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History buff Andrew Sinclair channels his inner samurai on a jam-packed adventure in little-known Aizu-Wakamatsu.
“Samurai City Aizu” – when I heard this slogan, I knew I was going to the right place. The samurai calls of feudal Japan are world-famous, and the word conjures up images of stern-faced lords dispensing justice, armoured warriors engaging in fierce battle, and loyalty unto death.
In the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, I was to find all this and more.
Dressing up as a member of the Shinsengumi Samurai Corps
Aizu-Wakamatsu is not a name most tourists are familiar with. It’s located up in the mountains of northern Japan, in Fukushima Prefecture. Sadly, the latter name is all too familiar, but Aizu-Wakamatsu is well over a 100km from the coast and the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Japanese summers are notoriously hot and humid, so it was a delight to experience the cooler mountain air.
My trip was kindly arranged by the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu to help promote tourism in the area. From the moment I disembarked at Aizu Station I was treated to omotenashi, a fine display of Japanese hospitality. I live in the large metropolis of Nagoya, which can feel a bit impersonal at times, so it was great to be welcomed so warmly by the local people.
Nisshinkan Samurai School
The local kindergarteners performed a traditional samurai dance for us, which was really cute!
Established over 200 years ago, this was where the children of samurai families were educated in the skills they would need as samurai such as archery, sword fighting and horse riding. There were also less obvious skills – swimming in armour, the correct way to commit seppuku (ritual suicide), etiquette, astronomy, and calligraphy among others.
Despite being modern reconstructions, the buildings are built in the traditional style and really conjure up the atmosphere of 200 years ago.
The archery range is still in use. After a master archer demonstrated the correct technique, I was given a bow and went on to demonstrate the wrong techniques… After close to a hundred shots, only one hit the target! (not mine, sadly…)
My dreams of becoming the next Robin Hood were dashed, as arrow after arrow plunged wildly into the ground
The next stop was Tsuruga Castle, the magnificent restored centrepiece of the old city. It was rebuilt in 1965 after being destroyed in the mid-nineteenth century following a bloody siege. This was one of the major events of the Boshin War, the war that saw the Emperor restored as head of state and Japan become the modern, Western-leaning nation it is today.
The red roof tiles are a unique feature – it’s the only castle in Japan with these!
Tsuruga castle has a museum telling the full story of the Boshin War and many fascinating stories from that time, all in English. I’d have loved to stay longer, but I was on a tight schedule and had a date with a naginata…
A naginata is a traditional Japanese weapon, a bit like a curved sword on the end of a long pole. Due to its ability to keep enemies at a distance, it was a good weapon for female samurai – a class of Aizu high school girls showed us just how fearsome they could be.
Answer: very! Like archery, it’s harder than it looks.
The next day, I visited the Sazae-do (an unofficial name for the Shojoji Etsu Sanso-do), home to an amazing double helix staircase.
The shape of the building is reminiscent of the Japanese shellfish, hence the name.
As a pilgrimage site, the rationale was that large numbers might want to enter, so the double helix system enables smooth traffic flow – you never have to pass the same place twice!
After Sazae-do, it was time to visit the graves of the Byakkotai. The Byakkotai, or White Tiger Unit, came together during the Boshin War in 1868. With Aizu attacked by numerically superior forces, even women and children were called up to defend their homes. The Byakkotai were 16/17-year-old students from the Nisshinkan Samurai School – their story is among the most famous and tragic in Aizu.
During the Boshin War, Tsuruga castle was under constant bombardment from the enemy, and the wooden houses of the nearby castle town were set alight. 20 boys of the Byakkotai retreated to Mount Iimoriyama, about 3km away, and saw the smoke rising.
Assuming wrongly that Tsuruga Castle had fallen and Aizu had been defeated, they gathered on the mountainside and took their lives together. One boy survived his attempt and lived to tell the story, and since then their determination and camaraderie have made them the symbol of the spirit of Aizu. Local people are very proud of the Byakkotai; monuments to them are everywhere and there are Byakkotai-themed gifts in the souvenir shops. The final resting place of the Byakkotai is carefully tended by the people of Aizu, even today.
One of the oddest monuments to the Byakkotai is this column from Pompeii. In 1928 Benito Mussolini came to hear the story and, admiring the spirit of the Byakkotai, gifted the column. There’s something very weird in seeing a column from an ancient Roman city sitting on a wooded hillside in northern Japan.
Food in Aizu-Wakamatsu
In the afternoon, I turned my attention to Aizu’s cuisine! I’d heard a lot about it by this stage and was especially looking forward to the sake brewery tour…
I stopped on the way to sample this delicious cake – when it was cut, the inside revealed a skilful picture of a flying bird and a moon.
Aizu’s sake lived up to its billing – I thoroughly enjoyed the tasting!
Ancient and modern blend harmoniously, as I was fitted for kimono and headed out to karaoke!
Temples and Takino restaurant
For our last day in Aizu, I visited a wonderful old temple, against a cliff just outside the town. It bears resemblance to the world-famous Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, with the added advantage that in Aizu there are no crowds of tourists.
The building was over 1,000 years old, and when it creaked in the wind it certainly felt that way!
Just when I thought I’d tried everything Aizu cuisine had to offer, it was time for a slap-up feast at the Takino restaurant. This beautiful old building encompasses Feudal Japan, and the food was a succession of wonderful traditional dishes.
It was difficult to pack more food in, but I somehow managed…
Finally, bulging with food and with a bag of souvenirs, I said farewell to Aizu. Three days was enough to experience some of what the Aizu region has to offer but left me wanting to see more. I can’t wait to return to explore the old post town of Ouchi, see beautiful Lake Inawashiro and hike Mount Bandai!
Get in touch with our team of Japan experts to start planning your trip to Aizu-Wakamatsu.