Aizu-Wakamatsu Sake Museum

 Sake is alcohol in Japan. The term for alcohol, in Japanese, is "osake" or "sake" (literally, liquor) - obviously, the drink defines drinking culture heritage in this country. Beer has passed sake in popularity, and wine, liquors such as whisky, and mixed drinks (highballs, for example) have also gained market share. But sake is still made and drank in Japan, and there are some really delicious brews.
 In Aizu-Wakamatsu, a small town in the hills of the Tohoku region, there are two stops tourists can make for sake - the Suehiro Sake Brewery and another, Miyaizumi, has been turned into the Aizu Sake Museum.
 These pictures were all taken behind the building; a beautiful private Japanese garden is easily seen next door. You can't go into the garden, but it was a great start to my day.
 The museum looks like an old Japanese building. And it is. This is the old brewery for Miyaizumi, and the old equipment is visible inside.

 Okay, this doesn't look old. I'm focusing this post on the more modern equipment used in sake breweries, because I saw another brewery in Kobe which had a lot of traditional equipment on display.
 As one would expect, things are clean here. Workers change into inside shoes when going into the brewery portion of the building. The tour takes you past the machines and tanks.
 Speaking of tanks, they're large and plentiful. Sake is made similar to beer - it is brewed, after all. However, in the case of sake, the rice is fermented instead of barley, hops, and wheat. Note that Japanese people don't call sake sake - instead, they use the term nihonshu (Japanese liquor). In stores, you need to find bottles labeled "seishu" (clear liquor) - this word isn't used in conversation but it's required due to Japanese laws.
 The mark of quality! From fermentation tank to (old style) cask, you can get a glimpse at the making of sake. I would love to get one of those old-style casks; they are still made and used for ceremonial purposes, such as weddings, store openings, and sports victories. The sake here is pretty good (not the best, which I had in Kobe). The tour ends at the gift shop, where you can sample several sake flavors and buy a bottle or three to take home as souvenirs. Note that when you go to a sake museum, you will probably want to buy at least one bottle, so budget accordingly.
Admission to the museum is supposedly 300 yen. I didn't get charged, but then again I was the first and only visitor when I arrived in the morning (drinking at breakfast - I am turning Japanese!) and I was planning on buying sake too. Plus I don't think they knew much of what to do with me, because I don't really speak Japanese. They had a simple prepared card to help them explain some of what I saw in the modernized part of the brewery, and essentially left me to explore on my own. Which, by the way, was great! I had a couple questions they were able to answer. ... But I digress.

The museum is open 8:30-17:00 May through October, and 9:00-16:30 the rest of the year. The museum is about 5-10 minutes from Tsuruga Castle on foot; there is also a stop on the tourist loop bus right in front of the museum.

A Quick Photo Essay of Matsushima

 Last summer's trip to Matsushima focused on three islands. I didn't plan for things to turn out like that, but we ended up not taking the boat cruise or going to the city's most famous temple. And while I wanted to go to the outer islands, access is difficult due to the tsunami. That might be a day trip of its own.
 But even just exploring three islands and the waterfront stores, I had a great time and if it wasn't so far away I could see it being a frequent destination.
 It's not perfect, though. I'm not sure how long it's been there, but an abandoned television was found, along with a bunch of other trash, on Fukuura-jima. It's possible it ended up here due to the tsunami, but I also venture a guess that this particular item might have been brought here by someone trying to avoid paying the pickup fee.

 Hello Kitty is here, though! As is the cow samurai character on the right. The street that runs along the waterfront is full of shops and restaurants that cater to tourists.
 There are some tea shops, including one that was making fresh senbei (rice crackers). These are quite popular snacks in Japan, and are frequently bought as souvenirs to bring back to the office when traveling. They're so much better than rice cakes - nothing like them, actually - and they are frequently coated in a sauce (a soy sauce of sorts here) or have some other flavoring included.
 Matsushima is a beautiful place, so it only makes sense that there are several temples here. The bay is considered one of the three best views in Japan.
 I mentioned in a previous post that there is an aquarium in Matsushima. It has a dolphin show, penguin walk, and some sharks. I haven't visited but it doesn't get mentioned in guide books that I read. Admission is a steep 1700 yen, but for those with small children it might be the only "fun" thing they can do here.
 I see you, sea gull. They come and go with the tour boats; tourists toss food (bread) to them as they follow the boats out into the bay and back into port.
 The rocks in Matsushima are fantastic. The man-made caves built by monks for quiet contemplation and the slowly-weathered walls at the water's edge all are amazing.
 Matsushima means Pine Islands and there are plenty of flowers and trees to be seen. They grow on even the smallest islets.
What can serve as a day trip for most can build to a two or three day trip pretty quickly if you spend some time exploring. In addition to the three islands that I visited, you can add the previously mentioned temple, aquarium, and boat cruise, plus time on the outer islands. Sendai and Matsushima aren't too far from Tokyo, but in the summer the temperature difference is noticeable.

Fukuura-jima: Matsushima (Town)'s Biggest Island

 The northernmost of the three islands accessible from Matsushima town, Fukuura-jima sits about a quarter kilometer from the shore. After paying a small admission fee to cross the bridge, my friend and I started the long walk across the water. This bridge was damaged in the tsunami, but reopened very quickly. (As a side note, I find it interesting that this long bridge could be repaired/replaced in a very short time, while the short bridge at Oshima took two years to be fixed. Obviously, the income from the bridge toll certainly helped this one get open.)
 The bridge offers some good views of the other islands, nearby hills, and the town of Matsushima. I believe these two are Futagojima.
 A little further north, there is yet another island that's connected to the main land, this time by a pile of rocks. That island isn't developed for tourism or inhabited at all, as far as I can tell.
 Like Oshima, Fukuura has some small "cliffs" and interesting features due to weathering. These small rocks with their own tiny trees were pretty cool.
 Here's another angle of the rocks and the island's cliff.
 Once you reach the island, you're greeted b a small beach in a cove.
 The path here is paved.
 I'm not sure when the boat got here, but it's been left behind and is now full of water.
 Looking back across the bay at the bridge and Matsushima.
 Here's the boat and a small peninsula of sorts.
 While there's one main trail that forms a loop around the island, there are some small paths that branch off. Fukuura has two large peninsulas to the north, one small one to the west (mentioned above), and two medium sized peninsulas to the south. The trail above goes all the way out the northwestern peninsula.
 There is some interesting moss growing out here.
 Following the trail will give hikers a good view back to Matsushima, and I'm sure this is a picture most people don't take.
 Look in the crevices! There are bugs in that tree!
 The tree itself is pretty awesome too; look at it sideways and it's an alien face!
 Another split tree nearby has its rings showing in an interesting way.
 This is a different angle of the two islands seen in the second photo of this post.
 Being August, it was humid and hazy (not as bad as Tokyo) so distance photography was tough. There is a seagull and a boat framing the largest island in the photo above.
 Another random path. Where does it go?
 I found a temple! This is Bentendo.
 Is that a pine cone dragon on the top?
 To get the most of Fukuura, it's important to follow the small paths.
 I saw an unmarked set of stone steps on the south side of the island.
 Down here were a couple nice caves...
 And a nice beach! It's not exactly isolated, but most visitors don't make it down here. I think this is the nicest beach on Fukuura, although the one on the northeast side was pretty good too.
 There is life on the beach! I found this guy and some shells perfect for the picking. Not very big shells, mind you.
 The rock that juts out at the eastern side of the beach forms one of the two peninsulas on the south side; the second, larger peninsula forms a small bay and another beach on the other side of this hill.
 And there was an abandoned pair of fishing waders off to the side. I didn't do anything with those; maybe the fisherman (crab or clam farmer?) will be back in a few hours to check his catch. Then again, there were leaves and stuff that made it look like they haven't moved in quite some time.
 The island has a lot to offer; beaches, hills, forest, waterfront, and field hiking.
 Continuing around the eastern side of the island, I can see more islands.
 This small islet is the closest one to Fukuura. I'm sure you could just walk across the water, though I don't know how deep it is. Given the water level on the island's rocks, it looks like I took this picture at low tide. This is from the large beach that wraps around the entire northeast side of the island.
 I'm sure amateur geologists would have a field day at this island. I'm trying to remember my earth science...
 I believe this is Yake Island or Kuno Island. Those two are the closest large island to Fukuura, on the east side.
 It's times like these I wish I had a small boat to paddle over to the other islands.
 This is the southeastern peninsula. It's the third-longest, though that's not saying much. It's quite photogenic though!

 And this is the northeastern peninsula; it sits almost in the middle of the northern end of the island. Like the northwestern peninsula, it's long and narrow. There is a mud flat of sorts at the beach next to it when the tide is out. The peninsula is longer on the western side.
 In the valley between the two peninsulas, a grassy lawn and some nice trees have been planted. This is a nice place to have a picnic, and there are chairs and tables where it's nice to sit and relax. The beach next to this is off-limits, serving as a wetland of sorts. It's at a well-sheltered bay between the two northern peninsulas.
 This grassy area has a few garden areas with flowers and bushes; they had a sunflower patch with six foot tall sunflowers in full bloom!

Fukuura-jima is accessed from a bridge on the north side of Matsushima town, and the bridge toll is 200 yen (you pay when you enter from Matsushima). The entire island can easily be walked in an hour, although avid photographers and picnickers will stay longer. It's open from 8:00-17:00 (16:30 November through February).