October 28, 2004
A retreat restores the senses in the highlands of Fukushima
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on October 2004
Despite overcast skies, Bishamon-numa remained strikingly blue, reflecting the mountain ranges that loomed in the distance, as monstrous carp, some colored tangerine, others a dark bluish gray, swam with mouths open through the unspoiled waters. A guide nonchalantly explained that the lake’s dazzling tones were the result of minerals buried within it during the 1888 eruption of Mount Bandai, a calamity that led the Japanese Red Cross to mobilize during peacetime for the first time. Four other marshes nearby, all stained in various shades from cyan to sapphire, are linked by a footpath that runs through dense foliage, and make up one of the storied sights of Ura-Bandai National Park.
Locked in the wilderness of Fukushima Prefecture north of the Kanto plain and south of hilly Tohoku, Ura-Bandai has been largely passed over by metropolitan holidaymakers. Driving through the national park gave us the impression of being light-years away from civilization, especially as we approached Lake Hibara, an idyllic spot not far from Goshiki-numa where fishermen reeled in black bass and char, and pines sprouted from rocky islets springing out of the placid waters. But the trip to our base camp at the Hotel de Premiere Minowa had taken just three hours by shinkansen and shuttle bus, and considering that resorts like Hakone and Karuizawa have flourished with a similar proximity to Tokyo, Tokyoites will no doubt be beating a path to Ura-Bandai once word of this sanctuary gets out.
Remembered as the place where Masako Owada publicly announced her engagement to Japan’s Crown Prince while on a skiing vacation in 1993, the Hotel de Premiere Minowa is a stunning building, flaunting a prodigious use of marble in its lobby, which doubles as a small concert hall complete with a grand piano. Several restaurants serve Chinese, Japanese and Western cuisine, made of ingredients like wild mushrooms hand-picked by the grand chef in the nearby woods, local Aizu beef, and fresh seafood shipped from the port of Sendai. A fitness studio and a swimming pool occupy the top floor, while below ground, a therapeutic salon bombards clients with negative ions in an aromatized sauna. The clients then rinse off in the gigantic spas, with outdoor baths looking out into the surrounding forest.
The five-star facilities aren’t confined within the shiny walls, though. A ski lift built yards away from the hotel’s coffeehouse whisks skiers and snowboarders to slopes of powder snow in winter and early spring, while a nearby creek running through the valley provides an place for anglers out to fish for trout during the summer. And in the fall, the entire mountainside turns a blazing crimson, as deciduous trees begin shedding their leaves onto numerous hiking trails. But trekking, flower picking or simply replenishing lungs with clean, healthy air are sufficient causes for a weekend getaway for some. For us, we knew we had to visit local sites of culture to make the most of our trip.
The town of Kitakata lies less then an hour’s drive away, and we immediately caught sight of the attractions that make it famous nationwide: ramen shops. The area is blessed with water running from snow-capped mountains to the north, which has been put to good use-making noodles and soup-over the centuries. Kitakata’s other well-known product, no mystery when one glimpses the surrounding acres of rice paddies, is sake. After a little searching, we located one of the town’s leading breweries, Yamatogawa, and dutifully entered the archaic building for a complimentary tour, which culminated in a tasting session that left us tipsy from sips of a dozen different labels.
We powered on however, and reached the ancient city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, once the stronghold of the Matsudaira clan but perhaps best known for the Byakko-tai, a troop of teenage warriors who committed mass suicide during the Boshin Civil War when they saw Tsuruga Castle, the city’s symbol, go up in flames. While the original fortress no longer exists, a replica built of concrete in 1965 stands in its place and houses a museum. We ventured within, touring five floors of exhibits that include decorative screens and audio-visual shows, as well as artifacts like scrolls, swords and silk kimonos. And from the castle’s garret, a commanding view extends for miles over the surrounding hills, the carpet of gray buildings, the plains beyond and the soft silhouette of Mount Bandai.
The 97-room Hotel de Premiere Minowa (0242-64-3300, www.minowa.info) is located near national route 115, about an hour by shuttle bus from Fukushima Station. The complimentary shuttles (reservations required) depart at 10am, 2 and 4pm daily from the station’s West Exit. Overnight rates during the regular season (until December 17), which include two meals, start from ¥15,750. The Tohoku Shinkansen (Yamabiko and Max Yamabiko services) links Tokyo and Fukushima in less than two hours, and one-way tickets cost ¥8,070. The hotel also offers overnight packages that include a round of golf at the award-winning Bonari Kogen Golf Club (www.bonari.co.jp/golf), located 15 minutes away by car.