Autumn has officially arrived, and with it, onsen season is fully in swing. Aizu Wakamatsu, the samurai city, is home to the famous onsen district of Higashiyama. However, did you know Aizu Wakamatsu is home to another lovely onsen district, Ashinomaki, located on the city’s southern border?
Like many other onsen areas, Ashinomaki onsen’s hotels and ryokan’s like the steep cliffs along an unbelievably blue Okawa river. Next to the Ashinomaki tourist association you will find a free foot bath overlooking the Ashinomaki area’s beautiful nature and bustling baths. There are several ryokan and onsen hotel in the area but my recommendation, especially for those with visiting friends and family from overseas, is the onsen hotel Okawaso. Okawaso has a live shamisen performance every afternoon in the central lobby, which also features a river running through it. You’ll also find a gift shop with local Aizu drink, foods, and crafts, a cafe and lounge area. After dinner, there will be a mochi making activity where the hotel guests are invited to participate in.
For food, you can choose to have a traditional Japanese set menu in a private room, or have a gourmet buffet menu which is especially good for those allergies, food restrictions, or who may be nervous to try a full Japanese meal. The hotel also boasts massages and spa services, outdoor and indoor baths, hot rock baths, and shuttle services to and from both Aizu Wakamatsu and Ashinomaki station. Of special note are the outdoor baths, which are modeled after rice fields. Each side has three-tiered stories of baths that overlook the beautiful natural scenery.
Speaking of Ashinomaki station, while it is just a small station located on the Aizu Line of the Aizu Railway, it is definitely worth a visit. The station, while it is the closest the the various hotels and onsen, is still 5 km away (luckily, all hotels and ryokan will be able to pick you up from the station when you have an overnight booking. The station has a single track running through it but it is unique from all other stations within Fukushima. The reason for this is the station master, Love. Love, an American curl, is the second feline master of this station, taking over the role from the first cat master, Bus, when she retired. Love takes his job very seriously, and he is helped by the rail manager for Ashinomaki Station, Peach. Within the small station, you can purchase a variety of cat-themed goods and see the two working hard. If you need a regular dose of these two hard working rail workers, you can follow their Instagram. (Because who doesn’t love cats in hats?)
A two-minute walk from Ashinomaki Onsen station, you’ll find Gyunuya Shokudo, one of my favourite ramen places in the whole of Fukushima. Gyunuya Shokudo’s claim to fame is their milk-miso ramen, along with their thick, hand-cut noodles which are almost remniscent of fettucini noodles over ramen. You can change to the thick handmade noodles with any type of ramen for an additional 70 yen. The milk-miso ramen, along with the thick-cut noodles, is a dish that will warm you to your bones. The taste is almost akin to a risotto, and if ramen isn’t your thing (or you’re looking for something more), the menu also boasts delcious Aizu Sauce Katsudon, gyoza, and a few other dishes. Be warned that the restaurant is not large; while you can make reservations up to the day before on weekdays, reservations are not accepted on holidays or weekends. So, like most famous restaurants, you may find yourself with a bit of a wait before you can sit down and enjoy. Luckily, there are a smattering of small shops with Gyunuya Shokudo goods along with traditional Aizu handicrafts. My recommendation would be that after you arrive at Ashinomaki Onsen station, hightail it to Gyunuya Shokudo and put your name and number on the waiting list, and then head back to the station and enjoy the shops. By the way, directly to the side of Ashinomaki Onsen station, you’ll also find a small shrine especially dedicated to people’s pet cats, with many pictures of precious felines lining the walls.
Ashinomaki Onsen is a wonderful place to visit while you’re taking in Aizu Wakamatsu’s beautiful sites and storied history. And what better preventative cure is there to the coming flu season than a nice long soak in a beautiful onsen?