There’s a new gem in the heart of Japan. Three prefectures to the north of Tokyo, have banded together to form a dazzling new tourist area – all within around 2.5 hours travel north of Tokyo under a catchy name: the Diamond Route. In three prefectures north of Tokyo – Ibaraki, Fukushima, and Tochigi – this route offers up a delectable array of sights, experiences and culinary possibilities outside of the more established tourist destinations like Kyoto or Osaka. Among the route’s offerings are “many sparkling treasures” that include Samurai castles, golden shrines, and natural hot springs that offer visitors the experience of a lifetime in the heart of Japan.
Japan’s historically wild and untamed north is full of culture, tradition, and a strong Samurai legacy yet remains relatively undiscovered by tourists both domestic and international. This new initiative by three northern prefectures, however, will change all of that. The Route’s offerings are across six main areas categorized into four themes – History, Outdoor, Health, and Nature – that together span the full range of holiday activities and attractions. They include festivals, mountains, gardens, boat cruises, shrines and temples, waterfalls, museums, canyons, lakes, villages, castles, aquariums, hot springs, flower parks, and more. I will share with you a tantalizing glimpse of all of this. It is important to learn about and get to know and experience it now, as interest in the Diamond Route is only set to grow deeper and to incorporate major festivals and sporting events, including the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Visitors are encouraged to venture out to Nikko in the Tochigi prefecture. Nikko is both a renowned town and a National Park full of nature and history and continues to offer scenic, mountainous landscapes; lakes; waterfalls; hot springs; wild monkeys; and hiking trails. Ms. Naomi Sato, our guide and interpreter, explained that “Nikko has many hotels, inns, and hot springs to accommodate the increase of tourism here coming from Taiwan, China and the USA, except in the fall, as it is a peak season” She added, Nikko offers so much history, nature, and culture to experience.
Toshogu Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the most lavish shrine in the city of Nikko – perhaps even in the whole of Japan – and only a two-hour train ride from Tokyo. It comprises a collection of 55 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that are masterpieces in their own right. It is the final resting place of Tokugawa Leyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. Countless wood carvings and large amounts of gold leaves were used to decorate the buildings in a way not seen elsewhere in Japan, where simplicity has been traditionally stressed in shrine architecture. Among the many buildings, particularly notable ones include a pretty five-story pagoda in front of the main entrance gate and one of the many colorful and elaborate wood carvings that decorate the storehouses. The most famous ones are those of the “see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil” monkeys. Past the storehouses stands the renowned Yomeimon Gate. It is perhaps Japan’s most ornate structure, giving off a grand and imposing air with its intricate decorations and architectural features. Nikko is a must-see, whether at the beginning of the end of your trip.
Among the top choices for accommodations in Nikko is the Kanaya Hotel History House. A nationally-designated cultural property with two different historic attributes, a 400-year-old Samurai residence and one of Japan’s first lodgings, which became a popular summer resort among foreign diplomats and businesspeople. The house is open for the public to explore and provides a window into the Nikko of centuries past and today, standing as the oldest Western-style hotel in all of Japan. The wooden building is two stories high, which is rare for residences from that era. Today, visitors can explore the building’s tatami rooms and intricate stairways and corridors and view the property’s pretty garden. I couldn’t help but notice Japanese elements such as the intricate and colorful wood carvings that adorn the doors, or the vermilion handrails overlooking the lobby that could have been easily found inside a Shinto shrine. I was told by Ms. Makiko Yamada, our guide, that the wall behind the counter is made out of Oya stone, an igneous rock found in the area made out of lava and ash that became a popular construction material in Japan during the Meiji period. Adorning the wall are pictures of key figures who have stayed here were as James Curtis Hepburn, Albert Einstein, and Isabella Bird, a 19th-century British travel writer who contributed to introducing Nikko to the Western world. Not to be missed!
On the way to explore the Kegon Falls waterfall, we passed through the Shinkyo Bridge, which is ranked as one of Japan’s three finest bridges and is a part of the World Heritage Futarasan-jinja Shrine. Ms. Sato shared that late October to early November is the best time to see the autumn colors at Shinkyo Bridge. The scene comes to resemble a painting with the blue of the river, the vermilion of the bridge, and the gold of the trees. She added that at night, the area is illuminated from late October to early November for a period limited to three days. It is a precious event to be appreciated.
Afterward, we visited the Kegon Falls, which is one of the most famous of Nikko’s many beautiful waterfalls with a striking seven-meter-wide waterfall and a 97-meter drop. The water cascades into a basin below, while 12 lesser falls join halfway down the main falls. It is considered to be one of the three most beautiful waterfalls in Japan and is a popular autumn color spot. The trees around the waterfall are usually most colorful from mid to late October. During the winter months, it is a wall of blue frozen ice. You can enjoy it each season with different colors. Mr. Waku Yukio, Associate Section Chief of the Tochigi Prefecture’s Tourism Division, added, “Nikko presents the Japanese culture itself and its coexistence with nature. It is only one hour and a half from Tokyo, which makes it easily accessible to everyone to explore the national forests, waterfalls, lakes, hiking trails, important World Heritage sites, and the natural hot springs. It is a peaceful and beautiful place away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.” Tourists from all over the world travel to Nikko during the autumn months to see its striking foliage (arguably the best fall colors that can be seen anywhere in the world). During the winter, one can take part in skiing and other activities, while spring offers the cherry blossoms. Summer, when the weather is warm, is a great time to visit for those who enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, walking, and biking.
The next day we headed in the direction of Fukushima. Fukushima is renowned for its stunning natural vistas, clear lakes, snowy mountains, Sake production, and friendly, welcoming people. Our first stop was Fukushima City for fruit hunting at Marusei, a farmhouse Forest Garden. This region is one of the leading fruit production regions in Japan to the extent that Fukushima City is often called the “Fruit Kingdom,” and there is a road within the city limits with the nickname “Fruit Line.” The city is blessed with a wide variety of delicious fruits and a popular pastime in Japan known as “fruits-Kari,” or “fruit hunting.” Here you can pick the abundant fruits yourself and eat them fresh on the spot. You can enjoy fresh cherries in June, delicious peaches in July, juicy pears and a variety of grapes in September, and exquisite apples from October to December. We enjoyed eating the best peaches and pears ourselves. Enjoy this luxurious experience and the tastes of the season to the fullest at your own pace, surrounded by the bounty of nature.
A great opportunity for anyone interested in Japanese martial arts or culture to get a hands-on and immersive experience is “KENDO,” which I attempted while wearing all the KENDO armor and learning the basic KENDO movements. KENDO is a combination of history lessons, learning about the instructor’s philosophy, basic striking, and blocking, and finishing with a short contest with an opponent. You learn that the spirit of KENDO is not about winning but respecting others and keeping the soul and mind intact. Please do not hesitate to book a session for yourself. You will not regret this unique Japanese martial arts cultural experience.
A must-see stop while visiting the Fukushima area is Nihonmatsu Castle, which offers peaceful gardens and trails. As for its history, it is actually made up of two castles. The newest castle (constructed in the mid-1600s) was built on the remains of an older one. While the castle itself has been restored, the castle wall remains the same as it had been hundreds of years ago. It’s worth climbing to the top of the castle ruins just for the view of the surrounding countryside, including Mount Adatara. Mr. Tomoki Fujii, a senior staff member at the Fukushima Prefecture’s Tourism Promotion, recommended that the best times to visit the castle are during the spring when all 1,700 cherry trees on the castle grounds are in bloom, and in the fall when there are red, orange and yellow leaves. You also have an added bonus of viewing the Chrysanthemum exhibit, which displays dolls adorned in chrysanthemums to depict scenes in history. Nihonmatsu is a wondrous castle and park, all in one, and I highly recommend it, whether you are interested in history, scenery, or just looking for a place to relax.
Another unique experience is visiting Tsuchiyu Onsen in Fukushima City, which is one of the leading Kokeshi doll producers in Japan. There are several workshops in the Tsuchiyu Onsen and in its surrounding areas where guests can paint their own unique Tsuchiyu Kokeshi. Tsuchiyu Kokeshi dolls are distinguishable from other Kokeshi dolls due to their having a smaller head and a thin body. They also have eyes on the sides, a rounded nose, and a small mouth. You will even hear the neck of a Kokeshi doll creak when you turn it. You can experience the fun of painting a Kokeshi doll at Tsuchiyu hot spring resorts.
Goshikinuma-Five Colored Lakes is a bewildering surprise worth the trip. This little-known, two-mile hiking trail through Bandai-Asahi National Park, at the foot of Mount Bandai, is breathtaking. Many foreigners venture here, but with a little planning and some sound advice, you can experience gorgeous nature in a brisk hour-long hike. Aonuma, in particular, has such beautiful colors that it cannot be thought of as something created by nature, the most spectacular being a vivid cobalt blue with a lush swamp and picturesque mountains in the backdrop. Mr. Genta Kanemitsu, who has been a guide for the last 13 years and runs a beautiful guest house called Bandai Lakeside Guesthouse (www.bandai.ski), stated that “there are approximately 500,000 visitors per year in which approximately 10 percent are foreigners and 40 percent are from Japan.” He added that “the best hour to visit is at around 2 p.m. in June, which is early summer and because of the position of the sun.”
This trail is not just for hikers, but for anyone who appreciates nature at its best, as there are so many incredible views along the way. Visitors will spend more time stopping to take photos than walking along the one-hour route, which is one part romantic day trip and one part Japanese tourist spot.
Ouchi-juku a former post station located in Minamiaizu-gun, Fukushima Prefecture. Because of its historical significance, the entire town is designated as an important preservation district of historic buildings. Each of the beautiful thatched houses is either a souvenir shop, restaurant, or accommodation. Unique souvenirs include locally made Sake, cotton, folk art, and pottery. Mr. Pawel Sewera, Sales Manager of JTB USA added that” each of these thatched houses is equipped with special and sophisticated sprinkler systems”. Enjoy a stroll through the townscape as you think about the Edo Period (1603-1868) in which these buildings were constructed. Ouchi-juku is famous for handmade soba noodles. However, instead of chopsticks, you are given a leek to use as cutlery. If you ask a local when the best time to visit is, they will have a hard time deciding between the beautiful wintery scenery, the blossoming cherry trees in spring, or the refreshing summers. Be sure to hike up the hill to get a panoramic view. It is really a beautiful old village!
The following day this place became our base for a series of explorations, starting at the Samurai School Nisshinkan – a former training academy for young Samurai soldiers, detailing the historic education system for young students starting from the age of 13, while also allowing us amateurs a chance at trying our hand at archery. The school has archery and martial arts gyms that are open and utilized for a variety of purposes, including orientations, training camps, and on-location TV shoots. It offers experiences with zazen (seated meditation), tea ceremonies, and archery for the general public.
The Tsurugajo Castle is an absolute treasure for history buffs. The castle was once the seat of local government for the powerful warlords who valued Aizu for its strategic location as the gateway to the Tohoku Region. The tenshu of Tsurugajo is five stories high and was rebuilt as a concrete reconstruction in the 1960s. The renovation works were completed in 2011, with the color of the roof tiles reverted from grey to the original red, a unique color among Japanese castles. Visitors can climb to the top floor of the castle and look out onto the surrounding city. Ms. Troy Mishogi, a part-time professor at the University of Aiza Junior College, is originally from British Columbia and gave us an excellent insight into this place. She stated that “this castle has on average over 600,000 visitors per year, of which 40 percent are foreigners and 60 percent are from Japan.” The inside of the building is an interesting museum with attractive displays about the history of the castle and the samurai lifestyle. From April to May is the Tsurugajo Cherry Blossom Festival, on the castle grounds, where you can see performances with Japanese drums and children carrying a Mikoshi or portable shrine. During this time, you can also enjoy the wonderful scenery at night when the castle and cherry blossoms are illuminated.
No visit to Japan is complete without a visit to a Sake brewery. Aizu is the home of the Suehiro Sake Brewery and is one of the largest and most famous Sake producers in the Tohoku Region. Founded in 1850, it has been a family-owned business for eight generations. Suehiro’s Sake is famous throughout Japan and annually wins domestic and international awards. Their premium Sake is produced using the traditional “Yamahai” method, which utilizes slow open-fermentation to produce a full, complex flavor. The Sake and the brewery have been featured in a number of movies and TV dramas. Suehiro Brewery is open to visitors and offers guided tours every 30 minutes. The tour includes a walk through the brewing areas with explanations of the Sake-making process, a small museum with displays of the brewery’s history and the history of Sake making, and a visit to the factory store with a tasting bar where you can sample from and buy nearly their entire product line. There is also a small concert hall at the brewery that occasionally hosts various performances, especially jazz, by Japanese and foreign artists.
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Story By Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Fukushima, Tochigi, and Ibaraki Prefecture and by the Japan Travel Bureau ( JTB).