Monday, November 18, 2019

An Idyllic Japanese Setting for Your Next Photo Shoot? A Great Backdrop for Your New Cosplay Get-Up? A Romantic Date Spot? Aizumura Is All That and More!

Perhaps you've spent a few days in Tokyo, or made your way west to Kyoto and Osaka, but a trip to Japan's tourist hot spots misses out on some of the best of what the country has to offer: gorgeous natural scenery and beautiful traditional architecture uncrowded by hordes of excited visitors. For that, we recommend Aizumura, tucked away in the Aizu region of northern Japan, and quite possibly the best-kept secret of Japan's cosplayers and photoshoot lovers. Whether you're looking for a relaxing afternoon outside, or the perfect backdrop for your next day of filming, let us tell you about Aizumura, and all the things to do in Aizu Wakamatsu!

Head to Aizumura in Cosplay, High Fashion, or Travel Gear!

If you love to take photos, or just be in them, you know that the right background can add a lot to a picture. When you're going for photos with lots of traditional Japanese style, the right spot can be hard to find in the big city. Anywhere with beautiful scenery that also allows picture-taking is also going to be crowded with other visitors (and packed crowds probably isn't always the look you're going for)! Aizumura in Aizu Wakamatsu, on the other hand, has all the traditional gardens and authentic architecture you want, without all the nuisances. Plus, they welcome photoshoots, and even set aside changing rooms for cosplayers and other models. So pack that suitcase with all the wigs and changes of clothing you might need, and see exactly why we recommend Aizumura for your next outing. 

(We get it, pics or it didn't happen, right? Read on!)

Inori no Sato Aizumura
April to November: 9:00 ~ 17:00 / December to March: 10:00 ~ 16:00
Adults: 500 yen / Middle School Students: 400 yen / Elementary School Students: 300 yen
Official Website (jp)

Aizumura's Hottest Spots

Nobody on the JAPANKURU team is a committed cosplay hobbyist, so we decided to go for simple costumes straight from our childhoods: Kagome and Kikyo from Inuyasha. Just like in the story, the two of us clearly look identical, right? Next time we visit Aizumura, we'll just have to find one more friend to complete the trio as Inuyasha.

Ote-mon Gate (大手門)

Reminiscent of the walls and gate of the historic Nijo Castle in Kyoto, but without any pesky office buildings in the background, the entrance to Aizumura gets you ready for a day of fun.

Ryuujin Ike Pond (龍神池)

A look at this gorgeous traditionally crafted bridge lets you know exactly where you are. With its crimson paint and the koi fish swimming underneath, use it as a spot to recreate scenes of thoughtful scholars pondering their reflections, or romantic couples straight out of a Japanese historical drama, looking for a private moment.

Or just enjoy the peaceful view for yourself! The pond is also a "power spot", a recent addition to the Japanese lexicon, but a fairly old idea. They say that power spots are places where you feel a strong connection to your surroundings, or a powerful spiritual energy of any kind. The whole of Aizumura's parklands are actually considered a power spot, but this particular pond is said to be the home of a water god. Pray here, and the god will wash away your regrets the next time it rains!

Zaougongen Hall (蔵王権現堂)

Aizumura advocates for respectful exploration of their grounds, so while this small building was built as a place to pray to Zaougongen, they totally support snapshots taken on or around the hall's detailed wooden architecture.

Kannon Waterfall (観音滝)

Carefully make your way to a boulder to relax near this small (5 m, 16.5 ft) waterfall, and you'll get a great look at the lacy-white sheets of water that make it popular. They even suggest that the negative ions coming off the falls will give you an energy boost. If you're visiting with a special someone, get a look at the rock worn away into the shape of a heart!

The Reclining Buddha Statue (涅槃像)

Before taking any pictures with this majestically posed giant buddha we checked in with the Aizumura staff, but the park's monks said it was no problem. This isn't a go-ahead to be disrespectful, but apparently it's quite popular for Aizumura guests to take a little break with this buddha. While some visitors coming from countries with strong Buddhist cultures might find this a little unappealing, they didn't have a problem with it in Aizu. So go ahead and hang out with Buddha for a while!

The Old-Fashioned Japanese Homes (古民家)

Traditional homes with old-fashioned architecture are called kominka (古民家) in Japan, and Aizumura has a few beautifully-preserved examples from the local area. 

Take a look around some authentic historical homes, brought in from around Aizu! Examine old-fashioned horse stables, traditional living quarters, straw mat floors and simple fireplaces built right into the floor - all with light filtering in through the paper sliding doors.

The Three-Storied Pagoda (三重ノ塔)

Kishimojin is said to have been a goddess/demon that had 500 children, and ate young humans in order to take care of them all. Since she apparently reformed her behavior after receiving divine punishment, the goddess is now worshipped at places like this beautiful pagoda, as a protector of children no less! The building itself is worth seeing at sunset, when the silhouette sticks out against a colorful sky.

The Little Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷会津分社)

The main structures of Aizumura are Buddhist, but in a country with such blended religious traditions, it's no surprise that there's Shinto representation as well!

This Fushimi Inari shrine is built to worship the same god as Kyoto's famous shrine, and the beautiful Motonosumi Inari Shrine in Yamaguchi. It only has a couple red gates, but the general atmosphere and the cute fox statues make for some fun photos.

The Main Temple

If you are interested in exploring Buddhism at Aizumura, why not try a little calligraphy? You can write out your prayers at the main temple, to be burned by the monks as offerings. It's easier than it sounds! Copy out one of their many sample prayers (for everything from good grades to protection from car accidents), and then trace right over the main portion of the calligraphy.

The Giant Kannon Statue (会津慈母大観音像) - Aizumura's Treasure

Aizumura's most stand-out feature, literally. The giant Aizu Jibo Kannon statue stands 57 meters (187 ft) tall, and is visible from all over the area. Thanks to Kannon's association with mercy and compassion as a Buddhist bodhisattva, the statue is a major power spot, and you can even enter inside and climb up to look out on Aizumura.

The huge statue will probably show up in the background of many of your Aizumura photos, and even photos from other nearby attractions!

There's another small shrine area at the base of the Aizu Jibo Kannon, where you can buy a little "ema" (wooden tablet) to write out your wishes and prayers for Kannon and Inari.

Wandering through Aizumura, it's hard to resist checking out every scenic enclave and hidden gem, but if you hit every spot we mentioned, then you've probably gotten a pretty good look at what the park has to offer! Spend the day on an Aizumura photoshoot, and in no time the sun will be picturesquely setting over the green gardens, and you'll have endless pictures to look through as you head home. 

Meal Time! Aizu Cuisine

Of course you'll need sustenance to keep you going as you search for the perfect angles and poses, so the obvious choice is to head to the little lunch spot right in Aizumura's parking lot! The restaurant, Jumonjiya, has a friendly local feel, and they make some Aizu specialties.

Dogairihei-1602 Kawahigashimachi Asayama, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima
Mon~Fri: 11:00~14:30 / Sat~Sun: 11:00~19:00
Official Website

If you're wondering what Aizu specializes in, the obvious answer is sauce katsu-don! Take your standard Japanese katsu (breaded pork cutlet), give it a good dip in flavorful katsu sauce, and then serve it piping hot on a bed of shredded cabbage and rice - you've got yourself some crispy, satisfying, high-protein sauce katsu-don! The standard portion at Jumonjiya includes two whole pork cutlets, which will fill you up in no time.

Kitakata ramen is another culinary specialty from right nearby, and it's one of Japan's "three great ramens" (together with Hakata and Sapporo ramen). Being a little ways from Kitakata, Jumonjiya's version is a bit unique. A traditional bowl of Kitakata ramen includes wide, textured noodles and a clear pork and soy-flavored broth, all topped with bamboo shoots, scallions, and braised pork. Jumonjiya's Kitakata ramen seems to ask "what if it were Kitakata ramen, but more?" with a thicker broth, huge quantities of vegetables, and copious noodles.

For a truly traditional dish of Kitakata ramen, stay the night in the area and take a little trip north to Kitakata to compare. Since the city is famous for ramen, there are plenty of restaurants with their own special recipes, but we headed to the famous Bannai Shokudo (in business since the 1950s)!

Bannai Shokudo (Original Kitakata Location)
7230 Hosoda, Kitakata, Fukushima
7:00 ~ 18:00 (closed Thursdays)
Official Website

See More of Beautiful Aizu

Already staying in the area a little longer to check out that Kitakata ramen, or got some extra time to spare? Then you shouldn't miss Aizumura's surroundings, with picturesque hay fields rising up to meet the beautiful (and volcanic) Mount Bandai.

The Goshiki-numa (五色沼), or Five Colored Marshes

We can thank Mount Bandai's eruptions for these lovely marshes (called "numa" or 沼 in Japanese), known for their brilliantly colored water. Hike the trails between them all, or drive right up to admire the most popular marshes of the Goshikinuma.

Bishamon-numa (毘沙門沼) is the largest lake, with a great view of Mount Bandai as a backdrop. Wander down the stairs to find...

Rowboats! Enjoy the clear water and keep an eye out for the "Goshikinuma Heart Koi", a white koi fish with a vivid orange heart on its side. The fish might just bring a little luck to your love life!

Bishamon-numa Rowboats
8:00 ~ 16:30 (closed Dec. to Mar.)
700 yen/30 minutes or 1,300 yen/1 hour

The nearby trails will take you through the pleasant woods, and past gem-like marshes brilliantly lit in the sunlight. Ao-numa (青沼) and Ruri-numa (るり沼) are popular stops, but Haha-numa (母沼), Yanagi-numa (柳沼), and Benten-numa (弁天沼) shouldn't be missed either!

While there are lots of people hiking the trails in good weather, we still recommend you bring a bear bell for safety! Wild bears avoid people if they can, but they do live in the region. You can borrow a bell at the rest stop on one end of the trail.

Tsuruga Castle (鶴ヶ城)

Tsuruga Castle, AKA Tsuruga-jo, AKA Wakamatsu Castle ⇧

When you've had enough of Aizu's natural beauty, head to Tsuruga Castle and find a surprisingly solid museum inside the building. Much of the signage is in English, teaching you about the warriors that lived and worked at the castle (stretching all the way back to the 1300s). Check out spectacular artifacts of samurai armor, and head to the top of the building for views of the Aizumura Kannon in the distance!

Rinkaku Tea House and its garden are inside the castle grounds, and the centuries-old historical buildings are worth a look.

For an extra 600 yen, you can also sip your own cup of matcha (hot or iced) in the garden, along with a little Japanese sweet (we tried tasty sweet potato cakes).

Not all that into sweet potato? Head back into the main castle grounds to find a snack shop that sells a few local specialties. We quite liked their "tempura brown sugar manju," brown-sugar cakes filled with red bean, and fried in tempura batter. With a dash of soy sauce, these little cakes on-a-stick are a perfect salty-sweet snack.

With the right timing, you might even be able to visit Tsuruga Castle on a night when they light up the walls!

Goodbye Aizu, We'll See You Again Soon!

Whether you want a relaxing escape from a busy city, or an exciting all-day photoshoot, Aizumura has the scenery you're looking for! Hardcore cosplayer, luxury vacationer, or thrifty backpacker - just about anybody can enjoy the fresh air of Japan's countryside and Aizu's indulgent local cuisine. Next time you visit Japan, head off the beaten track, and towards Aizumura!

Visiting Tohoku (東北), AKA northern Japan?
Let us know all about your experience on twitter, instagram, and facebook!

⇩ See more of Aizumura in our video below! ⇩


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