Aizu Hongo Pottery Market

Aizu Hongo Pottery Market

On August 2nd, I woke up at three o’clock in the morning, rolled out of bed, into the car, and drove to Aizu Misato town. The Hongo Pottery market was that morning, and it started before dawn at four in the morning.

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Even that early, there were so many people ready to take advantage of the great deals on pottery! That’s some dedication!

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Tons of pottery, both locally made in Aizu and from all over Japan, were laid out in booths.

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The competition for good deals was fierce, and some shops were practically sold out by 8 am.

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There were plenty of interesting displays!

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At the Soma pottery booth, the stall owner was kind enough to paint us their famous horse mark on some calligraphy paper! She’d been painting these on potter for over ten years, and so knocked out one picture in less than five minutes!

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The finished products!

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Time for a break with some green tea and traditional sweets!

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Aizu-Misato’s town mascot, Aizu Jigen!

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What I walked away with in the end. I got some great bowls in a beautiful blue and teal glaze, a wind chime with hydrangeas, some little flower magnets, a blue and silver mug, and a painting from Soma. I think it was worth the early morning wake-up!

Hanami — Spring Flower Viewing in Fukushima

Hanami — Spring Flower Viewing in Fukushima
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Cherry blossom season in Japan

Spring is on its way, and along with it comes hanami season! Hanami (花見)is a Japanese word that consists of the kanji for “flower” (花)and “to view” (見). It is the tradition of viewing flowers in spring time, particularly the Japanese cherry blossom, or sakura (桜). A typical hanami event means going on a picnic under the cherry blossom trees while drinking sake with your friends. The prime flower viewing spots in popular parks are hotly contested, so it is important to get there early in the day!

 

This year's estimated cherry blossom season starting dates across the country.
This year’s estimated cherry blossom season starting dates across the country.

 

Hanami season may only last for a short time, typically one to two weeks from start to finish, so enjoy it while it lasts! Usually there is one tree at a particular park that is designated the kijunboku (基準木)which is used to official mark the start and end of hanami season at that location. You can see hanami forecasts both on the weather reports on TV and in the newspapers (see the Japan Meteorological Association Cherry Blossom Report 2015). The Japanese take flower viewing very seriously, and have many words to describe the stage in which cherry blossoms are blooming. The most important is mankai (満開) meaning “full bloom,” but there are also other words, such as kaika (開花)or “first bloom” and zanka (残花)or “remaining bloom.” Cherry blossoms are in full bloom for only a few days, so see them while you can.

Here are some prime cherry blossom viewing places in Fukushima!

Photo by Tito Santare
Photo by Tito Santare

Takizakura, Miharu [map][website]

This beautiful waterfall cherry blossom tree has been designated a national treasure, and is frequently named as one of the top cherry blossom trees in all of Japan. It’s over 1000 years old, and more than 300,000 people visit it from all over Japan every year! It can’t be missed!

 

 

The light up at Tsuruga Castle at night!
The light up at Tsuruga Castle at night!

Tsuruga Castle, Aizuwakamatsu [map] [website]

Certainly one of Fukushima’s most impressive castles, it also has over 800 cherry blossom trees on the grounds, making it Aizu’s top hanami location. It’s perfect for picnics with friends, though the spaces fill up quickly during prime cherry blossom season.

 

Hanamiyama Park, Fukushima City [map] [website]

Hanamiyama Park is a beautiful place to view many different varieties of cherry blossom! It’s just a short drive from the Bandai-Azuma Skyline which leads to the snow corridor, so you can enjoy both the winter snow and the spring flowers in one day.

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Sakura mankai!

See the Fukushima Tourism website for a list of all the hanami locations across the prefecture.

Skiing and Boarding in Fukushima

Skiing and Boarding in Fukushima

430470_10150642808332288_1940370566_nOne thing Fukushima is famous for is the amount of snow that absolutely covers the area from December to March. You don’t have to hibernate under your kotatsu until spring, because now it’s winter and ski season has just kicked off in full force! Whether you snowboard or ski, there’s nothing better than hitting the slopes all day, with a trip to one of Fukushima’s many onsen to relax at night! There are over twenty ski resorts in Fukushima, so let’s narrow it down and talk about a just a few of the great local ski hills in the prefecture.


Mount Bandai (磐梯山)Mount Bandai, often called the Mount Fuji of Fukushima, dominates the Aizu skyline. Its picturesque beauty makes for great hiking in the warmer months, and even better skiing in the winter! There are many ski hills all over the mountain, and each has something great to offer to skiers and boarders for any level of ability.

ALTS Bandai (アルツ磐梯)
[location] [trail map] [website] Lift Pass: 4700yen/day

IMG00248ALTS Bandai is the largest and most popular ski resort in Fukushima. Located on the mountain’s south side, it has 29 runs for you to enjoy. Due to its size and popularity with foreigners, they have plenty of English-speaking staff to help out. ALTS is also open late for night-skiing, which is a great way to really make the most of the ski season in Aizu. One feature that really surprised me is the Whistler Cafe, located in the chalet, which serves some Canadian favourites like maple cookies and poutine. One of the locals told me that Bandai has a long history of intercultural exchange with Canada, and it felt like coming home to see a little bit of Canada in Fukushima.

Urabandai Nekoma Ski Area (裏磐梯猫魔スキー場)
[location] [trail map] [website] Lift Pass: 4000yen/day

Nekoma is located on the Urabandai side to the east of the mountain. It is often associated with the ALTS Bandai resort, and you can get a combined lift pass and make use of the shuttle between the two hills. While Nekoma is smaller than ALTS with only ten courses, the Urabandai side of the mountain gets much more powder snow, making for better ski conditions and a longer ski season. It’s also much less crowded than the ALTS side. Another advantage is the large terrain park, making for some great jumps.

Inawashiro Ski Area (猪苗代スキー場)
[location] [trail map] [website] Lift Pass: 4700yen/day

1888678_10152080971744543_1713363851_nInawashiro Ski Hill is smaller than ALTS, but still offers sixteen courses of intermediate and beginner levels. It’s a great hill to learn and practice the basics of skiing or boarding, as the lift passes are also much cheaper than ALTS. Every year, a group of ex-pats living in Fukushima do a charity “Boxer Run” at Inawashiro Ski Hill, going down the main course in nothing but some boxers for modesty. What better way to raise money for our local charity, The Japan Cat Network?

Grandeco Snow Resort (グランデコスノーリゾート)
[location][trail map][website] Lift Pass: 4500yen/day

Grandeco is a great beginner ski hill! There are plenty of easy runs for you to learn on! There are plenty of lifts and a gondola that service long, wide courses so it’s perfect for beginners!

Minami Aizu (南会津)

Minami Aizu gets a ridiculous amount of snow every winter, and it’s rural location makes for less crowded ski resorts. If you’re willing to brave the drive, Minami Aizu has got some of the best skiing and boarding to be had in the prefecture!

Aizu Kougen Takatsue Ski Area (会津高原たかつえスキー場)
[location] [trail map] [website] Lift Pass: 4200yen/day

Takatsue is the largest of the ski resorts in Minami Aizu, and it’s proximity to the Tochigi border means a lot of skiers and boarders from down south come up to enjoy the slopes. It’s a great hill for intermediate runs, but there are also beginner and expert courses to enjoy!

Aizu Kougen Daikura Ski Area (会津高原だいくらスキー場)
[location] [trail map] [website] Lift Pass: 4000yen/day

Daikura is smaller than Takatsue, but has a great range of courses for all levels to enjoy! It’s also not as busy, so you don’t have to wait for the chair lifts as much as Takatsue. There’s also a nice cafe and Italian pizza restaurant in the lodge for you to enjoy on your down time.

Aizu Kougen Takahata Ski Area (会津高原高畑スキー場)
[location] [trail map] [website] Lift Pass: 4000yen/day

Takahata is a resort specialized for skiers, no snowboarding allowed! That being said, if you’re a skier, it’s a great little hill to do some serious ski practice!

Aizu Kougen Nangou Ski Area (会津高原南郷スキー場)
[location] [trail map] [website] Lift Pass: 4000yen/day

While it may be smaller than Takatsue, Nagou has got a lot to offer! It has a great half pipe and terrain park so you can practice your jumps. There are also plenty of intermediate runs for everyone to enjoy!


Discount Lift Ticket Campaigns

Snow Magic Fukushima: If you’re between the ages of 20 to 22, you can get free lift passes at all participating ski resorts on weekdays! What a great deal! [link] Also, if you’re 19 years old, you get free lift passes to many ski resorts all over Japan! Download the app by the end of December! [link]


 

Useful Links:

Snow Japan: A great guide to ski resorts all over the country. [link]

Surf & Snow: A guide to when ski resorts open around Japan: [link]

Trace Snow (formerly Alpine Replay): Use this app to track your skiing and boarding, including top speed, distance, how much air you get on your jumps, and more![link]

Fukushima no Tabi: Information about travelling around Fukushima, including ski resorts, and campaign information. [link]

Fukushima Snowboarders and Skiers Facebook Group: Have a question about skiing or boarding in Fukushima? Want to see who’s on the hill this weekend? Join our Facebook group! [link]

 

December Survey Results: What’s your strangest food experience in Japan?

“I was at a Japanese friend’s house and they had this weird purple egg-shaped fruit. They said it was a mountain fruit that people used to eat back before they could get decent sweets. Splitting the purple shell, the inside fruit lookes like big light purple grubs with a black dot in each segment. At first I thought it might actually be grubs. The black dots were seeds and when I asked if I should eat them, they said no. I tried my best to eat it, but it was mostly seeds and so awkward trying to spit them out. I don’t even remember what it tasted like.” — Sarah, Soso Area

“I was given a few slivers of raw whale meat at my welcome party at the restaurant we went to. It was good, but it is not something that I would go out of my way to eat… I mean, it just tasted like regular raw, red fish.” — Melanie Smith, Iwaki

“Something called monkey pears! They were like a cross between a kiwi and a grape, and you squished them and sucked out the insides. It wasn’t too sweet, and was actually quite nice! I’d never seen or heard of them before the principal picked a bunch from one of the houses neighbouring the school.” — Danielle, Mishima

Dried Lizard from Minami-Aizu! They are said to be good for your health and give you lots of energy. My high school kids bought some and ate it to get revitalized after their studying, like an energy potion. After chatting with people, I learned that the dried lizards were actually eaten during the winter when protein was scarce.” — Cat, Aizu-Wakamatsu