A couple of weeks ago, I attended a samurai-themed monitor tour from Tokyo to Aizu-Wakamatsu City! (Monitor tours are trial tours that are run in order to gain feedback about a tour that is in the process of being planned or made.)
This Samurai Train Tour is supposed to take you on a journey from the present day back to the Edo Period, right through to the end of the samurai era and the beginning of the Meiji Period. You learn a lot about Japanese history on this tour, but there’s a real focus on not just listening and watching, but experiencing samurai culture and history for yourself.
I attended the first day of this tour, but you can see below for the full 2-day tour schedule
Here are my thoughts from joining the Samurai Train tour for a day!
1) Meeting at Tobu Asakusa Station
We met at Tobu Asakusa Station (the station that goes to Tokyo Sky Tree) at 7:30am. There were a couple of people holding up signs for the tour, so the meeting place was easy to find. Shortly before the train departed, we were showed onto the platform and boarded the chartered train!
The chartered train was made up of 3 carriages. We were able to use one of the carriages for luggage and coats, while the middle ‘sightseeing’ carriage – which included chairs that faced the wide windows – was used during the samurai performance art that was to come later!
The tour operator and our English-speaking guide for the day introduced himself. I really enjoyed looking out of the window at the Tokyo scenery, but I’m sure people used to Tokyo would be equally moved by the more rural scenery of Tohoku from later on in our journey – I guess I’ve become used to it! We also got to see Mt Fuji from the train window, which was pretty awesome.
2) Samurai Train & Samurai Performance
After about an hour’s train ride, we were asked to move to the sightseeing carriage, where we were given some sake. Once we all had a seat, the highlight of the Samurai Train, a performance by the samurai artist group Kamui, took place.
Kamui is a samurai artist group, whose performances are based on a mixture of kengido (‘the way of the sword’), drama and expressive performance art. Kamui was established by Tetsuro Shimaguchi, who actually directed the choreography in KILL BILL Vol. 1.
Thanks to how successful KILL BILL Vol. 1 was, Kamui has been able to perform all around the world, and has received much international acclaim. The aim of Kamui is to make traditional aspects of Japan’s samurai history and culture – such as kengido – accessible and engaging for the younger generations.
On the day of the tour, 5 members of Kamui, including Shimaguchi himself, performed a sword show on the train. I really had no idea what to expect, but I was very, very pleasantly surprised. I was worried it would be a bit cheesy, but it actually gave me goosebumps. While the group performed, a mix of traditional and modern Japanese music filled the train carriage, and everybody watched in awe.
After the performance, there was a chance to chat to Shimaguchi san and the rest of Kamui group about their experiences abroad and their interest in kengido. They also gave us the chance to take photos with them and their katana, and even showed you how to pose!
It was awesome to get to hear first hand from a kengido master about the art of sword fighting. Although most of the Kamui crew only spoke Japanese, Shimaguchi san spoke pretty good English which was awesome.
Having two carriages available to use was really handy for those people who wanted to chill and relax by themselves for a bit, while allowing people who wanted to talk with Shimaguchi san as long as possible to do just that.
Before we knew it, the 2-hour train ride was over and we had arrived at Tobu Nikko Station. From the station, we took a short walk to the tour bus, and made the short journey to Nikko Toshogu Shrine.
3) Nikko Toshogu Shrine
Nikko Toshogu Shrine is a luxuriously decorated shrine complex which includes many of Japan’s National Treasures.
Nikko was built to enshrine Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate. Tokugawa Ieyasu played an integral role at the start of the 17th century in unifying Japan following centuries of country-wide war during the 1467-1600 Sengoku Period (“warring states period”).
The 250 years of stability that followed the start of the Tokugawa Period (otherwise known as the Edo Period) enabled Japan’s economy, along with art and culture, to flourish. During the Edo Period, Japan was ruled by the shogunate, but a strict hierarchy system allowed much power to the 300 regional daimyo feudal lords across the country. Samurai, who were directly below daimyo in this hierarchy, were well respected and had much power.
Tokugawa Ieyasu was an incredibly important figure in feudal Japan, and his history is integral to learning about ‘samurai spirit’. At Nikko, our English guide showed us around Toshogu Shrine, speaking about Tokugawa’s life and explaining the meaning behind some the most famous things about the shrine, such as the ‘Sleeping Cat’ carving.
4) Lunch in Nikko
We ate lunch at Restaurant & Bar Divine in central Nikko area, where we enjoyed a western-Japanese fusion lunch which included Nikko’s famous delicacy ‘yuba tofu‘ (thin sheets of soy film that form when soy milk is heated in a pot).
5) Kanaya Samurai House
After lunch, we visited Kanaya Samurai House. This house was a samurai warrior’s home during the Edo Period, and is owned by the Kanaya family.
The Kanaya Family has a history of serving as members of the imperial court orchestra at Toshogu Shrine for generations.
In 1870, the family opened their doors to their first guest from abroad, and since then continued to offer a luxurious place to stay to many foreign guests including former US President Ulysses Grant, the British Japanologist Basil Chamberlain, British explorer Isabella Bird.
The Samurai House has many interesting examples of Edo Period architecture, as well as having certain architectural features unique to samurai residences, such as having hidden staircases and specially-designed windows in case a stealthy escape was necessary at any time.
I had never heard of Kanaya Samurai House before this trip, but it was really interesting to take a tour around the house and learn about its history!
Finally, we visited Ouchi-juku, where we strolled around the Edo Period post-town, and took photos before heading to Aizu-Wakamatsu City for dinner.
Interestingly, Ouchi-juku also houses one of the inns that British Explorer Isabella Bird stayed at during her travels around Japan in the late 19th century. Read more about this on my blog here.
Ouchi-juku was often used as a place to stay the night for samurai and other travellers who were visiting the important samurai town of Aizu-Wakamatsu from Nikko during the Edo Period.
Just like Toshogu Shrine and Kanaya Samurai House, Ouchi-juku has been kept as it was during the Edo Period as much as possible. In fact, since being selected as one of Japan’s Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings, the town became even more dedicated to preserving Ouchi-juku’s traditional atmosphere – they even transferred all electricity lines underground!
After Ouchi-juku, we made the journey to Aizu-Wakamatsu City, where the tour participants stayed for the night. Unfortunately, myself and my colleague could only attend the first day of the tour, so we said goodbye at Aizu-Wakamatsu, and took the train back to Fukushima. But I’ve written up a schedule of the 2 day tour to give you an idea of what is included.
2-Day Tour Schedule
“How can I go on a Samurai Train Tour?”
The Samurai Train Tours will hopefully be running regularly from April 2019.
“How do I find more information about the Samurai Train Tour?”
“I have a question about the tour. Who should I ask?”
If you have any questions about going on the tour, please ask via their Facebook page.
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