I ate like a Viking in the home of the Samurai

What do the Japanese like doing on a holiday in their own back yard? Bathing, visiting castles and brushing up their handicraft skills. Adrian Mourby joins in

Chihaya laughs when she sees me holding up the bottled snake, all 12 venomous, tongue-flicking inches of it. It's not a pet, she tells me. I'm supposed to buy the two-litre bottle and fill it with sake. Mamushi Shu (drowned viper sake) retails at around 30,000 yen (£150) per bottle. This is just one of the delicacies you can buy in Tou-no-Hetsuri, a very touristy outcrop of weathered rocks above the Okawa river and one of the major attractions of Fukushima prefecture.

Chihaya laughs when she sees me holding up the bottled snake, all 12 venomous, tongue-flicking inches of it. It's not a pet, she tells me. I'm supposed to buy the two-litre bottle and fill it with sake. Mamushi Shu (drowned viper sake) retails at around 30,000 yen (£150) per bottle. This is just one of the delicacies you can buy in Tou-no-Hetsuri, a very touristy outcrop of weathered rocks above the Okawa river and one of the major attractions of Fukushima prefecture.

Not many Westerners come to Fukushima. With direct flights from Korea and Taiwan, and the Bullet Train from Tokyo, this is very much an oriental destination. That's why I've come here, to discover what the Japanese do when they holiday at home.

We met at Fukushima Station, Chihaya and I. We bowed and exchanged our cards and she gave me an umbrella against the rain. Chihaya is my interpreter and, boy, do I need her. No one speaks English in Fukushima, and my Japanese is non-existent. Next I meet Mr Nakamura who is going to drive us up to Mount Asima, an extinct volcano visible from the station, and across to Jodo-daira, a saddle between volcanic cones known to Buddhists as the "Flat Paradise" and very popular with visitors.

But first would I like to see an onsen? Onsen are very popular in Japan, the by-product of all that tectonic movement that rattled my hotel room in Tokyo. The slopes of Mount Asima abound with these hot springs, steamy sulphurous blasts of bathtime joy. The first we came to was at Tamagoyu, an unimpressively modern hotel which opened its first bath house in 1868. Local tourism supports several of these 60-room facilities. For Y500 (£2.50) we were given towels, slippers and a long white flannel with which one washes oneself before stepping into the outdoor pools. Mr Nakamura and I took the plunge together there, naked except for the umbrellas with which the hotel had issued us. Chihaya joined in the fun in an adjacent pool separated by a bamboo screen. I'm sure she looked very fetching in an umbrella.

The temperature of water coming out of the ground is a very satisfying 41C by the time it reaches customers, but it was an odd sight to see so many Japanese heads bobbing up and down in the steam, each wearing a neatly folded flannel under identical umbrellas.

After our restorative soak we headed over the Skyline Highway and took a lunch break at the rest house in the Flat Paradise. At 1,600m above sea level, Jodo-daira is a good place to observe astrological phenomena because, even in bad weather, it's usually above cloud level. Mr Muramatsu who runs the rest house schedules concerts when there's a lunar eclipse coming up. He's a resourceful man, not only producing Mount Asima's very own astrological bandana - retailing at Y1,000 yen - but also a unique "black rice" ice cream - Y300 (£1.50). I savoured it along with the kudos of being the first Westerner to test drive this concoction. For those who have ever wondered: it tastes of vanilla with a hint of black cherry.

With steamy windows we pressed on in the direction of Mount Bandai. In the small village of Kita-Shiobara I saw a genuinely surreal sight. A hoarding claimed that this was the Morohashi Museum of Modern Art, home to one of the biggest collections of Salvador Dalí's works in the world. I couldn't quite believe this so we swung the car into the palatial grounds of this empty museum and wandered in.

For a modest Y950 (£4.80) I found myself browsing gallery after gallery of original Dalí paintings, sculptures and illustrations to The Divine Comedy (which I didn't even know existed). There were also a couple of Renoirs, some Utrillos and a Picasso. It was like discovering that an eccentric Welsh businessman had endowed Llandrindod Wells with the world's biggest private collection of Magritte.

We spent the evening in a huge 320-room hotel nearby. The Urabandai Nekoma Hotel does a roaring trade in the winter with Japanese skiers. In the spring people come here to see the cherry blossom, and in the autumn to see the leaves change colour. All year round, however, they enjoy the onsen. It's difficult to overestimate the appeal of these hot-spring spa hotels with their communal washrooms and panoramic views. They are the symbol of a traditional holiday - what the seaside hotel used to be to the British.

The next morning, I rose early, bathed with lots of small naked men with flannels on their heads, and went in search of breakfast down long corridors that would have been very reminiscent of The Shining were it not for the occasional group of women scuttling by in yakutas (lightweight kimonos).

"Japanese or Viking?" asked the receptionist for, by some strange linguistic quirk, European-style buffets are named after the men who used to pillage the coast of northern England. I opted for Japanese and was escorted to a black lacquer-lined room where bird song came through speakers in the ceiling. At my table I was served a lacquer box containing an array of little bowls containing shitake mushrooms, broth, a thing made of rolled egg , bits of uncooked fish and pickled plums (possibly the sourest taste in the world).

Today we were going to Aizu-Wakamatsu, to the last castle to surrender to Emperor Meiji's armies in 1868. Meiji crushed the Shoguns and re-established imperial power a good eight years before Tom Cruise turned up to impersonate The Last Samurai.

Built in the 14th century, Tsurugajo Castle was once a barracks on the scale of modern-day Aldershot. All that remains now, however, is a reconstruction of its samurai seminary, relocated to Hahitsu-jingya, the house of a daimyo (feudal lord), rebuilt on the outskirts of modern-day Aizu, and the central watchtower of the castle - one of those white, five-tiered, wedding cake-like structures whose tiled roofs end in twirly pagoda-style flourishes.

It cost 1,000 Yen (£5) to enter and the castle was doing a brisk trade with coachloads of Japanese tourists keen to step back into their communal past. The defeated samurai have a mythic appeal in Japan similar to the Confederates in America or the cavaliers in Britain. Chihaya told me that one of her ancestors had been an Aizu samurai, but not one of the famed White Tiger League, 17 teenage boys who were returning to their castle in 1868 when they saw smoke rising. Instead of checking whether this just meant that supper was burnt, they jumped to the worst conclusion and committed ritual suicide, thus depriving those defending Tsurugajo of some useful recruits.

To my Western mind the White Tiger League were plain stupid but they are romantic folk heroes in modern Japan and the castle does a roaring trade in replica White Tiger swords. I bought one, a mere Y1,200 (£6), for my son.

Before we toured the castle, and drank green tea with its fast-food geishas, we just had time for the most important part of my visit: the Akkabeiko Barn. Here Chihaya and Mr Nakamura had arranged for me to jump the queue and paint a red papier mâché beiko (the local word for cow). "When we go on holiday we always like to take part in a local handicraft," Chihaya explained as I was handed my six inch cow along with pots of red, white and black paint.

All around me people were decorating away with a vengeance, so I applied myself to painting a face and some appropriate Chinese pictographs. It felt incongruous but it's all the rage in Aizu. When I finished everyone applauded. "Forget the snake sake," said Mr Nakamura. "Now you have a real Japanese holiday."

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Adrian Mourby travelled as a guest of KLM (08705 074 074; www.klm.com) which offers return flights from London Heathrow to Tokyo via Amsterdam from £600.

Where to stay

Urabandai Nekoma Hotel (00 81 241 37 1234) in Fukushima, offers double rooms from 18,000 Yen (£?) per person, including two meals.

Okawaso Onsen (00 81 242 92 2111), at Aizu-wakamatsu, offers double rooms from 15,750 Yen (£?) per person, including two meals.

Further information

Contact the Japanese National Tourist Organisation (020-7734 6870; www.seejapan.co.uk).

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