Fukushima flourishes

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on August 16, 2018.

A must-visit is the picturesque Tonohetsuri. Visitor numbers to Fukushima are fast rising to levels seen before the nuclear accident.

A must-visit is the multi-generational Suehiro Sake Brewery, set up in the 1850s.

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It is hard to imagine this picture-postcard perfect prefecture was ravaged by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, which was triggered by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Fortunately, safety and containment efforts have been made and residual doubts over the nuclear fallout and radiation have been cleared up. Visitor numbers to Fukushima are fast rising to levels seen before the disaster.

It is always nice to start off trips with culturally immersive flights and Japan Airlines is a fine example of this. The carrier’s key tenets of Zen traditions, premium service and delectable cuisine are infused with warmth and accentuated with state-of-the-art hardware.

Pre-flight, the plush Dnata Lounge at Changi Airport’s Terminal One offers a bountiful spread of Japanese, continental and local cuisine. The seven-hour flight to Tokyo in Premium Economy Class is very comfortable, with more generous stretch room than regular economy seating, good in-flight WiFi and a cabin area configured for greater privacy. Service is gracious, and dining delectable, with both Japanese and Western options.

From Tokyo, the high-speed Shinkansen train reaches Fukushima in about one-and-a-half hours. The air is bracingly fresh throughout my three-day visit there. Making for a good base and delightful stay is the Hotel Listel Inawashiro, at the foothills of the Bandai mountains. This popular tourist choice offers a well-designed hot spring spa with open-air baths and warm-water pools, as well as sports and ski amenities, bountiful buffet spreads and efficient, friendly service.

 

Hot spots

A must-visit is picturesque Tonohetsuri in the Minami-Aizu district of Fukushima Prefecture. The rough-hewn cliffs are hugged by vibrant greenery. There is also an Instagrammable scenic bridge walk over a river.

Also visually arresting is Lake Inawa­shiro-ko in the surrounds of Bandai-Asahi National Park in central Fukushima. The fourth largest in Japan, it has a shimmering mirrored surface. Visitors can enjoy splendid boat tours, skiing, boating and boardsailing, and watch the wild ducks and swans.

Another popular spot is the Shingu Kumano Shrine, a national treasure whose highlights include an enormous thatched-roof worship hall and a majestic 800-year-old ginkgo tree.

There is also the Tsuruga-jo castle in ­Aizu-Wakamatsu City, a regal multi-­storied rebuilt structure that echoes a traditional Japanese castle. There is a museum within that has sweeping views from the top floor. At a workshop close by, visitors can try Akabeko painting, a really fun session painting the traditional red toy cow that hails from Aizu.

Also do visit Tenkyokaku in Inawashiro, a stately French Renaissance-style villa with Meiji-era historical exhibits set within beautifully restored interiors.

Certainly, not to be missed is Ouchi-­juku, an Edo-era thatched-roofed village in the southwest. Walking among the well-preserved 300-year-old buildings, visitors will feel like they are travelling back in time. There are cosy inns and restaurants as well as snack and souvenir shops selling grilled fish, handmade soba noodles, sake, local sweets and homeware.

 

Ramen feast

Fukushima abounds with ramen eateries; well over 100, in fact. Within Ouchi-­juku village, do try the Misawaya soba restaurant, where you chow down on tasty buckwheat soba and bonito broth using a large juicy stalk of leek instead of chopsticks.

Also try Makoto Shokudo Ramen at Odazukimichishita, Kitakata, which offers a traditional setting and quintessential Kitakata-style ramen — delectable, dense buckwheat noodles in a flavourful shoyu broth.

For a ramen extravaganza, there is Kawakyo Ramenkan, at Inawashiro-machi, which offers seven types of broths, ranging from clear to spicy, homemade noodles and over 30 side dishes in a buffet spread.

 

Sake showcase

The potent sake is celebrated at some 60 breweries in the prefecture. They have won many domestic and international awards. Homare Sake Brewery, founded in 1918, is renowned internationally for its prize-winning Yamada Nishiki Junmai Daiginjo sake.

There is also Yamatogawa Brewery, a charming Edo-period storehouse proffering liquid gems such as its acclaimed ­Inochi Sakae.

Another must-visit is the multigenerational Suehiro Sake Brewery. Set up in the 1850s, it uses a rare Yamahai brewing style that celebrates sake traditions at their finest. Along with guided tours, visitors can often sample a complementary selection of the drink.   

 

Luxury in the sky

Before my homebound JAL flight from Haneda Airport, I visit the luxurious Sakura Lounge, which has cushy seating and excellent Western and Japanese cuisine.

My flight is on Business Class, where the refreshed and acclaimed Sky Suite III offers aerial luxe and privacy with premium flourishes. Legroom is very generous, there is easy aisle access, a seat that reclines until fully flat, and a wide 17in viewing screen. Service is warm. The Michelin-standard cuisine, showcasing Japanese and Western fare, is finely crafted, and uses seasonal ingredients. All splendid flourishes to cap off a soul-food sojourn.


Jafri M is a freelance writer who covers dining, business and luxe travel