Ouchi-juku: A winter wonderland

Lyna Mohamad

As part of the ASEAN Journalists Visit Programme by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, one of the highlights was the Ouchi-juku Snow Festival.

Our long ride to the festival began to drive up to the mountain with little flakes of white snow falling along the way. As we went further, the snow began to fall stronger and the temperature in the bus suddenly dropped. Our excitement was at its peak as most of us had never experienced snow.

Reaching Ouchi-juku, it was unbelievably white everywhere and felt like everything under the big blue sky had been lulled to sleep under a white blanket of snow that covered the whole place.

There are several seasonal festivals in this historic village, but the most popular is the splendid Ouchi-juku Snow Festival.

Filled with various events steeped in the Edo period (1603-1867), visible was the location’s character with a romantic highlight in the display of candles placed in snow lanterns hanging outside the 300-year-old houses.

A view of Ouchi-juku. PHOTOS: LYNA MOHAMAD
A mix of tourists and locals during the festival
The writer with ASEAN journalists at Goshiki-Numa Pond. PHOTOS: LYNA MOHAMAD
A snowman at one of the houses in Ouchi-juku
ABOVE & BELOW: The writer and ASEAN Journalists in traditional Japanese clothing during dinner at Shikisai Ichiriki Hotel; and the writer and ASEAN journalists with Ouchi-juku Snow Festival mascot

We were told that during the first night of the fire ceremony, a group of young men dressed only in loincloths with flaming torches in hand would march through the fluffy white streets to light each lantern by hand.

Unfortunately, we had to miss witnessing this as our visiting time was limited.

Getting off the bus, we heard traditional music from a distance and the flurry of snow floating in the air began to fall on us. Our escort for the visit programme, Ms Keiko ushered us quickly to where the festival was taking place before letting us wander around freely.

After picking a point to meet at in about an hour’s time, everyone began to walk further around the place, taking pictures here and there, while me and my two media friends began our walk up towards the hills to see the view from above, stopping by at some spots for some photos.

We made our way back down and grabbed a quick lunch before gathering back at the meeting point. With very little time left for us to try out the traditional food there, we were recommended by a local person we met while going downhill, who also became our brief tour guide and a friend, to try out the local gourmet specialty of negi-soba in Ouchi-juku, the simplest and fastest dish we can go for within the time we had.

What is unique about this dish is not only the taste but the experience of eating the soup noodles with a pair of leeks as chopsticks, just as how the locals do and finishing up the soup by holding the bowl up with both hands, as it is more polite to do so, and drinking the soup to the last drop.

Although it was a brief Edo-style winter fun experience here, everyone had a memorable time, not only in experiencing the snow but also having the opportunity to experience the festive atmosphere and witness the colourful festival amidst the falling snow.

Aboard the bus, we waved goodbye to the festival and began another long ride to our hotel and as everyone had their fair share of snow fun, it didn’t take long for the ride back to silence as each one of us dozed off. Awakened by Ms Keiko just before reaching Shikisai Ichiriki Hotel for our night’s rest in Koriyama, we were told that we would be experiencing a traditional Japanese home for our night stay there.

As we were driven to the hotel’s foyer, it at first seemed like a modern building structure. Getting off the bus, senior management of the hotel were on hand to welcome and usher us quickly into the hotel from the freezing weather and the minute we entered the lobby, we began to sense the Japanese atmosphere all around us and like the other participants, I couldn’t wait to see how Japanese our rooms would be.

While our rooms were being organised, we were served with hot Japanese tea to warm us up and got to meet the owner of the hotel who was introduced to us by her daughter, who speaks English well and helps her mother to run the hotel along with other family members.

After the brief introduction, we were taken to the conference room for a background presentation of the hotel by the management, before being given the keys to our room.

Stepping into my room, I was excited as I saw a traditional sliding door inside the room, just like the ones we see on TV or at Japanese restaurants. The door opened up to a complete Japanese house setting and a pair of Yukata (ladies kimono) neatly folded on a tray for us to put on and wear during our dinner.

Aside from this Japanese stay experience, the hotel also has an Onsen, which is a traditional hot spring bath.

After dinner, I returned to my room to find the bed was already made up by the hotel staff. It was not the usual kind of bed, but a fluffy looking mattress of traditional Japanese bedding, which gave me a comfortable good night’s sleep.

Looking out of my bedroom window, I witnessed another beautiful view of snow falling onto the garden below.

We started our day early in the morning, with a few places to visit before leaving Fukushima Prefecture. Our first stop was the Goshiki-Numa Pond, which means the ‘five coloured pond’, though we were not able to see this as the place was covered with thick snow, and the lake was still frozen by the weather.

We were again amazed with the white sight around us and made our way through the thick snow to get to the frozen lake for some photo shoots.

Walking uphill, downhill and uphill again, we were finally rewarded with an amazing view of the frozen lake and its surroundings. The atmosphere and the lake was such a mesmerising sight, so much so that, as I write this article, the sight of it comes back to my mind just as clear as how it was at that particular time.

Scattered around, we began to take shots of the beautiful view around us, snapping photos in groups and selfies until it was time to say Sayonara to Goshiki-Numa.