If you are interested in Japan’s samurai culture, or in the Japanese equivalent of Mulan, or Japanese castles, or getting stuck into painting a lucky red cow that looks like this….
…then definitely add Aizu Wakamatsu to your ‘to-visit’ list.
Where is Aizu Wakamatsu?
Aizu Wakamatsu is a city in the western region of Fukushima Prefecture referred to as Aizu. It’s actually relatively close to Nikko, home to some of Japan’s most prized World Heritage Sites, making it a great addition to any trip to Nikko!
Aizu Wakamatsu’s History
Aizu Wakamatsu is historically an important city for Japan, due to the region’s role in fighting until the very end against the Meiji Government forces during the Boshin war.
The heroism and loyalty of the Aizu people to the Tokugawa shogunate meant that Aizu Wakamatsu was one of the final areas left resisting the new government in 1868.
As a tourist destination, it is well-known for Tsuruga-jo Castle and Nisshin-kan (where you can learn about samurai culture and the history of the area), Sazae-do Pagoda (a hexagonal feat of Buddhist architecture from 1796), Iimoriyama (a site with a dark history), as well as a number of areas where traditional products are being made as they were in the Meiji era.
Tsuruga-jo castle stands in a scenic park, close to a traditional Japanese tea house Rinkaku Tea Cottage. Here you can enjoy green tea and cake, hidden away from the outside world, admiring the surrounding garden.
Originally built in 1591, the castle was burned down in 1868 after the succession of the Meiji Government, as a punishment to the Aizu area. It was rebuilt in 1965, and now contains a museum which displays information about local history.
The displays have information in English, and if you contact the castle staff in advance, you can arrange an English–language tour of the castle, led by a volunteer guide!
The museum includes armour and katana (swords used by samurai), photographs of key local figures, artifacts from daily life during the Edo period (1603-1868), beautiful kimonos, and much more.
One of the figures whose photograph can be found among in the castle is Yae Niijima.
Yae learned from her brother and father about rifles and military science. During the Battle of Aizu, at the age of 23, she disguised herself as a man to fight the Meiji forces at Tsuruga-jo Castle.
She survived the brutal battle and lived to run a school (which later became a university) with her husband, before becoming a chief nurse in the Japanese Red Cross during the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Russo-Japanese War (1905). Her bravery and brilliance have made her a legend.
The 2013 Japanese drama series ‘Yae no Sakura’ documents Yae’s life. The leading actor, Haruka Ayase, has made it a tradition to make an appearance at Aizu-Wakamatsu’s annual samurai festival.
Yae has also, incidentally, been transformed into one of the official characters of Fukushima prefecture.
Yae’s brother attended, and later taught at, the esteemed Nisshin-kan school for the sons of samurai.
Students at Nisshin-kan studied the way of the samurai, the principles of ethics and martial arts, alongside all other subjects taught in Japanese Junior High Schools.
Their teachers even went as far as teaching them the correct way to carry out seppuku (ritual suicide), which is famously how nineteen boys met their fates during the Boshin War.
Noticing Tsuruga-jo Castle burning in the distance, the young samurai warriors were convinced that the battle was lost, and tragically took their own lives.
Nisshin-kan was destroyed alongside the castle after the Boshin War, but has been rebuilt, to the last detail, based on surviving blueprints. It now stands on a hill overlooking the whole of Aizu Wakamatsu.
Nisshin-kan was a very prestigious establishment, and only extremely bright boys – or those with very rich and/or important fathers – were able to guarantee a spot at the school.
Students had to commute to school every day, excel in their training and obey the seven rules of conduct:
- We must never disobey our superiors.
- We must always bow in presence of a superiors.
- We must not lie.
- We must never act like a coward.
- We must not pick on those who are weaker.
- We must never eat outside.
- We must never engage in a conversation with a women.
The rules are written on the following board:
The children in Aizu still follow a similar set of rules:
- We must always treat others sympathetically.
- We must say “thank you” and “sorry”.
- We must not be impatient or greedy.
- We must never act like a coward.
- We must be proud of Aizu and respect our elders.
- We must aim for the stars and do our best.
As you can see, the tone has become more positive and upbeat over the last 150 years!
Things to Do
At Nisshin-kan, as well as taking a peak into what classrooms would have looked like at the time, there are a range of hands-on activities to try.
You can also try out Japanese archery (kyudo), which would have been practiced by the students.
I didn’t expect to find the archery experience so fun, but it was really great and I was sad when the time ran out and we had to proceed to the next part of the tour!
You can design and paint traditional local craft items, such as the akabeko (red cow) lucky charm.