Shirakawa-shi by Serena Winchell of JETAANY

Suirakuen Shi-go-sanName: Serena Winchell
Location in Japan: Shirakawa-shi, Fukushima-ken
Name of City: Shirakawa-shi
Description: After four wonderful, exciting, experienced-filled years living and working in Shirakawa, I feel that it is the true epitome of all that is Japan; a melding of ancient and modern, rural and urban, and now since 2011, ruin and renewal.

A city of under-appreciated historical significance, Shirakawa served as the final station on the Oshu Kaido, connecting Tokyo with present-day Fukushima. Haiku master Matsuo Basho passed through here on his “Journey to the North.” Thought to be the last point of civilization, anything further north considered wilderness, Shirakawa serves as a gateway to Tohoku’s wonders.

Shirakawa is just a short 80-minute trip from Tokyo Station on the bullet train. Its claims to fame lie in its very own castle, Komine-jo, numerous handmade ramen and soba shops, the artwork of Daruma dolls, and Japan’s very first public park, Nanko Park. Your own “Journey to the North” can begin here.

Komine-jo is located directly behind Shirakawa Station (a three minute transfer from Shin-Shirakawa). The castle is surrounded by a cherry blossom filled park and is a favorite spot for hanami. Although the moat was damaged by the March 11 earthquake and you can no longer directly access the castle, it is still worth checking out, and be sure to stop by the little café and gift shop for memorabilia of local mascot Komine Shiro-chan.

Next, head over to Nanko Park, the oldest public park in Japan. Built for the common people by order of Lord Matsudaira Sadanobu, it is a local favorite with something to do in every season. You can enjoy walking through the Japanese maples or rowing on the postcard-perfect lake all year round.

Afterwards, visit Nanko Shrine to pray, read your fortune or buy a charm before heading over to Suirakuen, a traditional Japanese garden within Nanko Park, where you can enjoy a casual cup of matcha tea and sweets in the tranquil setting of the large teahouse, or try a formal tea ceremony in the purpose built tearoom (reservation may be required).

Next, enjoy a stroll around the beautiful grounds with its bubbling waterfalls and carp pond – the perfect spot for a kimono-clad photo opportunity, which can be rented from the shop down the street. In autumn, a moon-viewing tea party is held and paper lanterns decorate the koi pond.

By now, it’s probably lunch time, so try Shirakawa’s famous handmade ramen with their crinkly noodles. I recommend either Kafuu Tei or Azuma Ramen (famous for its miso ramen). They are both local favorites within walking distance from Nanko Park.

For dessert, grab some mitarashi (sweet soy sauce) or black sesame flavor dango from one of the dango shops within Nanko Park. I love the black sesame, and the tea and pickles served with them balance out the sweetness perfectly.

Returning to Shirakawa Station, head towards city hall and you’ll come upon Rakura, a newly built shopping complex. Shop here for locally made gifts. Within Rakura, you’ll find a Daruma shop run by the Watanabe family. What’s a Daruma, you say? This rounded papier-mâché doll is used to make and grant wishes. It can be found anywhere in Japan, but the design of Shirakawa’s Daruma is only made here! You can even try painting one yourself. Staff are on hand to show you how and explain the symbolism of the intricate facial details. Every year on February 11, Shirakawa holds its Daruma-ichi Festival. Here, you can buy new Daruma of all sizes and burn the old ones to release their spirits.

Finish the day off with a family-style meal at the izakaya, Shirube. I recommend trying their “Godzilla” dish, a concoction of ground beef, tomatoes, and cheese covered in sake and set on fire. With a full belly, please have a safe trip back to your hotel. You can continue your “Journey to the North” on towards the Aizu Region, or maybe detour to Hawaiian Spa Resort in Iwaki.

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