Loyalty, obedience, sacrifice, honor… these are the values that we associate to the Samurai spirit of Bushido. In modern Japan there are still many traces of the feudal Japan of the past, such as the story of the 47 Ronin or that of the Byakkotai, the brigade of the White Tiger, whose events took place in Aizu Wakamatsu, a city in the hinterland of Fukushima prefecture, strongly connected to the Samurai tradition.
Aziu Wakamatsu is a Samurai city, to visit if you want to relive history and find out more about the traditions and life of the Samurai.
Deeply linked to the Shogun and Tokugawa clan, Aizu Wakamatsu was one of the battlefields of Japan’s last civil war, the Boshin War, in which the imperial army opposed supporters of the last Tokugawa Shogun in 1868.
Although located in the infamous Fukushima prefecture, Aizu Wakamatsu is located inland away from the places affected by the tsunami and radioactive disaster, surrounded by mountains and hills and is absolutely safe to visit.
Samurai City Aizu Wakamatsu
It all began in 1384, when Ashina Naomori built the Tsuruga Castle, and over the centuries several important clans such as the Date oand the Uesugi took turns in command of this area, until the Edo period, when control of the region was entrusted to the Matsudaira clan.
The Matsudaira Clan was deeply linked to the Shogun and Tokugawa because actually they were the same family! Ieyasu Tokugawa was in fact a Matsudaira, who changed his name and started his dynasty, while the cadets continued with the name Matsudaira. This detail is the key to understand how at the end of the Edo Period, Aizu Wakamatsu became the last stronghold of Shogun supporters against the imperial army and Japan’s opening up to foreigners. Ssome members of the Shinsengumi also came, the special corp of 30 samurai created in 1853, to protect the Shogun Iemochi Tokugawa who was preparing to enter Kyoto a few years before the civil war broke out.
The importance of Aizu Wakamatsu as a samurai city strongly linked to the Tokugawa clan dates back to 1643, when the illegitimate son of the Shogun Tokugawa Hidetaka (half-brother of Iemistsu) was entrusted with the command of the city. It is from here that Aizu developed as an important center of Samurai trade, agriculture and traditions, with the creation of Nisshinkan, the largest Samurai school in the whole of Japan.
During the Bakumatsu, the final period of the bafuku – or the rule of the Shogun -, Matsudaira Katamori was one of the Shogun’s greatest allies, fighting in the battle of Toba-Fushimi against the imperial army and leading the Shogun’s supporters in the Battle of Aizu.
And it is during this battle in October 1868 that one of the symbolic episodes of Bushido, of the Samurai ethics, took place: the ritual suicide of the young boys of the Byakkotai, the brigade of the “white tiger”.
During the battle of Aizu, the youngest Samurai of the Clan, 20 boys all between 15 and 17 years old, remained separated from the rest of the group, took up position on Mount IImori, from where they saw smoke and flames rising from Aizu Castle and thought that the castle had fallen and the war was lost. The soldiers, despite their young age, took their own lives through seppuku, the ritual suicide, as per Samurai tradition at the death of their Daimyo (“master”), as a sign of loyalty.
Actually the flames they saw came from outside the walls, and the castle had not yet fallen, although it surrendered shortly after. One of the boys was found still alive and told what had happened, and the samurai of the Byakkotai then became a real symbol of the Samurai spirit.
Sightseeing in Aizu Wakamatsu
There are many places in Aziu Wakamatsu linked to Samurai history, although they are reconstructions, as the originals were destroyed during and after the Boshin war. Most of the things to see in Aizu are located in the central area and can be reached using the city Loop Buses. But beware that these buses are infrequent (about one every hour) and renting a bicycle could be a good alternative. A full day might be enough to visit the main things of Aizu, but personally, I recommend spending at least one night there, so that you can also visit the surroundings.
Tsurugajo – Aizu Wakamatsu Castle
After being demolished in 1874, the ruins of Aizu Castle were declared a Historic Site and in 1965 the castle tower was rebuilt in its original place and houses a museum on the history of the city of Aizu and the Samurai and offers a beautiful panoramic view from the top.
In the park area of the castle there are also shrines and a tea house with a small Japanese style garden.
Close to the castle is also the Butokuden, a modern martial arts gym where you may be lucky enough to attend kendo or naginata training.
Just beyond the castle moat, there is also the Prefectural Museum, on the general history of the region, since the Jomon period.
Price: 410 yen (520 yen with tearoom)
Opening hours: 8.30-17.00 always open.
Aizu Hanko Nisshinkan Samurai School
Built in 1803, destroyed during the Boshin War and rebuilt in 1987, the Aizu Hanko Nisshinkan was the largest and most important of the more than 300 samurai schools of the Edo period. The sons of the Samurai families entered the school at the age of 10 and learned reading, writing, astronomy, but also home economics and good manners. From the age of 15, the students learned various fighting techniques, the use of the bow and firearms, but also military techniques and swimming with armor, in Japan’s first school swimming pool!
Nisshinkan was the highest level of education in the area and all elite Samurai were trained here, including the 20 guys from the Byakkotai.
Aizu Hanko Nisshinkan is located a little outside the central area, about a kilometer from Hirota station, or about 30 minutes by bus no. 10 from the Aizu station terminal (attention buses only at 11.46, 13.16 and 14.36 – return 13.22 only during the week, 16.27 and 17.22).
Nowadays it is possible to visit the rebuilt buildings, with explanations also in English on the school rules and the life of the Samurai. It is also possible to participate in some activities, such as experiencing kyudo (Japanese archery), zazen meditation or painting of traditional objects.
Price: 620 yen (excluding additional activities, between 300 and 920 yen)
Opening hours: 9.00-16.00 always open.
Samurai Residence Bukeyashiki
The Samurai Residence of Aizu was not only the home of the Saigo family, the highest level Samurai, but it was also the headquarters of the Samurai in the area. The original was always destroyed during the Boshin war, but it has all been faithfully rebuilt to the original and explanatory panels have also been added in English and figures that reproduce the everyday life of the time.
The Bukeyashiki complex is quite large and you can see the difference compared to the more modest dimensions of other lower-ranking samurai houses that can be visited in Japan and certainly you can feel the samurai spirit of Aizu.
Price: 850 yen
Opening hours: every day 8.30-17 from April to November, 9.00-16.30 and closed on Thursday and Friday in winter.
A short distance from the Bukeyashiki residence is the onsen town of Higashiyama Onsen, in which the artist Takehisa Yumeji and Toshizo Hijikata, one of the commanders of the Shinsengumi special corps, have immersed themselves in the past. Nowadays Higashiyama Onsen appears a bit abandoned, with that typical atmosphere of the decadent countryside, but the wooden structure of the Ryokan Mukaitaki and the adjacent red bridge, create a particular atmosphere. Staying here will then allow you to immerse yourself in onsen surrounded by nature, or you can simply rest your legs by immersing yourself in the free ashyu (thermal water bath for the feet).
Iimoriyama (Mount Iimori)
It is hard not to be moved when visiting Iimoriyama, the hill of Aizu where the young samurai of the Byakkotai committed ritual suicide during the Boshin War. The graves of the 19 young boys who, seeing smoke and flames rising from Aizu Castle, made seppuku as a sign of loyalty and not to fall into the hands of the enemy, make us reflect on the fundamental values of the Bushido spirit and the comparison with the present 16/17 years old guys is a bucket of cold water, which makes us realize how much values such as honor, respect and integrity are increasingly abandoning this world.
You can get to the top of the Iimori hill by climbing a rather steep staircase, with the adjacent escalator (250 yen) or by going sideways by first visiting the Byakkotai Museum and the Sazaedo Pagoda.
A little lower than the tombs of the Byakotai brigade, there is the Sazaedo Temple with its very particular wooden pagoda, with its particular internal structure with double helix, so whoever climbs the internal ramp climbing the three floors, never meets who it’s going down. Inside the pagoda there are 33 statues of Kannon depicted and the ascent and descent of this pagoda represent the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage of the 33 Buddhist temples.
The pagoda, entirely made of wood, is certainly noteworthy and lately has also become a famous Instagram spot thanks to its hexagonal wooden ceiling covered with seals (click here to see my Insta-shot!). At the foot of the Pagoda there is also a delightful sanctuary with a small river and a torii portal, which if you love Japanese settings, you cannot miss!
From Aizu Wakamatsu you can easily reach the ancient post-town of Ouchi-Juku, located on the Aizu Nishi-Kaido that connected Aizu Wakamatsu to Nikko and then to Tokyo during the Edo period.
As well as the “juku” of Magome and Tsumago along the Nakasendo, here too you can admire past atmospheres, with thatched roof houses all lined up along the main street, which were once inns that offered comfort to the Samurai who accompanied the Daimyo towards the capital and are now mainly occupied by restaurants and souvenir shops. A few hours are enough to visit Ouchijuku, but it is also possible to stay overnight in one of the three minshuku in these traditional houses, as we did. I will tell you about it soon in a dedicated post.
Where to eat
Like many destinations in Japan, Aizu Wakamatsu also offers several typical local dishes that I recommend trying. The culinary choice and the restaurants are certainly not lacking, and you know that I don’t usually recommend specific places because the quality is excellent everywhere. In Aizu Wakamatsu, however, I want to recommend two places not to be missed for their history (as well as the good food they offer).
The first restaurant is Takino, the restaurant that invented the Wappa Meshi. It is basically an obento – a lunchbox – in which the meal is served inside a wooden container. In the past, the wappa, the container, was mainly used by woodsman and soldiers to carry lunch. Takino was the first restaurant to serve this dish, whose ingredients (rice, vegetables, fish) are steamed and served in the wooden bowl that gives the dishes a particular flavor. The restaurant is located in a house of about 150-200 years, which in the Edo period was used as a resting place and inside which there are pillars scratched by the fighting of the Boshin war.
The other place where I recommend you to eat in Aizu Wakamatsu is the Ryokan Shibukawadonya, a building of the Taisho period born as a warehouse for fish and then transformed into a refined ryokan that has hosted various writers including Yukio Mishima. On the second floor is the “room of melancholy where Zensuke Shibukawa grew up, linked to the 1963 coup attempt known as the February 26 incident. Even without staying overnight in the ryokan, it is possible to have lunch in this refined building with a traditional course, based on wagyu meat or fish. The Shibukawadonya is located along Nanukamachi, the commercial street of the Taisho period, a stone’s throw from the Amida Temple where there are the graves of soldiers who died during the Boshin war and the tomb of the shinsengumi Saito Hajime. this ryokan is also linked to the modern history of Japan,
If you visit Ouchijuku, also remember to eat the famous Negi Soba, or soba to eat with a spring onion that is used instead of chopsticks and eaten!
Where to stay in Aizu Wakamatsu
Our tour in Aizu Wakamtsu lasted three days and two nights, one of which we spent in a minshuku in one of the houses in Ouchijuku, while the other we spent at the Toho Onyado hotel in Higashiyama Onsen.
We had a great time, choosing the Japanese room on the thirteenth floor of the hotel tower which offers a nice view of Aizu and the sunset. The great thing about this structure are the spectacular onsen, overlooking the valley and completely outdoors (there is also the indoor pool always with a view). Breakfast and dinner are buffet style and with a lot of choices and a free shuttle is available to/from Bukeyashiki (from where you can then take the Loop Bus) and at fixed times also from/to the station.
Cost 20,500 yen per night for two people on half board basis. Definitely an excellent quality/price ratio (really, the onsen, among the most beautiful I’ve ever had!)
How to get there
There are various ways to reach Aizu Wakamatsu, but in my opinion the most convenient is to take the Shinkansen to Koriayama and from there either the JR Banetsu line covered by the JRPass (about 3 hours total from Tokyo) or the highway bus to Aizu Wakamatsu ( it takes the same time, but it is not covered by the pass and costs 1,200 yen each way).
Aizu Wakamatsu can also be reached by night bus (7h) or highway bus from Shinjuku (4.5h) and this is certainly the cheapest solution at a cost of 4,900 yen each way or return ticket to be used within six days at 7,600 yen.
An interesting alternative, however, could also be to visit Aizu Wakamatsu in combination with Nikko, as was the case in the Edo period, thanks to Tobu-Aizu Railways. There are about 4 trains a day that connects Aizu to Kinugawa Onsen and it takes about 2-2.5 hours at a cost of 3,340 yen.
Useful Area Passes
To visit Aizu Wakamatsu you can use the two Loop Buses, Haikara-san and Akabe, which cover the city center and stop at the main points of interest. Here you will find the map, but keep in mind that the races are quite rare (about one per hour). The single ride costs 210 yen, but there is also a 600 yen day pass.
Regular buses (such as the one for the samurai school) are not included in this pass.
Alternatively, you could rent bicycles at the real information points, but remember to return them by 5.00 pm.
If you plan to visit the surroundings as well, such as the Bandai lake area, the town of Kitakata or Ouchijuku, I recommend the two-day Gurutto Card, which covers all buses and trains in the area and costs 2,720 yen.
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