Sightseeing in Samurai City

21-23 November 2020

As this year offered so little opportunity in the way of travel, forgive me for taking a moment to daydream about one of the only trips I took this year, in November to the town of Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima prefecture. Yes, that Fukushima, which, besides being the site of that terrible disaster ten years ago, is the gateway to the north of Honshu, Japan’s central island. For me, that side of the country was completely uncharted, and now I am happy to say I’ve dipped my toe into the waters of the wild north with lovely and historic Aizuwakamatsu.

Despite feeling at times like a town that time forgot, as I highlighted in my previous post, dainty Aizu is chock full of history and fabulous sights. Now that I’ve been in Japan a while, these days I feel like I don’t do as much sightseeing aside from the odd temple here or there, and Aizu had some of the best sightseeing to offer of any place I’ve been in the country.

Aizuwakamatsu owes its fame to being one of the last samurai towns in feudal Japan. Unfortunately for the Aizu clan, they stuck to their guns a little too long and sided with the Tokugawa shogunate against the factions looking to restore the emperor. As a result, Aizuwakamatsu was a major battle site during the Boshin War of 1868, which the Tokugawa shogunate lost, and with it, the samurai way of life. Many of the things to see and do in “Samurai City” are fittingly related to this storied history.

It would be just wrong to come to a samurai town and not visit the castle, so on our first evening in town we did just that. Tsurugajo is situated on a vast castle park, made all the lovelier for the vibrant autumn maple leaves and the golden light of late afternoon. I was expecting basically nothing from the castle museum. I’ve been to a few and usually they are snooze fests, displays of archaic history with rows of names and dates in poor translation, if they’ve been translated at all. This one was way better, owing much to the fiercely badass samurai helmets on display. I was also struck by the content of the museum displays as well. There was, of course, much on the tragedy of the Boshin War, especially related to a group of figures that have gained notoriety and near martyr-status: the Byakkotai. The “White Tigers” were 19 teenaged samurai who committed seppuku (ritual suicide) on top of the nearby Iimoriyama hill when they saw Tsurugajo Castle burning. On the third floor of the castle were huge portraits of each, striking by how incredibly young they looked, and (to me) how foolish such an act seems today. The exhibit on the fifth floor of the castle also held rows of portraits, but this time, of survivors of the war, and the notable things they went on to do in Japan and abroad. After reading their stories and feeling quite reassured that there is indeed life after war, you finally reach the fifth floor, to stunning views of the sprawling town and the rolling hills beyond. This is one history lesson that gives quite a good reward upon completion.

Strolling the grounds of the castle park.
Incredible maple trees by the moat.
The castle is a reconstruction, but the outer stone walls are original!
The view from the top.

The next day, we went up to the aforementioned Iimoriyama where the graves of the Byakkotai lie. To reach them, one can pay a ripoff admission fee to ride an escalator, but there is much more to see by bearing left instead of ascending straight to the top. The path takes you to Sazaedo, one of the strangest and most unique Buddhist monuments I’ve encountered in Japan. This rickety-looking pagoda is made using a double-helix construction, like a design from DaVinci but dreamt up centuries apart on the other side of the world. Built in 1796, this is the oldest surviving wooden structure from the mid-edo period, and as you enter and ascend the ramp, it certainly feels like it. Because of the crazy DNA construction, one can ascend to the top and then back down without ever encountering another soul on the other side. It’s also quite steep, and feels a bit like it’s going to blow over, but luckily, handrails were installed, probably later than 1796.

Do not ride the escalator!!! Take the path to the left. . .
. . . to Sazaedo!
How crazy is this building?!?
I mean!!!
Ascending the ramp inside.

The top of Iimoriyama has a more somber vibe, and is completely filled with incense smoke. Many Japanese people come up here to pay their respects to the Byakkotai. In Buddhism, smoke is how one communicates with ancestors, but I’ve never seen it as thick as on top of that hill. Not just the Japanese were impressed with the loyalty and dedication of the White Tigers, however. Also displayed nearby are some rather bizarre monuments gifted from the Italian Fascists and the Germans, wartime allies of the Japanese. To me, they carried a rather sinister note, a warning of what Nationalism can lead to.

The graves of the Byakkotai.
Smoke wafting on the hilltop.
An eagle from the Italian Fascists.
And the Iron Cross of Germany.

The other Aizu sight that really knocked my socks off was the Aizu Bukeyashiki, a fabulous reconstruction of the chief retainer’s villa. For anyone interested in samurai or Japanese history, this is a must-see, a sprawling mansion with excellent displays that really show how these rooms were used in the 17th century. Traditional Japanese houses are basically boxes. The floors are tatami, the doors and many of the walls are paper screens that can be moved around, and interior life is lived on the floor, with sparse furnishings. So if you visit many house museums in Japan, you basically look into a nice empty box without much context provided. At Aizu Bukeyashiki though, all 38 rooms were open and filled with period furnishings and often mannequins in kimono that brought the place to life. As a history dork, I was fascinated. After the main villa, there were a few other exhibits that unfortunately lacked English translations and were a bit more dim and dusty, but it was worth the price of admission for the main villa alone, it was that good.

Being welcomed inside the villa.
This little girl was super excited by the costumed mannequins.
This scene is supposed to show the lady of the house scolding her daughters for playing in the lord’s bedchamber. Note the antique toys.

Overall, I didn’t know what to expect from Aizuwakamatsu and I was blown away by how much there was to see and do for such a compact place. Late November was the perfect time to be there, as there were still plenty of changing leaves and temperatures were not too cold yet, but I think it would be lovely anytime of year. Who knows what travel opportunities or lack thereof will come in the next several months, so for the moment I’m content to hold this one close to my heart.

Stay safe and happy wanderlusting,

Mo