Thursday, 8 August 2013

Aizu-Wakamatsu is a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be

Date: Thursday 8th August 2013

Weather: The day started with a perfect blue sky however, at around midday, a haze descended and therefore a lot of my photos came out with a white sky. Oh, and it's still very hot.

MP3 track of the day: It's getting hot in here - Nelly


The sun had risen and was beaming through my dorms 'curtainless' window at around 7am. I tried to fight it but it was no good; instead I decided to use the early start to my advantage and get ready quickly, pack my car and then update by blog and online photo album so that both were as up-to-date as possible. Getting ready and packed took an hour; whereas updating my 'internet stuff' took two. After nipping to the local post office to get some cash, I found myself ready to say goodbye at around 10am. I made my way to my car accompanied by the owner and a member of staff. Photographs were taken and promises were made that, if I should ever visit Sendai again (not likely) I will stay here. Finally I drove out of the car park and put my hazards on in response to the hostel staff waving me off.

Once on the road I had some immediate jobs to take care off. Firstly I was hungry and secondly I wanted to stop for fuel in a big city, as it should be cheaper than in the small town I was heading to. I got on the 'route 4' and headed south for a good hour until a McDonald's appeared. The monotony of traffic lights, Las Vegas style shopping signs and the endless traffic was already having an effect on me therefore, when the 'golden M' appeared on the horizon I was very glad to turn into it's car park.

As the time was 11am I'd missed 'breakfast' and had to settle for an early lunch. As I sat eating my chicken nuggets I read my guidebook to find out what was in store for me in Aizu-Wakamatsu. I also re-read my road map as one of the hostels staff members urged me to change my route to the '115' (the '115' goes from Fukashima to Aizu-Wakamatsu). This was because the '115' is an extremely beautiful way to enter Aizu-Wakamatsu, or so he said. I was all for a change of route; the one suggested would half my time on the '4' and I was already sick of it.

Also, while eating, I thought about the hostel. I reckon, even though Sendai hasn't got any tourist attractions to speak of, it would make a good 'lads long weekend' and, if the guys in Miyako wanted to take a car down to Sendai, then this hostel would make a great base. I also thought about my time in the hostel. From now on I would be staying in hotels (as I couldn't find any hostels in either Aizu-Wakamatsu, or Yamagata, on the internet) and, whereas being able to leave all of my stuff out will be a blessing, I shall miss the sound of people here, there and everywhere. Also I wondered if I had made the most of my time in the hostel; this blog does have a tenancy to dictate my day and sometimes, as I was working on this blog, I could hear conversations and laughter from below as traveler got to know traveler. I did however always make it a point to switch my computer off 1 hour / 30 minutes before 'lights out', so that I did socialise but, was that enough? Anyway it mattered not; that time had gone, my blog was up-to-date and I had eaten everything on my McDonald's tray. It was time to put my rubbish in the bin and head back out onto the '4'. Once I'd rejoined the road I stopped again briefly for petrol (where a nice lady helped me use the automatic machine) before hitting the outside lane. I put my foot down and prayed for the 'Fukashima prefecture' sign to appear sooner rather than later.

Somehow I'd missed the Fukashima prefecture sign and I only realised I'd crossed the boarder when I ended up in the middle of the prefecture's capital city; Fukashima. Now Fukashima is currently quite famous for all of the wrong reasons. Luckily it's quite a big prefecture and Aizu-Wakamatsu is as far away from that nuclear power station as its possible. It was here, in Fukashima City, that I started to head away from the power plant and take a south-west bearing across the mountains and towards Aizu-Wakamatsu, along 'route 115'. This was were my route had been altered by the hostel staff and so I was juggling a map, reading road signs and changing lanes with the 'up-most' skill to make sure that I didn't miss the right turn onto the '115'. A part from nearly running into the back of a lorry, I navigated the city of Fukashima like I was born there and I soon found myself leaving the city and climbing forever upwards.

Being extremely thirsty, and hot, I stopped at a 'seven eleven' to pick up a bottle of something cold. At first my eyes did not register one of the products I saw in the drinks fridge; it took a couple of moments plus a 'it can't be' and a 'yes it is!' to realise that here, within the Fukashima prefecture, they stocked Vanilla Coke. Even though there were at least twenty bottles in the fridge, and only four customers, I snapped one up like it was the last. I hugged it all the way to the cashier and paid the price without even thinking. As soon as I got back in the car I took a small sip to make sure it was the same product as back at home and yes, it was. I then set off towards Aizu-Wakamatsu with a huge smile on my face. Less traffic, smaller cities and Vanilla Coke; surely this has to be the best prefecture ever.

Just when I thought things couldn't get any better the '115' climbed forever upwards giving me a great 'birds eye' view of Fukashima city on my right, and a series of huge mountain peaks in front of me. Also the road was two-lane all the way up, which meant that even slow lorries couldn't spoil my trip. The only slight annoyance was the cloud level. Every time I looked back at Fukashima the view seem to be a little too white. Still, as soon as I drove through a tunnel, and exited on the other side of the mountain range, the cloud disappeared and I was left with a beautiful panoramic view of alpine forested mountains and green rice fields in the paddies below. Every turn was a joy and I was so thankful that the staff member had changed my route.

Soon enough I was at the bottom of the mountain pass however the view was just as spectacular as at the top. 70% of Japan is uninhabitable due to the sheer volume of mountains. Here I found myself driving along a flat piece of road with, roughly, a miles worth of flat land on either side. After this the mountains shot up acting as a boarder around the perfect landscape photo. The land either side contained a handful of buildings however it was mostly covered in agricultural products with rice being the dominant crop. I lost myself within this world of perfectness, happy in the knowledge that tomorrow I shall be venturing this way once more to explore the mountain tops. I got so lost in my thoughts that, in fact, I didn't realise just how close I was to my final destination. I changed roads from the '115' to the '49'. The '49' was no less pretty due to the fact that it hugged the edge of one of Japan's biggest lakes (Inawashiiro-ko) all the way to the edge of Aizu-Wakamatsu.

As I approached the city from an elevated route, it allowed me to get a panoramic view of my home for the next two days. I was shocked to see just how big it was; I felt a little disappointed as I was hoping for a small 'close-nit' town, rather than another sprawling city. Once I actually got into the city I noticed, very quickly, that it was big; but there wasn't much here.

I soon found my hotel however, being 3pm, I was too early to check-in. I therefore went straight out to do some sightseeing as time was short. My guidebook stated that it was worth hiring a bicycle, or using the local bus, as attractions were spread out. Having seen the size of the city, and realising that I only had ninety minutes before everything closed, I decided to take my car and visit the sites in order of closest first. This brought me to a famous hill called Iimori-yama.

Luckily there was a free car park close to the hill and so I parked there. I crossed the road and walked straight up the stone steps not paying any attention to the 'tat stalls' which lined both sides of the staircase. For 250Yen I could take a stair lift to the top however, having just paid for two nights within a hotel, I decided to ascend on foot, which was free.

After turning right, halfway along the staircase as instructed, I came to a small shrine area which lead to a rather strange wooden building. Looking a bit like a badly made 'Helter-Skelter', without the slide, the building was built in 1796 and is one of the oldest structures remaining within the city. Once past this I found myself within a large open space. In front of me was a large Imperial Eagle given to the Japanese, along with a Roman pillar to mount it on, by the Italian Fascist Party in 1928 as a continuing sign of friendship between the two countries (not sure if I would have kept it on display). To the pillar's right was a set of steps which lead, downwards, into a small graveyard with an excellent view across the city. To the pillar's left was the bural site of nineteen boys from the Meji Restoration period:

...The warriors of Aizu-Wakamatsu were among the few clans to put up serious opposition to the imperial armies during the Boshin War, a series of skirmishers surrounding the Meji Restoration in 1868. The Byakkotai (white tigers) were one of several bands of young fanatics who joined the fighting; in one of the final battles, a group of twenty of them, all aged sixteen and seventeen, were cut off from their comrades. Trying to reach the safety of the castle, they climbed Iimori-yama, only to think they saw Tsuruga-jo in flames. Assuming the battle was lost, they did what all good samurai should do and killed themselves by ritual disembowelment, though one boy was saved before he bled to death. Although the castle was not burning and the boys' deaths were completely unnesscary, the Byakkotai are revered as heroic role models. Twice a year proud parents watch as schoolboys of the same age re-enact the suicides...”

Quite a history. After having a quick look at the graves, I left the site and got back into my car wondering if I should have paid anything to go up.

As always time was not on my side and when I got to my next attraction, Buke-yashiki, I had an hour left before it closed. This in itself didn't matter as the information board said that an hour was all I would need (plus, I reckoned most of the writing would be in Japanese so I could halve that). It was the 850 Yen entry fee which caused concern; I re-read my guidebook which stated that Buke-yashiki was a “...magnificent reconstruction of a nineteenth-century samurai residence belonging to Saigo Tanomo, a chief retainer of the Aizu clan. It's 38 rooms range from a sand-box toilet and cypress bathtub to a “classy reception room” reserved for the Lord of Aizu. In 1868, Saigo went off to fight in the Boshin War, leaving his wife and daughters, aged between 2 and 16 years, at home. As the imperial army closed in, the family decided to commit suicide rather than be taken prisoner; the 16-year old failed to die immediately but was killed soon after by an enemy soldier, and the house was set on fire. The complex also includes a number of original buildings, such as a rice mill and thatched shrine brought from surrounding villages...”

With such a rich history how could I not enter. I grudgingly handed over the money and whilst I wouldn't go as far to say that the site was worth £7, it was an enjoyable thirty minutes and I did get to take photos of an old samurai house without hordes of people in my way. Oh and the 'rice drying room' was very interesting. Back in the day, the rice would have been poured into eight buckets. These eight buckets had a long piece of wood inside them which rose up before slamming back down (getting the power for the woods movement from a waterwheel) to hammer the rice until it was dry.

Once out, the time was 4:45pm and I knew Aizu-Wakamatsu's castle (Tsuruga-jo) would be closing in fifteen minutes. It was therefore ridiculous to even think about purchasing an entrance ticket but, even so, I did drive there to see if I could get a cheeky photo from the barriers. Unfortunately the castle was hidden from view, by trees, from every conceivable angle. Add to this that there wasn't anywhere free to park and I gave up and headed back to my hotel along Aizu's-Wakamatsu's main street.

Dead was how I would describe it. My guidebook confirmed my suspicions that, even though Aizu-Wakamatsu is actually quite big, there is little here of interest and there is little of any use. As I drove I was peering out of my window to see if any building, which looked open, resembled a restaurant. As I parked in my hotels car park I realised that I hadn't seen a single place but, as the time was 5pm, I didn't need to worry about that just yet. I checked into my room, relaxed for a bit, and then I went out in search of food.

Having spent 850 Yen to enter that samurai house (not to mention the hotel cost) I went to my local 'seven-eleven' where I purchased a bento box and even more Vanilla Coke goodness before bringing it all back to my hotel to consume. I then took a long bath, checked my emails and went for an early night.

No alarm will be set tonight however, I do need to leave at a decent time tomorrow. Tomorrow I will head up into the mountains to hike around some lakes. Hiking around lakes; I cannot wait.

Toodle Pip!

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