One of Japan’s least visited areas is Fukushima. With a spiked difference to its hustling and bustling cousins in Central Japan, these prefectures offer many unique and interesting experiences, from observing the effects of the tragic nuclear incident, the tsunami disaster to amazing foodie secrets that not many tourists know about!
If you like the road less traveled, have a penchant for interesting and stark scenery as well as a good food hunt, this itinerary and travel guide for your next Japan trip is for you!
Day 1 – From Tokyo to Fukushima
Perhaps the most convenient way (that we took) is to book a cab or tour van and head straight from Tokyo upwards to Fukushima. You can also use the shinkansen (bullet train)to the Fukushima station, and opting for public transports like bus there. As of time of writing (March 2020), some train stations in Fukushima are not operational yet, but more will come online within the upcoming year.
Either ways, the entire journey from Tokyo will take you anywhere between 2.5 hrs to 3.5 hrs.
And yes, it’s perfectly safe, only a tiny 2.5% of Fukushima is not safe due to inability to decontaminate mountainous regions.
First thing you can do there is to visit Namie. This city has since had its exclusion zone status lifted and because re-population efforts have not been thoroughly successful, Namie still contains a lot of buildings left in the same state from the nuclear disaster.
Get your cameras ready, as there are many sights to be behold here. From deserted schools to dilapidated buildings, this town still possess an eerie feeling but at the same time, is also a great representation of what a disaster can do to a town.
When in Namie, do check out the souvenir alley (as you enter the town), where there are restaurants and a mini supermarket for the local residents. As “bleak” as some of the post disaster buildings look, you can still witness (and dine in) the refurbished facilities around.
After having a good meal, if you’d like to understand more about the local scene post-nuclear disaster, head on over to the Ranch of Hope by Masami Yoshizawa, which is just a short 15-20 minute drive away from Namie Town.
Masami Yoshizawa gained local fame when he decided to go back to the disaster area to tend to cows left in the area to graze during the nuclear incident. Despite the designation of the cows as nuclear waste and the subsequent mandate to euthanize them, Yoshizawa-san decided to keep the cows and rear them till old age. Here, you can have a conversation with him about his thoughts on the effects of the nuclear disaster, why we need to look into renewable energy sources as well as get a good glimpse of his cute “pets”. Just be aware, he doesn’t speak fluent English, so having a translator or a tour guide helps.
After this, if you want to witness the scale of the disaster of both the nuclear incident and the tsunami, Ukedo Memorial really does it best. When arriving at the site, you are greeted by a huge wall that was built in protection against any future tsunamis, but upon climbing it, can you truly see the scale of the disaster.
Just a short 2 minute drive or a 10-15 minutes’ walk, head on over to the Ukedo Elementary School. It was at this school, where moments after the tsunami disaster evacuation was ordered, teachers and students started marching towards a nearby hill and took shelter. one of the school’s hallmarks is the clock where the time still shows the time the tsunami hit and permanently damaged it. The school is left as is when it was evacuated, and while perhaps not a uber glamorous spot as compared to other parts of Japan, it really is a sombre reminder towards natural disasters.
To end the day off, you can then head over to the town of Tomioka, where if you drop by in April, you can witness the entire street just full of cherry blossoms. This town has been repopulated and you can see its operational infrastructure in place, from new apartment buildings to supermarkets!
While most of the town is functional, it is also situated in a precarious position where a part of its town is still part of the exclusion area and is therefore currently a no-go area.
While you’re here, the Tomioka Port also provides a great view of the Tsunami affected area in Tomioka Town. Here you can also view one of the nuclear reactors in the distance.
For accommodation, there are many inns nearby. Hatago Inn in Hirono is just a short drive from Tomioka.
Day 2 – Naraha & Iwaki
After witnessing the catastrophic damage left by the disasters, you can then visit other nearby towns that have seen greater success in re-population.
In the town of Naraha, which is just a short 15 minutes’ drive away from Tomioka or the Hatago Inn in Hirono, head on over to the town center, where you’ll be greeted with new houses, a supermarket, joggers on the streets and an amazing community centre.
The community centre was built as a beacon hope tailored according to the desires of the local community and has been set up as a general gathering area for the town folk. From a children corner, band practicing room, all the way to the display of local crafts, the center has plenty of facilities to keep people busy. It’s no surprise that the current population in Naraha is now at 75% of its original population size of 6,000 people and counting.
On the corner of the town, take a short 15 minutes’ walk or 5 minutes’ drive to Naraha Hill Park, and while this park is absolutely gorgeous in its foliage, it also has a tsunami view point. It is a stark reminder to the local residents and visitors of the disaster that took place in the past.
In resonance to the theme of happy comebacks, you can also then head further south to the town of Iwaki. The journey is 1 hour by car or 2 hours via the Joban line from the Namie Train Station. However if you drive, be sure to make a pit stop at the Coastal Shrine at Bentenjima, Hattachi Kaigan. You will see it before driving towards the Hattachi Tunnel.
Right next to the tunnel, you’ll be greeted with a coastal shrine that has a torii gate in the middle of the ocean! Just follow the short trail from the parking area, through a couple of bridges into the nearby coast. Just make sure to bring waterproof shoes!!
After taking all your insta worthy photos, head back on to the roads and make your way to Iwaki. A 20 minute drive from the Iwaki Train Station, one of the first stops you can (should) pop over is the Wonder Farm (Fukushima, Iwaki, Yotsukuramachi Nakajima, Hiromachi−１, Monday to Friday 10AM to 5PM, open at 9AM on Saturday and Sunday) in Iwaki!
If you pop over here during a weekend or a public holiday in Japan, you can see this place crowded with locals having family outings here. From plucking your own vine ripped tomatoes (allocated bag for 900 Yen), the souvenir shop that contains everything tomatoes to the amazing buffet spread they have, this is definitely a nice little spot to check out especially if you have kids!
After filling up your tummy, you can head on over to The Snake Museum of Contemporary Art (Fukushima-ken, Iwaki-shi, Tairanakakabeya, Chisosaku７). No, this place doesn’t display any snakes, but rather it’s a trail that is designed just like a snake. Built as an initiative of Cai Guo-Qiang & Shiga Tadashige, the facility displays works from various local artists.
The “snake” trail covers 2 hills (or mountains), and part of the initiative is to cover both sides of the mountains with 10,000 cherry blossom trees collectively! According to the artists, when the hills are both covered with the 10,000 cherry blossom trees, when they bloom, you’ll be able to even see them from space! While the project is still on its way, many cherry blossom trees have already been planted on both sides of the hills, and walking through the cherry blossom trail rewards you with a view of Iwaki like no other.
After you’re done burning off all the calories from the trail hike, you can then head on over to Matsushima in the Miyagi Prefecture, which is a 2 hour drive away from Iwaki. I stayed at the Matsushima Century Hotel, which has a great natural onsen overlooking the Matsushima bay, and is one of the best spots to view the sunrise in the morning.
Day 3 – Shiogama & Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture
The Miyagi Prefecture is another area that doesn’t see much tourists, save for the Matsushima Bay area. This region is famous for its food, from having one of the highest density of sushi restaurants in all of Japan, to one of the best wagyu (Sendai beef), to the most amazing seafood around. If you’re a food lover, this is definitely the place to go.
To start off with, after having a good rest in the hotel, wake up early, around 7.00am and head on over to Shiogama, a small town that’s just a short 20 minutes drive away from Matsushima. The place to be at is the Nakaoroshi Ichiba Seafood Market. A marketplace bustling with locals, you are greeted with hunger-inducing sights the moment you step in with fresh seafood everywhere! From tuna being auctioned and cut up, to the most amazing uni & sea eels or Anago. This market is the epiphany of a true Japanese seafood ingredient hunt, without any of the touristy hypes! I was even told that the tuna you see in Toyosu goes through here first!
When here, it can be useful to join a food tour or have a Japanese translator on hand, have a chat with the locals and feel free to pick and choose your seafood treats! You can then gather them into the back of the market, order some rice and essentially pig out on your own freshly made kaisen don!
Once you’re done at the market, it’s time to burn some calories (and make more room for your next meals), a great place to do some walking not too far from the market is the Shiogama Shrine that is situated smack dab in the middle of the town.
This shrine is a large Shinto place of worship and is believed to be over 1,200 years old! Functionally, it has been used a protector of fishermen and for safe childbirth, and often times, especially over weekends or public holidays in Japan, you can witness expecting parents praying or a mother with a new baby obtaining blessings from the priestess in the temples.
Aside the beautiful architecture, the shrine is also a great place to view cherry blossoms in April as well. Due to its many varieties of cherry blossoms present in the shrine, the blooming season typically lasts from Mid-April all the way to early May.
Just a word of warning however, the main approach to the shrine is via flight of over 200 steps, so if you’re not up for that, it’s best to enter using the other entrance where you can drive and park a car up directly. Fret not however, after your visit, you can easily walk down the steps to the Shiogama Town area, where you will be blessed with foods from the heavens.
Famous for an assortment of ingredients, there’s a never ending list of food shops you must visit here. As the town is famous for many ingredients like salt, miso, rice and so on, you will see it fully utilized here. For example, the gelato in this region is flavored with miso and while some may turn their face away, I implore everyone to have a go at it – deep and dark with caramel-like notes that exceed in complex flavor notes. It really is an ice cream experience like no other!
There are also many sweet delicacies found in the shops, from dorayakis to candies & biscuits all around town. But one of the best things you may (have) to try is the multi-flavoured mochi available! The mochis here come in an assortment of sauce, made freshly before your eyes in the shop, From zunda (crushed edamame), red bean, black sesame, walnut paste & sweet soy sauce, you really have to try all of them as each of them, while made with the same base, tastes so utterly different from the other.
Miyagi prefecture is also famous for its sake, and yes you can find shops for sake tasting in Shiogama! Look for cedar balls on shop fronts. It means there’s sake ready for you to taste or procure! The green cedar balls are usually hung when the sake is left to ferment, and by the time the cedar ball dries up (i.e. turns brown), the sake is also ready for consumption.
While I wouldn’t say I’m a sake sommelier, the sake you taste here is one of the most complex and balanced sakes you’ll ever taste. Quite literally, you can find a bottle of sake for almost any occasion or accompaniment, from a citrusy ending note to a fizzy champagne like sake, the choices are endless! Which is why a tasting session here is definitely a worthwhile consideration.
If you find a bottle you enjoy, you will find that it’s generally not too expensive as well. Grab one while you still can because I never found any of the similar types again when I returned to Tokyo or even at the airport.
Now if alcholic beverages are not your jam, fret not. They also have tea shops with well-known tea masters too! The one we visited was by Yabe-san at Yabe-en Tea Shop (2-3 Kaigandori, Shiogama, Miyagi 985-0002, daily 9:30AM to 6PM). Famous for his green tea, from the conventional matcha & sencha all the way to his green tea cocktails and mixtures. The teas here are exquisitely crafted and made fresh. Strike a conversation up with Yabe-san about tea and you’ll leave with in house secrets on tea choice, tea pots and tea making skills. You will leave here with your knowledge on tea indefinitely widened.
Once you’ve had your fair share of food, and want a place to chill and relax, head back to Matsushima Bay. The bay area in Matsushima has amazing views over the bay as well as its island archipelagos, one of which is connected via the Fukuurabashi Bridge (which has a small fee of 200 yen). You can take a long stroll there and yes this place is filled with many insta-worthy spots.
After having your fair share of chilling and relaxing, it is time to end the journey here, to head back to Tokyo is as simple as taking a cab ride to Sendai’s train station which is a 45 minute drive, and take the Shinkansen back to Tokyo, where you can spend another couple days or directly to the airports for your flight out.
While those mentioned are the highlights of the trip, there are certainly many nitty gritty spots and secrets that you can only experience when being present there yourself. The Fukushima area presents such a stark reminder of what can happen when disaster strikes and its long lasting effects, and really is a picturesque sight to behold. Miyagi on the other hand, is a food paradise. Both prefectures also contain traditional sights from Japan like cherry blossom trees and temples but without the massive amounts of other travelers you find in Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka. Put it all together and you have a Japan trip so unique, all your friends would be left in utter envy.
TIPS for Traveling to & Around Fukushima & Miyagi
- While you can use the shinkansen to get to Fukushima or Sendai, from there on, it’s much more convenient to take a rental car or buses especially in Fukushima where many train stations are still not fully operational yet. There’s a specific JR pass that covers the Tohoku region – the JR East Tohoku Area Pass which you can use for the JR lines in that region and for Tokyo as well.
- If you don’t speak Japanese, it really is helpful to engage in a local tour to assist in communicating with locals and the surrounding shops, especially when it comes to food ordering in Shiogama Town.
- The nearest major international airport to access Fukushima is either Haneda or Narita airports. Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region, has direct flights to other Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Taipei and Seoul.
This article was written by Leonard Yap (@leonardthedietitian)