21-23 November, 2020
It was a holiday weekend here in Japan, although for what, I couldn’t tell you. Neither, probably, could a lot of Japanese people. There are tons of public holidays scattered throughout the year, and since most of them fall on Mondays, there are a lot of three day weekends.
A friend and I decided to take advantage of the long weekend and of the recently released JR East Welcome Pass. The government, eager to get the economy ignited and get tourism up and running again, has been offering tons of different travel deals and campaigns. The JR East Welcome Pass is exclusively for foreigners, and allows access on any JR trains in the East network for three days for only ¥12,000. This is a great deal, as many one-way Shinkansen journeys, including back to my “hometown” of Kanazawa, easily exceed this amount.
We decided to go to the small historical town of Aizuwakamatsu, and I’m glad we did. This was one of the few opportunities to travel that I had all year, and will probably be the last for a while as Coronavirus case numbers are rising here in Japan. The numbers are still nothing like what many other countries are experiencing, but I plan on hunkering down here in Tokyo for the winter, rather than risk taking my city germs to other parts of the country with less robust medical systems.
Aizuwakamatsu turned out to be a great choice. The sightseeing was top-notch, and way exceeded my expectations for a small northern Japanese town. But more on that next time. Besides being charming and quaint, what really struck me about Aizu was how strange and quirky it was. Enjoy the following notes and pictures exploring this weirdness.
There weren’t a lot of Airbnb listings in Aizuwakamatsu, but we still managed to find a handful. Three appeared to be run by the same man, who I’ll call Riku. Riku’s first listing was for a one-bedroom apartment that looked unremarkable but adequate. The second listing appeared to be able to sleep up to ten people via bunk beds that had been Tetris’d into the room. The third was a gaudy rock’n’roll penthouse, complete with guitars on the walls, neon signs, a giant tv, and a bar. Clearly Riku had a monopoly on Airbnb for Aizu. As much as we wanted to shell out for the penthouse, we went with the unremarkable first listing. Turns out Airbnb was also participating in one of the government’s travel schemes, “Go To” travel, with half price accommodations. Our unremarkable room was a steal at $33 per night.
Once we’d made the listing, Riku sent over some directions to find the place. Looking at Google maps, the apartment appeared to be nestled amongst a network of small streets with bars and restaurants. Such nightlife areas are common in Japan, and at least we would have good access to food and drink, although it might be a bit noisy.
On the day we arrived, we walked from the station to the Airbnb, and turned off of a main street into a quiet for the moment nightlife district, as I’d suspected. It didn’t take long for us to find the building. Named the “Exseed II” (no sign of the Exseed I), it was a black building with swirly writing and a geometric red fence running along the side. Definitely a nightclub in the basement. And who did we run into, but our host, Riku! With a shiny black sedan, spiky, highlighted hair, and a gold chain around his neck, it seemed that not only did he own the Airbnb, but he owned the building as well.
Surprisingly, we barely heard any noise from the Exseed II building during our stay, or from the surrounding district, for that matter. Except for the sights and the tourist buses, the entire town was surprisingly quiet despite the fact that it was a holiday weekend. It was hard to tell if the shady nightclubs and girls’ bars around the Exseed II were even open.
One such seedy place was the Mirage, a lime green and pink monolith of a hotel with trompe l’oeil colonnades and palm trees and a leopard mural in it’s car park. Although the car park was empty, the Mirage was definitely open, and it wasn’t just any hotel: it was a love hotel. Peeking inside the lobby, strewn with fairy lights, I spied the tell-tale picture board with photos of the various rooms that you could choose for your brief stay, as well as a case displaying what looked like prizes for frequent members. The piece de resistance was the location. The Mirage, in all it’s decadent decay, was right across the moat from the town’s samurai-era castle.
The ghost town feeling continued throughout the following days. Distances in Aizu are not vast, and so we mostly chose to walk the deserted streets, getting stared at by the occasional elderly person tending to their garden. Although it was a weekend and a holiday, many businesses were shuttered, and looked as though they had been for some time. Aizuwakamatsu is in Fukushima prefecture, and though the town is far from the coast, the name instantly brings to mind the nuclear disaster, although it was almost a decade ago. I have a feeling that even now, tourism is low in the area, and Covid certainly did it’s part as well.
However, one business we passed looked as though someone had locked up ages ago and simply never returned. My guess is that it was a fabric shop, as the faded sign looked like it listed brands of fabric. In the window were displayed some well dressed mannequins; a broad-shouldered suit jacket for him, a smart, belted dress for her. If not for the moldy, stained wallpaper behind and the thick coat of dust on the window, one could almost believe this was a display for a vintage shop.
Luckily for Aizuwakamatsu, we did end up seeing quite a few other tourists at the sights. After four years in Japan, I’ve seen my fair share of castles, temples, monuments, and historic buildings – and the ones in Aizuwakamatsu were some of the best. More on that to come!