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Destination: Japan

Where warrior tales live on

At the northern end of the main island, Honshu, is a remote, mountainous region called Tohoku, infused with the spirit of the samurai.

January 05, 2003|Kristin Johannsen | Special to The Times

Hirosaki, Japan — In 1689, a poet named Matsuo Basho set out on foot for a distant part of his homeland, Japan.

In his travelogue, "The Narrow Road to the Deep North," he mused: "Here am I, suddenly taking it into my head to make a long journey to far northern provinces. I might as well be going to the ends of the Earth!"

Three centuries later, the same idea took hold of my husband, Kevin, and me, so we set out to explore Tohoku, the mountainous north of the main island of Honshu, for five days. Many Japanese regard Tohoku as remote, empty and backward, the Appalachia of Japan. The region, more than 300 miles long, has less than half the 24 million population of Tokyo. With no glittery urban center, it draws visitors instead for its venerable history, its earthy culture and, as we found, some of the warmest people anywhere.

For Basho, Tohoku began at Shirakawa, but that town whizzed past us unnoticed as we sped north from Tokyo, where we had spent several days, on a 150 mph double-decker "bullet" train. From our lower-level seats, the window showed us only a narrow strip of sky. It wasn't until we got off to change to a local train at Koriyama that we saw Tohoku's dark, pine-covered mountains, with patches of autumn red and gold, already sifted with snow late last October.

We rode the train first to Aizuwakamatsu, a small commercial center that, for the Japanese, is rich with romance and tragedy because it is the site of the samurai's last stand. For centuries the town was the stronghold of the Aizu clan, fiercely loyal supporters of the shogun. Here, in 1869, they made an ill-fated attempt to turn back progress. In 1867, forward-looking Japanese overthrew the feudal shoguns who had isolated their country from the world for 350 years. But where the samurai remained loyal to the shogun, civil war broke out.

The setting was a wooded hill called Iimoriyama, which we visited on a dark, stormy morning. Rain spilled from leaves and rushed through gutters as we trudged up a long flight of stone stairs.

At the top stood the graves of 19 teenage boys from a samurai training school. They formed the Byakkotai (White Tiger Legion) to defend their shogun. After a heartbreaking defeat in battle, the survivors, ages 16 and 17, fell back to Iimoriyama to regroup. Seeing smoke pouring from the city below, they thought the castle had fallen and killed themselves with their swords out of loyalty to their lord. In fact, some houses were on fire, but the shogun was not in danger. Their graves are marked by a row of 19 simple tombstones.

The tragedy has captured the imagination of some Japanese, and we saw a senior citizens' tour group gather to watch a daily reenactment of the suicides. A stylized dance was performed by a rather cheerful young man in samurai garb: flowing trousers, a black tunic with a huge white sash and a sword.

With our spirits and bodies dampened, it was definitely time to cheer ourselves up, and the Aizu Sake Historical Museum did the trick. The city has 23 sake makers, and the museum is housed in the Miyaizumi Brewery, a creaky, 200-year-old structure of whitewashed plaster and dark wood.

Life-size mannequins showed the lengthy process of making wine from steamed rice, and the implements on display looked more like sculptures than tools: wood basins bound with woven bamboo, rakes and stirring paddles of simple elegance. Delighted to meet foreign sake-lovers, the salesclerks poured us hefty samples of the company's brews, from milky and sweet to bitingly dry.

After a long day in the cold wind, it felt glorious to come "home" to a minshuku, an accommodation in a private home similar to a bed-and-breakfast. At the Takizawa family's minshuku, we soothed ourselves with a steamy soak in a deep Japanese bath, followed by dinner in the family's dining room: tempura prawns, pickled eggplant, tofu in sauce, spinach, mystery vegetables, sliced fruit and tea. After more cups of hot sake and long talks with the Takizawas' English-speaking daughter, we went upstairs, donned yukatas (sleeping robes) and melted into our futons on the sweet-smelling tatami mat floor.

Oodles of noodles

We continued north by rail the next day, first making a stop 10 miles north at Kitakata. The town boasts an unlikely claim to fame: ramen noodles. In a town of 10,000, more than 130 restaurants dish up Kitakata ramen, which, we quickly learned, barely resembles the stuff in packets.

At Hisakoya, a restaurant we randomly chose from a tourist office map, we savored gomoku ramen, huge bowls of chewy fresh noodles in pork broth, buried under marinated roast pork slices, fish sausage, boiled egg and steamed greens. I have no idea whether it was the best in town -- we were too stuffed to make comparison studies before we reboarded the train.

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