I took the bus this morning to the old castle town of Aizu-Wakamatsu. It`s in the west of Fukushima prefecture, a long way from the coast and the nuclear plant.
I assumed Aizu was high in the mountains. Predictably, I was wrong; it`s only a couple of hundred metres above sea level. The heavy summer heat on the streets felt murderous (satsujinteki).
I quickly escaped Aizu-Wakamatsu by taking a local train (one departure every two hours) through the lush green rice fields to the town of Kitakata.
Kitakata is famous for ramen noodles; it`s the ramen capital of the world – 47 ramen restaurants in a town big enough to justify three.
How do I know there are 47? There are ramen maps everywhere; they show where each restaurant is, how thick their noodles are, and what base they use for their broth.
A quiet homely looking place called Kattsuan got my custom. The soy-sauce based ramen I ordered was superb – the best in town. I have no need to waste my time with the other 46.
I sat at the counter of Kattsuan for two hours, supping nihonshu and idly watching the Koshien High School Baseball tournament on TV. It was great.
“Put some salt on it”, the man next to me said. Had it been fish or vegetables, I wouldn`t have hesitated, but he had just passed me a juicy red slice of water melon.
The white-aproned chef emerged from the kitchen. Upon seeing my melon, he passed me another salt cellar. Salting melon is clearly the thing to do in Aizu; on a hot day, it was just the trick.
An afternoon with ramen, nihonshu and salty melon left me no time to explore Kitakata`s old brick and timber warehouses and sake brewerys. Before returning to Aizu-Wakamatsu, I just had time for a quick coffee at Danwashitsu – and an inspiring meeting with Master.
Danwashitsu is a high-class coffee shop and bar, and its master is the perfect host. When I strolled in, he graciously showed me to my seat, kindly warning me of the “severe” price of coffee (500yen) – which apparently some odious foreigners find objectionable.
I guess Master is in his 60s (so somewhere between 39 and 96). Dressed immaculately, he wore a pressed orange polo shirt, tucked into creaseless cream trousers. His receding greying hair was neatly greased back over his scalp. He looked ready to play golf with the Emperor; instead he had to fuss over my hotto kohi (hot coffee).
I was the only customer, and he was keen to talk.
“Zenzen daijobu yo, osen saretenai kara (Aizu is absolutely fine, we`re not getting radiation here)”, he told me.
Fukushima prefecture splits into 3 vertical strips. On the east side is the coastal area, Hamadori, where the nuclear plant is. Nakadori is the central strip where the north-south bullet train runs through. Aizu is the western strip, shielded by the mountains from the worst of the radiation.
Yet visitors are staying away, the master explained. School trips, group tours, traffic jams have all disappeared from Aizu, tourism is down 90%. The only new faces in town have come from the exclusion zone around the nuclear plant.
“We had 800 refugees in the Kitakata gymnasium. The city of Aizu-Wakamatsu had thousands. All of them are in temporary housing now.”
As yet, the burden of looking after refugees has not been met with compensation for lost tourist revenue. And Aizu has never got a watt of the electricity produced at the nuclear plant.
Master told me Aizu people are yasashii (kind), bonded together by shared suffering in the cold spells of winter. This year, Aizu`s suffering won`t pass with the change of seasons. Hopefully though, visitors will start returning soon – Master and salted melon deserve a wide audience.