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Tohoku Aizu Explorer

Duration

7 Days , 6 Nights

Activity Level

Start / Finish

Higashiyama Onsen / Inawashiro Railway Station

Technical Level

A walking exploration of Aizu in Japan’s northerly Tohoku region.

Guided, moderate walking tour in the historic and remote Aizu district centered on Aizu-Wakamatsu. Includes explorations of several old highways, once walked by samurai warriors, connecting to the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, the evocatively rustic Ouchi-juku post town, beautiful Showa-mura village, and Urabandai’s lake district. Accommodation in modern Japanese inns with Japanese cuisine and onsen thermal hot spring baths.

May - November.

Tohoku Aizu Explorer is a fully-guided tour suitable for anyone who is an occasional walker and can walk for more than three to four hours in comfort. In general, the route is gently undulating but it also includes some short, steeper climbs. Please read more on Tour Levels here.

 

A 7-day, 6-night tour starting at Higashiyama Onsen in Aizu-Wakamatsu and finishing at Inawashiro Railway Station near Urabandai. Tour accommodation is in modern Japanese inns with onsen thermal hot spring baths. The maximum group size for this tour is 12 persons. We have no minimum size. If we accept a booking we guarantee to run the tour.

 

The Aizu region is a wonderful compendium of some of Japan’s most elegant scenery that includes vast fertile plains, deeply forested mountains, a lake district and Bandai san, a dramatic volcano. Dotted throughout are hamlets, still strongly evocative of an older and more tranquil rural way of life. At Aizu’s core lies Aizu-Wakamatsu, a laidback city that belies the pride still held here by the locals for its samurai warrior arts and traditions.

 

This tour provides us with a fascinating experience following in the footsteps of daimyo samurai lords, their retainers and also everyday folk. Age-old highways emanated in all directions from Aizu-Wakamatsu, which was the strategic centre of Japan’s northerly Tohoku region. On foot at an easy pace, we enjoy the best sections of these once vital thoroughfares, which are now comprised of quiet mountain footpaths, forest trails and country lanes, while exploring Aizu’s beautiful landscape, it’s elegant culture and compelling warrior history.

 

Led by the Matsudaira, close relatives of the ruling Tokugawa shogun, Aizu’s samurai were renowned for their martial prowess and relied upon to secure Japan’s northern domains and the then frontier land of Ezo, modern-day Hokkaido. The samurai here remained loyal to the shogun even after he was deposed in the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and, as a result, Aizu-Wakamatsu was fiercely attacked by the new government’s powerful modern army. Under siege for a month, tragedy, epitomised by the demise of the Byakkotai White Tiger unit of teenage samurai, finally enveloped Aizu-Wakamatsu.

 

Although these courageous efforts were ultimately doomed, the old warrior traditions are still practiced and fondly celebrated in Aizu-Wakamatsu. Handsome Tsuruga-jo, the samurai’s castle home that still towers over Aizu-Wakamatsu's townscape, resonates with their history.

 

The locals retain a rugged spirit that is perhaps descended from the samurai but is certainly wrought from surviving the long winters of deep snow that envelope Aizu each year. This is embodied in their quiet, friendly warmth and apparent pride in their community and way of life. We experience this everywhere we go as we travel beyond Aizu-Wakamatsu into the more remote, beautiful surrounding countryside. On occasion we ride on picturesque local railway single-track lines to journey between our walks. The slow and often meandering progress of the trains through deep forests and aside winding rivers from one rustic station to the next is a gentle and enthralling experience.

 

Highlights also include Ouchi-juku, a captivatingly picturesque post-town of thatched period buildings. In the way of travellers of old, we rest here amongst a disarmingly attractive townscape. We finish our journey in Urabandai, a distinctly different landscape of lakes and ponds over which Bandai san, a volcano, towers. Its explosive eruption in 1888 formed the unique scenery we find here.

 

The Tohoku Aizu Explorer also features onsen thermal hot spring baths for us to luxuriate in every day, multi-course Japanese dinners and modern comfortable Japanese inns. We meet at Higashiyama Onsen to explore the nearby surroundings of Aizu-Wakamatsu before making a circuit through the lushly verdant countryside of Aizu that ends in Urabandai’s lake district. Walk Japan provides detailed instructions on how to reach the tour accommodation in Higashiyama Onsen on Day 1.

 

Please note that Aizu is in the western interior of Fukushima Prefecture, which experienced the earthquakes and tsunami that hit the eastern seaboard of Japan in March 2011. Fortunately for the Aizu region, it escaped significant contamination from the subsequent nuclear accident in 2011, and current background radiation levels are lower than many major cities around the world. It is approximately 170km (105 miles) at its nearest point from the restricted area around the power plant.

 

We are confident that travel to Aizu entails no more risk than visiting any other destinations in Japan. However, if you would like to know more about the situation please refer to your government’s travel advice. Additionally,Fukushima Prefecture provides comprehensive details on every aspect of the situation, and WorldNomad and Safecast websites respectively provide independent analysis and data.

 
The itinerary for the Tohoku Aizu Explorer tour is ground-only, beginning in Higashiyama Onsen, a suburb of Aizu-Wakamatsu, and ending in Urabandai. Prior to the tour, Walk Japan will provide detailed instructions for travelling to the meeting point in Higashiyama Onsen from Tokyo's Narita (NRT) and Haneda (HND) Airports. At the end of the tour, travellers are advised that it can take four hours or more to travel from Urabandai to Narita and Haneda Airports.

 


Day 1 Higashiyama Onsen


Our tour accommodation is in a quiet onsen hot spring resort situated in a small valley on the outskirts of Aizu-Wakamatsu and a short taxi ride from the city’s main railway station. Anyone arriving sufficiently early can enjoy a reviving and luxuriating bathe in the hot springs before the official tour start at 6pm. Your Walk Japan Tour Leader awaits in the lobby to greet everybody and begin the tour briefing, which continues over dinner; a multi-course Japanese banquet of local delicacies.

 

Accommodation: Modern Japanese inn with onsen thermal hot spring baths.
Meals: Dinner provided.
Total walking: N/A.
Total elevation gain: N/A.

 

Day 2 Higashiyama Onsen – Takizawa Pass – Higashiyama Onsen


Following breakfast, we journey a short distance by vehicle to the beginning of our walk at the Jurokkyo giant sluice gates. These control the flow of irrigation water from Inawashiro-ko, a vast lake and famed local beauty spot. Our walking route, which follows quiet country lanes, takes us through a rural landscape of forests and farmland that is dominated on a clear day by Bandai-san. An active volcano, Bandai-san has wrought immense change on the surrounding countryside over the centuries, and we round off this tour at the lake district found in its northern foothills.

 

We soon reach the site of a battlefield. Only a stone memorial and some grave markers allude to the fierce fighting that occurred here in October 1868 when the new Meiji Government army clashed with samurai loyal to the deposed Tokugawa shogun during the Boshin War (1868-1869). We continue on, joining the route of the old Shirakawa Way that once led from the south-east to Aizu-Wakamatsu, where we are also headed. In a short time we come across a freshwater spring. Locals come here to fill receptacles for use at home and, following their lead, we top up our water bottles before we make the gentle ascent to a pass, the Takizawa-toge. A steeper but still comfortable descent leads us to a timeless sight of a waterfall tumbling behind a simple Shinto shrine. A little further on we find the site where a group of teenage samurai, the still lamented Byakkotai White Tiger unit, met their end, each at their own hand, after fleeing in defeat from the battlefield we saw earlier.

 

We have now reached the edge of urban Aizu-Wakamatsu and find here Sazae-do, one of the city’s most extraordinary sights. Listed as a Nationally Important Cultural Property, this very atmospheric hexagonal wooden pagoda incorporates a double-helix staircase, which is considered to be a surrogate pilgrimage for all who make the 16-metre climb to the top and back.

 

A short walk through the city streets brings us to our lunch spot, a restaurant specialising in delicious and nourishing soba buckwheat noodle dishes. Satiated and rested, the final leg of our walking today leads us to the delightful gardens of Aizu-Wakamatsu’s daimyo samurai lords and then on to their towering redoubt, Tsuruga-jo castle. Taxis speed us back for a well-earned soak in the onsen baths at our nearby accommodation before dinner

 

Accommodation: Modern Japanese inn with onsen thermal hot spring baths.  
Meals: Breakfast, lunch & dinner provided.
Total walking: 12km (7.5 miles).
Total elevation gain: 115m (380ft).

 

Day 3 Higashiyama Onsen – Ouchi-juku – Yunokami Onsen


After sending our luggage on ahead, we transfer by vehicle to a nearby railway station where we board a local train for a charming 45 minute journey through delightful rural and increasingly mountainous countryside to the start of our walk on the Shimotsuke Kaido, another of the old highways that fanned out from Aizu-Wakamatsu in the feudal Edo Period (1603-1868). This one headed south to Nikko, where the Tokugawa shoguns’ extraordinary mausoleum complex was built, and beyond to Edo, the seat of the shogun, and now Japan’s capital, Tokyo.

 

We set out heading north following a route over forested mountain trails, along rural country lanes and through quiet villages. Our path, which is mostly a gentle ascent, leads us to Ouchi-juku, an old post town where Edo-period travellers would find sustenance and accommodation for much needed rest. This lovingly tended village of period thatched-roof buildings, Ouchi-juku is certainly one of the most beautiful scenes anywhere in Japan. Although we enjoy a picnic on our way here, it is well-worth eating modestly so as to leave room to sample Ouchi-juku’s simple but delectable signature dish of negi-soba; hot buckwheat noodles topped off with a whole onion leek.

 

We transfer by vehicle to Yunokami Onsen, a village that was established here by virtue of its plentiful onsen waters. Even the local railway station, which is widely-known for its thatched roof, has an onsen foot bath. We stay at one of the family-run inns here. Once again we attend to our evening routine of relaxing in hot springs followed by a magnificent evening meal composed of locally sourced produce.

 

Accommodation: Japanese inn with onsen thermal hot spring baths.
Meals: Breakfast, lunch & dinner provided.
Total walking: 8.5km (5.5 miles).
Total elevation gain: 296m (971ft).

 

Day 4 Yunokami Onsen – Showa-mura


Today, we travel by vehicle to begin an exploration of the further and remoter reaches of the countryside surrounding Aizu-Wakamatsu. We are headed to Showa-mura, a little visited village but one that is considered, with good reason, as one of the most beautiful in Japan. Although its population today only numbers about 1,300, the villagers’ warm welcome and enthusiasm for their home is clearly apparent and counts as one of the great attractions of this very rustic area.

 

Today, we walk an old trail, which is maintained enthusiastically by the locals. This once led to Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast and was used to transport locally grown karamushi ramie, a fibre crop used to create Niigata’s famed Ojiya-ori, a linen-like fine cloth prized for kimono in Japan.

 

We quickly ascend through forests to a high point that provides us with grandstand views across Showa-mura, its rice paddies and surrounding mountains. Beyond is a hamlet that has grown and traded ramie for centuries. We will most likely meet some of the locals as we enjoy lunch at the hamlet’s lovely and popular cafe.

 

Our afternoon walk continues to Yanahara Shitsugen, a marshland and lake area fed by pristine, crystal clear springs and surrounded by verdant woodlands. From here a short drive brings us to our inn in Showa-mura. We luxuriate in its onsen baths before enjoying an evening meal composed of produce derived from the surrounding fields, streams and forests.

 

Accommodation: Modern Japanese inn with onsen thermal hot spring baths.
Meals: Breakfast, lunch & dinner provided.
Total walking: 9 km (5.6 miles).
Total elevation gain: 320m (1,050ft).

 

Day 5 Showa-Mura – Yanaizu


Today, we travel further into this remote and verdant region. A vehicle transfers us to the nearest railway station, which is on another of Japan’s charming local railway lines. We board the train for a 50 minute journey through forested countryside aside the Tadami River on a single-track line. The slow pace of the two-carriage train, as it negotiates tight twists and turns and crosses narrow bridges as it follows the winding river, allows us to enjoy leisurely the passing scenery. We alight at a small station to begin our walk, which is not too difficult but does rank as the hardest of our tour. We soon arrive at a lovely wayside market place to purchase our lunch, which we enjoy as a picnic further along the trail.

 

We are following a section of another old highway, the Numata Kaido that once connected Aizu-Wakamatsu to the south-west. Our path undulates through forest dropping down to take us through a delightful hamlet and up to low hilltops to provide us with wonderful views over the Tadami River where the railway crosses on trussed bridges evocative of an earlier age. Our walk ends at a station further along the line where we board the train once again for a short journey to our accommodation, another delightful family-run inn with onsen baths. Our routine now well-established, we soak in the baths before another sumptuous dinner.

 

Accommodation: Japanese inn with onsen thermal hot spring baths.
Meals: Breakfast & dinner provided.
Total walking: 9km (5.6 miles).
Total elevation gain: 380m (1,247ft).

 

Day 6 Yanaizu – Urabandai


Today, we travel by vehicle to Urabandai, the delightful and distinct lake district created by the explosion of Bandai-san, a soaring stratovolcano, in 1888. We follow some of the many trails in the area that lead us through a rugged but mostly level terrain from pond to pond and occasionally to a sizeable lake. Five of these ponds are renowned for their varied but distinctly and delicately coloured waters ranging from reddish-green to cobalt blue. These limpid hues result from minerals exuded and then deposited here in the explosion of Bandai-san, which towers above us. We are now on its northern side and can clearly see the scars of the epic eruption that transformed the landscape here over a century ago.

 

Our accommodation, a modern Japanese hotel, sports more onsen and provides us with a lovely environment to complete our travels together.

 

Accommodation: Japanese-style hotel with onsen thermal hot spring baths.
Meals: Breakfast & dinner provided.
Total walking: 11km (6.8 miles)
Total elevation gain: 93m (305ft).

 

Day 7 Urabandai - Inawashiro Station


The tour ends at Inawashiro Station, which is approximately a 35-minute journey by bus from our tour accommodation. The Walk Japan Tour Leader will be on hand to help you purchase tickets for onward journeys to Tokyo and beyond as necessary.

 

Accommodation: Japanese-style hotel with onsen thermal hot spring baths.
Meals: Breakfast.
Total walking: N/A.
Total elevation gain: N/A.

 
This itinerary is subject to change.
Map image
 
The itinerary for the Tohoku Aizu Explorer tour is ground-only, beginning in Higashiyama Onsen in Aizu-Wakamatsu and ending at Inawashiro Railway Station near Urabandai.

 

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FROM TOKYO’S HANEDA AIRPORT (HND)
Tokyo Monorail trains depart for and terminate at Hamamatsu Station. Transfer here to the trains on either the JR Yamanote or JR Keihin-Tohoku Lines for Tokyo Station. To Aizu-Wakamatsu from Tokyo Station please see the section below.
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FROM TOKYO’S NARITA AIRPORT (NRT)
JR Narita Express (NEX) trains depart every 30 minutes for Tokyo Station. To Aizu-Wakamatsu from Tokyo Station please see the section below.
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FROM TOKYO STATION
The journey to Aizu-Wakamatsu is made on the JR Tohoku-Yamagata Shinkansen, one of the super-fast bullet train lines, to Koriyama for transfer to the Banetsu Line for Aizu-Wakamatsu. Departures to Koriyama are 4 times every hour and the total journey to Aizu-Wakamatsu is between 3 to 4 hours. The tour hotel in Higashiyama Onsen is approximately 15 minutes.

 

The pre-tour pack includes detailed instructions, including a map, for travel to the accommodation at the start of the tour.

 

Please note that travel by train from Inawashiro Station to Narita Airport via Tokyo Station takes approximately 5 hours and to Haneda Airport approximately 4.5 hours.

 

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