Ouchi-juku, one of the most popular tourist spots in Fukushima Prefecture, is a post town with more than 30 thatched-roof houses lined up in a remote mountainous area in southern Fukushima Prefecture. Preserved as it was in the Edo period, and selected as a Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings, it is a popular destination for more than one million tourists throughout the year. Here are some of the highlights of Ouchi-juku, a historical post town that makes you feel as if you have stepped back in time.
Historic Thatched-roof Houses
Using the JR East Pass (Tohoku area), distinct prefectures in the Tohoku regions; Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata in the Tohoku can be explored. This pass offers foreign passport holders five-day unlimited trips on shinkansen, express, and local trains across those prefectures in the eastern Japan area. Of the many, Ouchi-juku, an area in Minami-Aizu, Fukushima Prefecture, lined with iconic thatched-roof houses on both sides of the old Aizu West Road is one of the sightseeing spots not to be missed. The closest station to Ouchi-juku, which is about 20 minutes by bus, the Yunokami Onsen Station is also built with such a thatched-roof. It is one of only two train stations with a thatched roof in Japan and has a rich history with a traditional atmosphere. Visitors can already start to get their Edo vibe as their trip in time starts here.
Yunokami Onsen Station
Ouchi-juku was established around 1640 as the third post town counting from Aizu Castle. Because it was located relatively close to Tsurugajo Castle (about 20 km), Ouchi-juku developed into a lively post town, with lodging facilities such as "Honjin'' for feudal lords. Since this post town was along the Aizu Nishikaido Road connecting Nikko to Aizu, it served as an important transportation route for feudal lords and travelers on their way to Edo. With the opening of the Shin-Nikko Kaido Road in the Meiji era (1868-1912), the town was removed from the main road. Due to the removal, the town began to decline, turning it into a farming village. The town was cut off from the outside world and was forgotten by the people.
It was in 1967 that Ouchi-juku, which had been quietly retaining the appearance of an inn town deep in the mountains, came back into the limelight. Professor Aizawa of Musashino Art University visited Ouchi-juku to conduct a survey and appealed to the government to preserve the thatched-roof buildings that have remained since the Edo period.
In 1977, when the construction of the Ouchi Dam began, thatched roofs were replaced with tin roofs to pay for the dam, and the historic townscape was almost lost. However, in 1981, the area was selected as an Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings by the national government, which raised the awareness of the residents to preserve this historical townscapes. By restoring thatched roofs from tin roofs, undergrounding utility poles, and removing asphalt pavement, the landscape of the Edo period has come back. For better or worse, being removed from the main traffic roads after the Meiji era has made Ouchi-juku possible to remain in its original state to this extent.
Unlike other thatched roofs in Japan, in Ouchi-juku and other snowy areas, the roofs are made to slope steeply so that the snow falls naturally to the ground. These thatched-roof houses can be said to be the original landscape of Japan. It has a long history and has been seen since the Jomon period (about 12,000 to 2,400 years ago). These roofs are made from plants called "kaya," (zebra grass) and were hollow so they had a high heat-insulating effect, making it cool in summer and warm in winter. Some may wonder why roofs with grass don’t leak. The secret to this is because the roof is sloped to improve drainage. Moreover, the smoke rising from the hearth inside the house evaporates moisture and water, preventing leaks.
Green Onion As Chopsticks
Out of the many local gourmets, Negi Soba, a soba with green onion is very unique. From its name, it looks like a soba with lots of green onions. However, out of the ordinary, this soba is served with a stick of green onion which is used as a chopstick to eat the soba. Visitors will scoop up the soba with green onion from the dipping sauce made from the grated daikon radish, dried bonito shavings, and soy sauce. There are no seconds for the onions and it is wise not to eat the onion first.
This strange dish was originally a Takato Soba and was served with grated daikon radish. It was favored by the lords of Shishu (the traditional name of Nagano Prefecture). In one theory, the origin of soba in Aizu using this kind of whole stick of green onions goes back to the days when soba was served at celebratory occasions or to the Tokugawa Shogun. Back then, it was considered bad luck to “cut” the onions, and instead, whole onions were used. Having such a historical background, the owner of a restaurant, Misawaya at Ouchi-juku came up with a unique idea to serve a whole stick of onions in a small bowl with soba to wish for customers prosperity to replicate the soba served in the olden days.
Seasonal Beauty & Festivals
Any season to visit Ouchi-juku is great, but above all, winter is the best. Compared to the top seasons between summer to fall, there are fewer tourists. And this sparsity makes this post town quiet and serene away from the bustling city. There are six buses per day from Yunokami Onsen Station to Ouchi-juku from April to October, but from November to March there are no buses, so a cab is essential. Thatched-roof houses covered with pure white snow is a beauty to withhold.
Aside from the snow, the town attracts many visitors during the Ouchi-juku Snow Festival held every year on the second Saturday and Sunday of February when the town is covered in deep, white snow. A number of handmade snow lanterns made by local residents are placed along the street, and men in their loincloths receive the sacred fire, gojinka from an altar to go around to light those snow lanterns. At night, fireworks are set off in the clear winter sky, adding color to the fantastic atmosphere of the town enveloped by the flames of the snow lanterns. The scene will be unforgettable once you see it.
During the peak tourist season in summer, the Ouchi-juku Summer Festival is held every July 2nd. The festival is held at Takakura Shrine, which enshrines the spirit of Takakura Ijinoh, the second son of Emperor Go-Shirakawa. Procession goers wearing Edo-period garb and masks parade through the main streets to pray for safety at home and a good harvest.
As part of the fire prevention drill, every September 1st, water is being discharged at once to keep this town safe from fire. Although this drill lasts only for three minutes, many photographers spare their time to come to visit see this.
Even before the name Ouchi-juku was known, people have been living quietly, cherishing festivals and other cultural activities. Nowadays, the number of tourists has increased, but more than anything, people value the fact that they live in Ouchi-juku. This post town is not a theme park, but a residential area. There are 48 houses, three of which are minshuku (traditional Japanese style inns) where visitors can book to stay. The other houses are used as restaurants and gift shops. With a current population of about 130, this post town will continue to maintain its historical districts, protected by the residents, ready to show the visitors what life was back then.
Nearest Station: Yunokami Onsen Station
By train from Tokyo:
Using the JR East Pass (Tohoku Area)
Take a yamabiko train along the JR Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Koriyama Station.
Transfer to a regular train on the JR Banetsu-sai Line. Get off at Aizu-Wakamatsu Station.
Not covered by JR East Pass (Tohoku Area)
Transfer to Aizu Raiilway Line from Aizu-Wakamatsu Station and get off at Yunokami Onsen Station. It takes about an hour and depending on the day and time, may need to transfer at Nishi Wakamatsu station.
From Yunokami Onsen Station, take the bus and its about 20 minutes to Ouchi-juku. The bus leaves every hour at 9am, 10:10am, 11:15am, 12:05, 13:05pm, 14:00pm and 14:55pm. However, these schedules are subject to change.