steriliser and shot with a thermometer gun, then had about 30 minutes or so to look around. Unfortunately photography was prohibited so I’m not able to share any photos with you apart from the view from the top of the castle, which gave great views of the city in every direction. The castle was surrounded by a lovely looking park, which we were unable to see due to time restrictions but we did get some time to look at the autumnal leaves.
I’ve been to many castles in Japan, and if memory serves, this was actually one of the better ones I’ve seen and one with a very interesting history. The exhibition inside of the castle was very impressive as well, with many original (and recreations) artefacts on display and lots of information on the people who were involved in its long history.
It is described as one of the last strongholds of the samurai against the rise of the Meiji government in the late 1800’s, that was overthrowing the shogunate and therefore bringing an end to the samurai and feudalism in Japan. After 500 years standing strong, the castle was mostly destroyed during the Boshin war, leading to the ultimate end of the samurai and Japan’s feudal society.
Continuing on our journey to learn more about the Japanese samurai, we moved onto the Nisshinkan, which is essentially a samurai school that was famous for educating and producing some of the most famous samurai in Japan.
Upon arrival, we were ushered into a training room and asked to sit down on the floor facing the far end of the room. We were expecting that someone would come in from that side of the room to begin the event, which I anticipated to start with a short lecture. However, everyone was surprised to see in the corner of their eye, some people dressed as samurai, sword in hand, walked in behind us and slowly moved to the other end of the room. There were four of them in total: one woman and three men (with one more woman who joined their group later), who stiffly faced towards us. The music then started behind us and we were given a fast-paced performance of various different samurai sword techniques as they fought one another.
After their performance, we were invited to take part in some basic kendo practice activities and were invited to perform alongside the group at the end with all four of the basic steps that we had learnt.
As we wrapped up that session and began to leave, we were given advertising pamphlets of the group; It turns out that the head of the group was a famous sword fighting choreographer who choreographed many fight scenes in films such as Kill Bill! Jon was very excited and could not miss the chance to have a photo taken with him.
The Washington Hotel
We came to the end of our first day in Fukushima after a very tiring day out. It was time for the group to split into two: one group that would go on the boat and the other that would go on the helicopter. While I was ready to hit the hay, we hadn’t even eaten dinner yet, and what a pleasant surprise the dinner was! We stayed at the Washington Hotel, where the rooms certainly lived up to the expectations from the photographs on their website (which were not too high), but the dining area upstairs took me completely by surprise. Gas Light was a very posh little restaurant with some fancy furniture and good mood lighting.
The course we were given was also great; everyone was so obsessed with the pizza that Jon took up the gauntlet to ask the kitchen if they could all have more. They said yes, but at a price. Thankfully the tourist company that was guiding us were very accommodating and everyone was able to get an extra slice. This was a great opportunity to finally talk to other members of the tour group who had come from Germany, France, Australia, the USA and Trinidad and Tobago. Jon got instant brownie points from the group for the extra pizza.
Three hours and copious amounts of beer, wine, sake and whisky later, our dinner had finally ended. We took an unfinished bottle of white to the bedroom while we contemplated our next plan for the evening. After a quick Google search, we found a small snack bar located just 15 minutes’ walk away. When Jon and I reached the ‘night life’ area, we soon noticed that it was dominated by dodgy hostess bars (and a large gorilla), but luckily the one we found was far from that. As we entered, we were instantly refused entry (great start) but after a quick chat with the owner there, we convinced her that we were not looking for anything and she gladly let us stay.
We had a few beers, did a bit of karaoke and got chatting with some of the locals. Living in a city that has a lot of foreigners and where the locals there are used to it made me forget that there are still parts of Japan where being foreign is a bit of a novelty, and they certainly treated us well! After going to not-so-welcoming but still perfectly pleasant bar on our way back, we finally decided to call it a night and head to the hotel. I don’t so much remember the walk home, but that’s nothing new.
Day 2: Aizu Clan House and A Magic Helicopter Ride
We left the hotel at around 9.30 am and headed to the Aizu Bukeyashiki, a well-preserved Japanese residence that housed many samurai and families during the Edo period. As you walk around the grounds, you can see various reconstructions of various activities that they would have taken part in, such as the Japanese tea ceremony, along with a very descriptive explanation from our tour guide on how the Japanese toilet worked.
Afterwards, we walked a little further down the street to a traditional Japanese restaurant that serves traditional dishes of Aizu.
With lunch done, it was time to finally get to the chopper. The helicopter was a lot smaller than I thought it was going to be, so we were paired with another member of the group to ride with resulting in a total of five groups. I was in the last group, only prolonging my anxiety. Some of you may not know, but I’m not a big fan of heights and I absolutely cannot bring myself to ride on rollercoasters. Planes I’ve got used to from flying so much with my job, but a helicopter? I had no idea what to expect from it but the experience turned out to be a bit of a combination of the two.
As the helicopter lifted off, I gripped onto the chair as best I could and my hands instantly began to sweat. Don’t get me wrong, the views were great and I was so happy that I brought myself to do it, but throughout the entire ride I was constantly thinking it was going to fall. With the wind being so strong and the sudden manoeuvre to dodge some birds, it felt l like a pendulum just hanging from a piece of string rocking from side to side as we flew over the lake and through the mountains. As we flew up the side of a mountain, I knew that as we reached the top that we would witness a great drop. I was right, and my stomach leapt straight up to my chest.
I could finally feel at ease once the helicopter landed. I’m not sure if I would do it again given the chance, but I would definitely recommend anyone to ride on a helicopter should they get the chance.
The helicopter ride was the last part of the tour itself and after an hour feedback session with the tour bus company, we finally made our way back to Tokyo.
As I had to travel back to Nagoya myself, I had to dash for the last train from Saitama to Tokyo to catch the last bullet train and thankfully I made it! I got home after midnight and jumped straight into bed.
No time for tea.