Take a rail journey through Japan for a sensory overload of the island country in microcosm. Its tangled network of tracks intersecting at various points along the line from Tokyo through Fukushima to Nikko offers a fine introduction to its staggeringly beautiful and diverse landscapes.
Bright floral kimonos and retro signs soak the streets of Taito Ward, Tokyo's representative sightseeing spot, in vibrant colour. A stark contrast to the white, windswept slopes of Aizuwakamatsu (or Samurai City) in Fukushima. The panorama changes further still in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture – a mottled land of lakes and mountains worlds apart from the bustling capital.
Savour the ever-changing scene from the train window in between exploring Taito, Fukushima and Nikko on foot. Linger a little longer in these three distinctly different places for hidden gems that reveal themselves to those with curious eyes.
To step into Taito is to enter Tokyo in an entirely different era. Its streets strewn with bright red lanterns and retro signs unravel like ribbons, coiling round retro markets and shops, venerable shrines and temples.
This main artery of Asakusa leads to Kaminarimon Gate (‘Thunder Gate’), entrance to Sensoji, Tokyo's oldest temple.
Life pirouettes around Nakamise-dori Street, a 250-metre-long shopping street hemmed in by some 90 shops. At every turn, Japanese sweets fill the air with sweet scents amid conversation and laughter.
Beyond the elaborate structure, the frenetic pace of activity is stilled by Buddha’s teaching. At the other sightseeing spot, Ueno has Ueno Toshogu, a Shinto place of worship located in Ueno Park. This majestic building was built in 1627 in memory of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616), founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
It epitomises the elegant but effete architectural style of the Edo period (1603–1867) – the reason it is designated as an important cultural property of Japan.
In the face of repeated tragedies – the Battle of Ueno, at the end of Edo period (1868), the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) and air raids on Japan during World War II (1945) – this time-honoured structure (restored in 1651) remains standing, continuing to impart calm upon tourists.
Follow the cherry-tree lined path to its karamon, gilded with gold. Engraved onto its pillars are two dragons: Noboriryu (Ascending Dragon) and Kudariryu (Descending Dragon). Their legend tells of two nightly fire-breathing visitors to the Shinobazu Pond, also located within the park.
Also providing a calming counterpoint to the unsleeping centre is the easternmost swathe of the ward. This sweep of green running alongside the Sumida River is where locals picnic beneath a dense canopy of cherry blossom in spring.
Amezaiku is a traditional Japanese art form involving sculpting heat-softened ame (candy) into, among other things, life-like rabbits and glassy-eyed goldfish.
Learn how to make it from the masters at Asakusa Amezaiku Ameshin, a cookery school located within Hanakawado Studio. Using only simple tools, the highly skilled artisans work at lightning speed, pulling the candy malt into shape before it re-hardens.
Little is known of its history in Japan. Though, some say its origins lie in China and that it was introduced to the country during the Heian period (794–1185). Then, years later, street performers would spin the melted sugar for creative storytelling.
Unleash your creativity at well-hidden Japanese teahouse and cookery school, Chagohan (‘Tea Rice’) Tokyo. Its interior embodies an artisan allure with a functional kitchen space forming the backdrop to antique furniture and cloth-bound books.
This is where you can learn how to make ramen (Japanese noodle soup), preparing dashi (seaweed-based stock) and tare (ramen seasoning) from scratch. Given enough notice, the staff can tailor the three-hour-long classes to suit your dietary needs and culinary interests.
Near Chagohan Tokyo is Kappabashi Street (or ‘Kitchen Town’), a magnet for local chefs and foodies, its history in selling kitchen utensils evidenced in everything from chinaware to branding irons.
If keeping up with a packed schedule precludes a Japanese afternoon tea at Chagohan Tokyo, stay nearby: Tokyo Ryokan is only a two-minute walk away. A typical Japanese style afternoon tea comprises matcha, cupcakes, tea-flavoured chiffon cakes and neri-kiri (traditional Japanese sweets). English afternoon tea is offered as an alternative.
Your appetite sated, stroll back through Asakusa in the direction of Asakusa Station, perusing the craft and local produce stalls of Nakamise Street along the way.
At the station, jump onto Liberty Aizu 129 (also known as ‘500 Series’), a roomy limited express train headed for Aizu-kogen Ozeguchi Station in Minamiaizu District, Fukushima Prefecture.
Rice paddies and traditional towns flash past the train window all the way to Fukushima, a prefecture known for its powder and dense pine and beech forests.
From Ozeguchi Station, a pre-arranged transfer bus will take you to Aizu Astraea Hotel, located within the less crowded Takatsue Ski Resort.
The ski-in ski-out hotel sits at the base of the resort, surrounded by mountains from all sides — the perfect choice for those travelling to Japan to experience winter. Look forward to a feast of authentic Japanese food, made using local ingredients.
Awaken to an unbroken horizon, the snow (present between late-December and early-April) melding indistinguishably with the sky. After energetic Taito, Takatsue Ski Resort in Minamiaizu will feel exhilaratingly wild and remote.
The resort sits in the southern portion of the legendarily courageous region of Aizu. This is where the last samurai resisted and fought back against the new westernised government army in the Boshin War (1868–1869).
Temperatures are punishing, but the rewards high, with numerous well-groomed trails and undulating mogul runs — 15 in total served by nine lifts — piled high with icing sugar snow.
One way to appreciate its winter landscapes is by snowcat. Strapped in and wearing snow shoes, you’ll be taken up through the ice-encrusted trees to the summit where you’ll have 360° views of Aizu’s otherworldly terrain glistening under vast skies.
About a one-hour car journey away from the resort is Shimogo. The town of Shimogo is famous for its "Ouchijuku," a half-hostel, half-farmer townscape from the Edo period, and "To-no-hetsuri," a canyon with a landscape resembling a row of eroded rock towers created by nature over a long period of time.
In the town of Shimogo, there is a local dish called "Shingoro". Half mashed Uruchi rice and rolled up is skewered, dipped in Junen miso, and grilled over charcoal.
Another popular local dish is negi soba noodles. Learn how to make it yourself from the local chefs around Ouchijuku. Put your chopsticks down on the rest – locals recommend eating this one with a leek. The unwieldy vegetable is favoured by locals for the sweet, oniony flavour it imparts to the dish.
Unsurprisingly, the whole performance attracts a lot of interest through the photographic lens.
Also attracting a lot of attention is Ouchijuku, an inn town where buildings from the Edo period have been maintained and preserved as they are, in the picturesque foothills of the mountains of western Fukushima.
The town runs alongside the old Aizu Nishi Kaido Road, once used by people heading to Edo (Tokyo), but mainly as an inn town connecting Aizu and Nikko. Its historical significance as an exemplar of Edo-style architecture is the reason it is selected as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings. Inside its simple dwellings are homewares of the same era and old-fashioned irori (open hearth) fireplaces.
Stroll down the main street to the gate of the village shrine, Takakura Shrine, for views across the veritable town, allowing time for To-no-Hetsuri – a 200-metre-long natural cliff formation located in Ōkawa Hatori Prefectural Park, on the way from Minami-aizu to Ouchijuku. The cliff’s autumn robe of maples and Mongolian oak varies in colour from gold to red.
A 40-minute car journey away from Ouchijuku is Aizu-Wakamatsu, a former battleground during the Boshin War. Local restaurant and guesthouse Shibukawa Donya, graces Nanokamachi Street in the centre, set within a 120-year-old former seafood outlet.
Shibukawa Donya stays true to its Meiji roots (1868–1912), littered with historic artefacts from the period. In anticipation of its kaiseki (multi-course) dinner – herring cooked in kombu seaweed is among the highlights – read up on the local history in its inviting library, overlooking a pretty garden.
Start the day with a vigorous walk up Mount Iimori (‘Iimoriyama’) – only a ten-minute car journey from Shibukawa Donya. The views afforded from its summit make the 183-step ascent worthwhile: taking in the sprawling Aizu-Wakamatsu skyline and its rugged environs. Though, visitors with accessibility issues might prefer to take the ticketed lift.
The torpid terrain tumbling into the horizon is foregrounded by dense forests and colourful-roofed houses. Its beauty is alluring all year long, an appearance that belies the ostensible tragedy of the city.
In the autumn of 1868, during the siege of Aizu-Wakamatsu, of the 340 members of the Byakkotai (White Tiger Corp, the group of teenage samurai), 20 of them retreated to the summit of 314-metre-tall Iimoriyama.
Upon seeing the devastation playing out before them, what they thought was Tsurugajo Castle on fire, the young samurai accepted their fate and martyred to the fate of the Shogunateearly to the ruling new Meiji government by performing mass suicide.
The event was shared by the sole survivor, Sadakichi Iinuma (1854-1931), whose attempted suicide proved unsuccessful. Years later, Sadakichi Iinuma was buried atop the silent, almost sombre mountain, reunited with his fellow samurai warriors.
During the descent, regain equilibrium at Uga-shindo, a late-seventeenth century shrine deifying a white snake. Make time for the history museum inhabiting Byakkotai Memorial Hall back at the base. Digest the significance of the surroundings with a mid-morning snack and refreshment from one of the many stalls in the vicinity.
Not far from Iimoriyama is Sazaedo Temple, a Buddhist place of worship, drawing as much architectural interest as spiritual. Its name derives from the corkscrew-like shell of the turbo sazae (or horned turban) – a sea snail endemic to the Japan Sea. The temple’s shape was achieved by painstakingly moulding wooden beams into position, creating sweeping curves.
Its interior, more akin to a tree hollow than a sea shell, is plastered with graffiti-like stickers left by pilgrims that serve as a counterpoise to the otherwise stylistically consistent structure. Running through its core is a double helix staircase — guiding visitors in one direction and promoting deep meditation.
It also counts as a visit to all 33 Buddhist temples on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage. Many clamber up for the views alone: falling within its line of sight is a large portion of the city, locked on Tsurugajo Castle.
Tsurugajo Castle (variously known as Tsurugajō and Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle) claims the city’s heart. The castle was built as "Higashi Kurokawa Yakata" in 1384, then one of the last strongholds of samurai loyal to the shogunate. A replica of the original structure, destroyed during the Boshin War, was completed in 2011.
After taking in the spectacular views from its balcony, stop by Rinkaku Tea Ceremony Room where you can relax, steaming cup of matcha in hand, and gaze at the cherry trees that shower the gardens with blossom in spring.
Sample the local sake at Suehiro Sake Brewery (Kaeigura), an historic establishment that’s been supplying the community with the potent rice liquor since 1850.
A guided tour of its factory and fermentation tanks (in action between October and March) will introduce you to the complex brewing process. The sweet drink is the main ingredient in the cakes served in its café: Kissa Ann.
Nanokamachi Street is a quaint shopping street winding through the city centre in the shadows of Taisho-style town houses. Shops selling anything from food products to Aizu Momen (a type of cotton unique to the area) abound.
Choose Kontsh, opened in 2020, for a healthy vegan lunch. The restaurant occupies a 120-year-old building, formerly a lacquerware store.
From Aizuwakamatsu Station, take the Oza-Toro-Tembo Train to Aizu-Tajima Station, bearing in mind that this sightseeing train only serves the line on selected days during the peak season.
Stretch out in its tatami carriage, complete with a kotatsu (low wooden table) and wide windows. If you don’t think fairy tales exist, the scenery flashing by from Aizuwakamatsu to Nikko would say otherwise. The phenomenal landscape is at its most dramatic in autumn (mid-September–early December), when bathed in golden light.
After changing for Yunishigawa Onsen Station at Aizu-Tajima Station, jump in a taxi to Taira no Takafusa, located in Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture. This comfortable ryokan serves rustic hearth cuisine in a spacious dining room, replete with tatami mats and fires for grilling river fish and yams.
At the end of the trip, get on the express train from Tobu Nikko to Asakusa. It takes about two hours, but the train will ease your fatigue.
Chuzenji Temple, built by Shodo Shonin, founder of Nikko, is where you’ll find a tree carving of the Eleven-headed Kannon. This masterpiece, attributed to the temple founder, is thought to have been carved into a standing laurel tree in the eighth century.
Nikko Toshogu – considered one of the most impressive shrine complexes in Japan – is widely regarded as the star attraction of Nikko. The complex enshrines Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, developed the mausoleum years later.
Its 55 buildings include eight National Treasures, notably Yomeimon, a mesmerising gate with carvings inspired by the natural surroundings. It’s possible to spend at least an hour in its main hall (honden), taking in all the intricacies.
Afterwards, make your way to Gyoshintei, a restaurant located in Nikko Fudoen. On its shojin ryori (Buddhist) menu is yuba (or bean curd skin) served on a bed of rice with vegetable tempura by its side.
At the end of your trip, take the express train from Tobu Nikko to Asakusa. It takes about two hours, but the train will relieve the traveler's fatigue.
This article is brought to you in partnership with: Kanto District Transport Bureau, Taito-ward, Nikko city, Shimogo town, Aizu-Wakamatsu city, Tobu railway, Aizu Railway and Yagan Railway.