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Sake & mama-chari samurai

A weekend visiting old storehouses doesn’t sound that interesting, but when the storehouses contain sake breweries with tasting opportunities, things look a whole lot brighter.  It also helps that the storehouses are traditional old structures with a lot of character.  Aizu Wakamatsu and neighbouring Kitakata, north of Tokyo in Fukushima Prefecture, have lots of old kura (storehouses), samurai history, sake breweries, and a nearby onsen.  This was a visit to old Japan.

Old kura in Aizu Wakamatsu

To get to Aizu Wakamatsu, it’s a 2.5 hour train ride from Tokyo – first on the Tohoku Shinkansen to Koriyama, and then the Nishi Ban Estu line, with trains that have aka-beko (noddling head red cows) painted all down their sides.  My cousin Robin and I even look like family in this photo on the platform at Tokyo station in front of the nose of the shinkansen.

Catching the Tohoku shinkansen from Tokyo.  You'd never know, but we look so similar we coulld be family...

You ask what a head-noddling red cow called an aka-bekomight be?  Well, there’s a big own outside the station at Aizu Wakamatsu, which keeps on noddling its head as tourists take its photo.  This creature is meant to be a traditional toy red cow, and seems to be the mascot of Aizu Wakamatsu.  The handcraft versions are made from papier-mache and are  available in every shop around town that tourists might even think of popping into.

We left Tokyo on one hot rod – the Tohoku Shinkansen – then soon found another shiny one cruising the streets of Aizu Wakamatsu, looking like it had come straight out of the body shop.  This reminded me of the row of shaggin’ wagons I saw in Akita at the beach last summer.  It’s a nice contrast to the old buildings behind.

Not everything in the town is old.

We started exploring the town, and soon discovered Tsuruga-jo, the Aizu Wakamatsu castle.  The walls and moat are original, although the castle is now a 1950s reconstruction.  There is a museum inside with lots of samurai artifacts and depicting key battles – more on this below.  More interesting to us at this stage were two things.  The first was trying to get a good photo of the spider and its web guarding the castle moat.

Spider keeps guard over the moat of Tsuruga-jo castle at Aizu Wakamatsu

The second was the gaudy love hotel – the Hotel Mirage (complete with African safari theme) overlooking the moat and providing a nice reflection.

The moat of Tsuruga-jo castle at Aizu Wakamatsu, contrasted with a gaudy love hotel.

It’s easier not to notice the 1950s reconstruction when a little bit further away from the castle.


Tsuruga-jo castle - a 1950s reconstruction

The castle done, it was on for a wander around the town.  Aizu Wakamatsu is a bit of a tired regional town that needs a breath of new life.  However, the kura add charm and character where you see them – if you can ignore the neighbouring ferro-concrete apartment blocks and dilapidated other old structures.  The camera has the power to keep out of the frame what the photographer doesn’t want you to see, and I got some nice photos of the charming old buildings.  I chose not to take photos of the other ones.  There was even an overgrown old jinja in one of the main streets, looking a bit forlorn.

Anyway, back to the kura.  A kura(蔵 for a sake brewery or 倉 for a general storehouse – or is that the other way around?) is an old traditional mudwalled building designed to withstand fire, and keep the contents safe.  Some are now used as shops, others as sake breweries, others as peoples’ homes.  The last time I saw a kura streetscape was in Kawagoe, but there are many more around Aizu Wakamatsu to explore.  Some of them are quite grand (for example, the photo at the top of this post), whilst others are smaller but still well preserved.  The window shutters are the more prominent features.

Old kura in Aizu Wakamatsu

There are some other interesting old buildings in town in addition to the kura.  Shame about the modern vending machines placed in the way of the above and below buildings.

Old building in Aizu Wakamatsu

Enough walking around, and time to sample some of the local produce.  The Miyaizumisake brewery, a century-old building near the castle, was a highlight of the weekend.  It is still a working brewery, but also houses the Aizu Sake Historical Museum, which teaches about the sake brewing process.  Tasting the wares in the shop was rather pleasant, including even the sake/apple cider mixed brew.  Delicious.

Miyaizumi sake brewery, Aizu Wakamatsu.  The best stop of the weekend.

Inside the Miyaizumi sake brewery, Aizu Wakamatsu

Inside the brewery was this small shrine, to a shinto god which protects from fires.  (No, they’re not phalluses, just the reverse side of traditional rice scoops that would have been used in the fermenting and brewing process.)

Small shinto shrine inside the Miyaizumi sake brewery, Aizu Wakamatsu.  Guards against fire.

In the afternoon, we caught a train (naturally adorned with pictures of aka-beko) to Kitakata, a town about 15 minutes north of Aizu Wakamatsu.  Kitakata is smaller and more rustic than Aizu Wakamatsu, and worth visiting for its streetscapes of even more kura.  It’s said that there are 2,600 around the town.  Some are grand, and some streets have whole rows of them.  But the bigger drawcard for us was that there are more sake breweries in town.  This meant more tasting.

First stop was a brick kura called Wakiki.  We stepped in excitedly, expecting more sake, but were instead faced with a short old lady who regaled us with stories of the building, the town, the paulownia timber room (the only known one in Japan or so we were told) and staircase, the soy sauce made by this kura, her brother’s house up the road, the number of NHK dramas that the kura had featured in, the number of books about kurathat had photographed her building…  She proudly delivered her commentary in a small voice, and didn’t pause for breath or for me to interpret for Robin.  Never mind, he’d wandered off anyway.  When we finally got her to slow down, she came up with some soy sauce for us to taste – which was at the upper end of all soy sauces that I’ve ever tasted, and then finally pulled out some bottles of some local sake for us to taste, including a yuzu (type of citrus) liqueur.  Not all was lost, but we had to skelter up the street to get to the real brewery before the day was out.

Brick kura in Kitakata, on the site of an old soy sauce factory.  The old lady in here just kept prattling and prattling away.

Wandering around the town, we found the familiar chimney of another sake brewery.  This one wasn’t open to the public.

Another sake brewery, Kitakata

Then we hit on success.  We found the Yamatogawa Sake Brewing Museum, which was free to enter, and free to sample more sake.

Sake brewery in Kitakata

Robin was in heaven with all the bottles lined up in the cellar.

Robin was only a little bit excited at this many sake bottles lined up on dsplay

There were a good number to taste, and we soon found what our palettes enjoyed.

Sake tasting in Kitakata

More sake tasting!  Now I know a bit more about the difference between a junmaishu (pure rice sake), and a ginjoshu (made from rice polished down to 60% or less of the grain’s original size to remove the starch).  Then there’s dai-ginjo, polished down to 50% or more.

Back on the street, we found a pile of old roof tiles ready just in case.

Roof tiles ready for installation

Then it was to the Kai-honke, which was a kura that would have been owned and lived in by a wealthy merchant.  It had a very impressive garden, just coming into autumn.

The garden of a rich merchant's house, Kitakata

Kai-honke also had a bottle shop in the front, so another ginjoshu for us, please.  It’s lucky we made it back to the station.

The outside of the rich merchant's house, Kitakata

The next day back in Aizu Wakamatsu, we rented a pair of “mama-chari” – grandmother bicycles – to trundle around the city.  We managed to cover a bit more distance on these things than we expected, notwithstanding our long legs didn’t allow very efficient operation of the pedals.

Robin the road warrior on his mama-chari (grandmother's bicycle)

We somehow coaxed our mama-chari up the hill to Inariyama, which has a rich samurai history.  When Japan was opening up at the beginning of the Meiji era, the local lord of Aizu Wakamatsu castle decided that this was not a good idea.  A band of young samurai, called the Byakkotai (White Tigers) took it upon themselves to help defend the town from rival armies, and having lost the battle, retreated up the side of the local mountain range where they could look down on the town.  When they thought they saw the castle on fire, they apparently decided on mass to perform a ritual disembowelment, and thus killed themselves.  Their graves are now here, which draws busloads of tourists who take in their story of sacrifice, blind loyalty, futility and death.  This photo is the view that the Byakkotai would have seen, and there is a monument here.

View over AizuWakamatsu

Anyway, all those thoughts pushed aside, we got back on our bikes and trundled like mama-chari samurai further up the hill to Higashiyama Onsen.  This place is not far from the city, but feels like a world away.  It’s a tight valley filled with upmarket grand ryokans and hotels, all drawing their bit of hot spring water and offering views of the river and forested mountain side.  In just a few weeks, I feel that this place will be teeming with autumn colour sightseers.  The colour had already started, but the crowds were yet to arrive.

Higashiyama Onsen

Higashiyama Onsen

Robin and I found a rooftop hot spring bath at the Higashiyama Grand Hotel, which although was a modern building, was not bad value for 500 yen.  As the quads and calves were starting to ache from bringing our hired mama-chari this far up the hill, a soak with a view of the mountains was just the ticket.  The ride back down the hill to the town was quite a blast.  Here’s Robin blitzing down the road on his mama-chari through the beginning of the Higashiyama autumn.

Bltizing down the hill from Higashiyama Onsen back to town.

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