If you have an interest 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 Aizu Wakamatsu City should definitely be added to your to-visit list.
But first things first, where is Aizu Wakamatsu, and why does it have such a long name?
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!
I’m not sure about why its name is so long though…
Aizu Wakamatsu is an important city in Japanese history, due to the role that the region played in rebelling against the newly formed Meiji Government forces in the Boshin war.
The heroism and loyalty of the Aizu people to the Tokugawa shogunate meant that, when it finally fell in 1868 after one month of fighting, Aizu Wakamatsu was one of the final areas left resisting the new government.
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 that holds a dark history), as well as a number of factories where traditional products are still being made as they were in the Meiji era.
Tsuruga-jo castle is in a very beautiful setting of lush greenery (or pink blossoms as in the photo below), with a nearby traditional Japanese tea house Rinkaku Tea Cottage. Here you can have some green tea and a cake, hidden away from the outside world, looking out onto the surrounding garden.
There’s even a special heart-shaped rock hidden away in the castle walls somewhere… try and find it if you have the chance!
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, but it was rebuilt in 1965, and has now been converted into a museum.
The items on display in the castle range from armour and katana (swords used by samurai), photographs of key local figures, artifacts from daily life during the Edo period (1603-1868), to beautiful kimonos (which you may even be able to try on!).
You aren’t allowed to take photos on most of the floors of the castle though, hence the lack of photos and the blurry and bad quality of the ones I do have!
The displays have a lot of information in English, and if you contact the castle staff in advance, you are likely to be able to arrange an English–language tour of the castle, led by a bilingual volunteer guide!
Unfortunately, I didn’t prearrange a English-language tour, so I had to make do with reading the signs. I always feel like having a tour is much more interesting than just reading signs though.
One of the figures whose photograph can be found among those on display in the castle is that of Yae Niijima.
Yae learned as much as she could 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 in order 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 both the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Russo-Japanese War (1905). It is fair to say that her bravery and brilliance has made her a legend throughout Japan.
The 2013 Japanese drama series ‘Yae no Sakura’ documents the life of Yae. The leading actor of this extremely popular show, Haruka Ayase, has made it a tradition for the last three years 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 the other subjects you have to learn about in Junior High School. Their teachers even went as far as teaching them the correct way to carry out seppuku (ritual suicide), which famously is how nineteen boys met their fates while watching Tsuruga-jo burn, convinced that the battle over. These group of boys were called the Byakkotai, and their story is so interesting that was I think it deserves a blog post of its own!
The school was destroyed alongside the castle after the battle, but has been rebuilt, to the last detail, thanks to some blueprints that were recovered. It now rests on top of a hill overlooking the whole of Aizuwakamatsu, and the view from what used to be the astronomical is quite impressive. But I forgot to take a photograph. Sorry about that.
The school is home to Japan’s first swimming pool (which coincidentally is also the first swimming pool that could be used to train horses to swim…). 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.
Those that did had to commute to the 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, although, admittedly, they have been tamed down quite a bit since then…
- 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 undeniably become more positive and upbeat over the last 150 years!
Not only can you take a peak into what classrooms would have looked like at the time, but you can also try out Japanese archery (kyudo), which would have been practiced by the students. Whilst neither I nor my colleague managed to hit the target once, we did get pretty close, and I’m sure if our tour guide had let us have 30 minutes longer to practice, we would have got there…
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!
Another experience you can try – although, unsurprisingly, one which was not included in the samurai curriculum – is designing and painting traditional local craft items, such as the akabeko (red cow) lucky charm.
Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to try this, and had to settle for seeing the cows that had already finished being painted that day.
It’s sort of amazing to imagine the children of samurai leaders coming to learn at this prestigious school, entering by the side gates (the front gate was only permitted for entry by extremely important guests), studying maths at their guest like normal kids, and then spending the afternoon learning how to correctly kill themselves and how to shoot a gun!
Both Tsuruga-jo and Nisshin-kan are great places to visit, and I left them feeling that I had learned a lot about Japanese history. Please take a trip there if you have the chance, and remember to book a tour in advance!