travel

Aizu: A castle, sake and red cows

13 Comments
By Reyian Corpuz

The day was filled with so much excitement as me and my friends embarked on a road trip toward Fukushima Prefecture. It was my first time to traverse the Tohoku Expressway and I was filled with anticipation on the route that we took as I have been traveling mostly by train.

It was relatively very cheap to travel since ETC’s exit toll charge is only 1,000 yen. And surprisingly, there is no traffic at all. From our place in Hanyu City in Saitama, we took the Tohoku Expressway and changed expressways at Kooriyama Junction and turned left toward Banetsu Expressway and finally exiting at Aizu-Wakamatsu junction. There were numerous places of interest in Aizu-Wakamatsu but we only visited two of them as it was only a whole day trip.

Tsurugajo Castle

Also called Wakamatsujo or Wakamatsu Castle. However, since the color of the castle resembles a "tsuru" Japanese crane, people refer to it as Tsurugajo or Tsurugajo Castle. One significant difference with this castle is that it can’t be seen from the main road, unlike other castles which I have visited, that are already visible from a distance. This castle seemed a hidden secret beneath the tall trees. The castle itself is barricaded with huge and tall stone walls and numerous rivers and canals, thus making this castle a real fortress that proved difficult to attack. The present castle is just a reconstructed one, which was rebuilt around 1965 after a huge earthquake destroyed this original five-story stronghold.

Upon entering the ground floor of the castle, you will see the last remnants of the original castle. A stretch of stone walls within the castle is the only authentic remaining material from the original castle. On the other side of the area are stacks of sacks of salt being displayed, which depicted how the people valued this commodity during the Edo period.

The first floor showcases the early rulers of Tsurugajo. Here, various names of families and a brief history of their rule are written. Apart from that, the floor exhibits old drawings and materials of the daily life in Aizu during the Edo period. Beside the display of "akabeko" are various masks made of paper mache called "omote." Within the floor, you will be able to touch and feel a replica of an Edo period riffle.

Candles, beautifully decorated with various flower designs, are also displayed nearby. The candles are said to be popular during the Edo period and most of the lighting used in Edo (old Tokyo) came from Aizu. Lacquer ware is another famous product of Aizu. According to its history, people in Aizu started making lacquer ware around 400 years ago and incorporating gold in their design was highly valued. Numerous lacquer bowls are displayed in the museum. On top of that, the most famous blacksmiths during the Edo period were from Aizu. That is why Aizu became famous for sword crafting.

In one of the floors, a stretch of portraits of the martyrs of the Aizu rulers can be found. The boys, aged 15-16, committed suicide upon seeing what they thought was the castle ablaze from a distance, though it actually was not. These people were honored and had their tombs erected and designated as shrines in the nearby area of Aizu.

Akabeko

One famous Aizu craft is the akabeko or red cattle. Aka means red, while Aizu people call cattle "beko" in their dialect. Thus, akabeko means red cattle. Akabeko are used as good luck charms. People love akabeko because of an old legend that says anyone who owned the figures did not get ill during a smallpox epidemic in that era. Also, according to ancient history, cattle were primarily used in Aizu to carry wood for the construction of temples in the area. Many of the cattle fell off because of the steep road that they had to cross -- but not the red cattle. People wished that the luck of these red cattle would be transferred to themselves. Thus, whenever they had children, they celebrated the birth with a small toy called “akabeko.”

The rows of shops for souvenirs await you on the ground floor of the castle. Numerous akabekos of all shapes and sizes entice you. What I have always done in every place I have been is to collect mugs of all shapes and sizes which represent the district. I bought a mug with an AKABEKO printed image as a reminder of my visit. And of course, boxes of sweet goma sembei (sesame rice crackers) for my colleagues in the school.

Tea Garden

We finished our tour in the castle around 12 noon and headed toward the tea ceremony garden. The 500 yen entrance fee to the castle included an invigorating cup of pure green tea which was served along with a sweet bean-flavored mochi. I actually had some hesitation about sipping the maccha, since I hated its aftertaste. But to my surprise, there was no bitter aftertaste and the combination of the sweet dumpling was just right. From the tea garden grounds, you can see Tsurugajo Castle at a different angle.

Tsurugajo Kaikan

The Tsurugajo Kaikan houses a restaurant which offers local cuisine and a shop for local products. We ordered Katsudon with a sauce specially made in Aizu. The taste was a bit sour, yet it was delicious, even though I am not fond of semi-sour sauces. It was quite good and very affordable at 980 yen. Upon finishing the meal, we went to Aizu Sake Museum.

Aizu Sake Museum

Along the way, we spotted these old buses that resemble their design from the Showa Era. It is good to see that Aizu was still able to preserve the design of these old buses, which are classic yet elegant to look at and ride in.

Upon entering the museum, we were greeted with overflowing sake. Since all of us are sake drinkers, we enjoyed both pure and unfiltered sake. The short tour of the brewery, accompanied by a tour guide, showcased the early processes and methods of brewing sake. Huge tanks for fermenting the sake in colored green drums lined the factory floor. Trivia about sake consumption were also displayed throughout the entire building. Human models, which depict the brewing methods of sake in the early ages, were depicted in the exhibit. The museum is composed of two floors and there are some areas where taking pictures are prohibited. Upon exiting, various sake and sake by-products were being sold. We again gulped several shots of sake. Manju sake or sweet dumplings flavored with sake were also being sold.

We left around four in the afternoon and went home. A visit to the nearby Inawashiro Lake can also be done. We did not stop by since it was a bit late and it drizzled during that time. We never tasted Kitakata ramen, which they said was one of the local specialties of Aizu-Wakamatsu. But at least, we a reason to come back next time.

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13 Comments
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Sounds like a nice place to visit. I really enjoy the architecture of Japanese Castles. (even re-built ones)

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Sounds like a nice trip; I'd like to go for a visit.

One big problem I have - the author makes it sound like they all drank a bunch of sake and then drove home. Is that really the case? It's quite irresponsible to do that (remember the legal limit in Japan is basically zero) and a bit more irresponsible to recommend people to do that....

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One of the most depressing cities in Japan. Though Hanyu, Saitama is also pretty dire.

If you're heading up that way, try Nasu or Oze instead.

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Sounds nice. One more attraction, with a feature not common for Japan: Aizu University (est.1993) which offers to gaijins full-time, permanent positions identical to those of Japanese.

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To step on that grass in front of the new castle, there are signs stating that you need to "ask at the ticket office". Be careful where you walk.

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I have been to Fukushima Prefecture, as well as Aizu-Wakamatsu, it's a friendly open Prefecture with truly warm and open people for visitors. The Sake Brewers were especially friendly, and happy to invite you in for tours.

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Was this supposed to be a travel article or a blog entry?

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Let me indulge myself on several points here. Dude, the original castle was torn down because it was severely damaged in the Boshin Civil War. It had cannon holes all over it and deemed unsafe. Yes, an earthquake would have made it fall down possibly injuring people, but that wasn't the cause. Next, the vast majority of castles in Japan are white. Like a crane. Himeji Castle is known as Shirasahijo. White Egret castle. Get the theme here? Because they are white. Not because they look like a bird. And, Aixu is NOT famous for swordmaking. ALL castle towns had smiths and swordsmiths. The iron ore/iron sand in Aizu is low quality. No fame in that. (Nihonmatsu City just north of Kooriyama(sic) IS famous for swordmaking and has smiths extant today) I could go on, but I'll close with two things. 1) You are lucky you didn't get Yamamoto's revenge from the katsudon at the Kaikan. 2) My bona fides - I lived in Fukushima Pref. for 7 years, 4 of which were in Aizu. I know that place.

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Caught misspell - Shirasagijo not shirasahijo as above. m(-_-)m

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darn netbook... Aixu is of course, Aizu

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JohnBecker. No contest.

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I also really enjoy the architecture of Japanese castles. I remember my biggest shock when I first visited Japan as a child. We went to Osaka Castle, my first castle. I was awe-struck right up until we went inside and saw the carpeting and the elevator. Of course it was rebuilt after the war, but as a child I was disappointed. I have since been to Hikone, Himeji, and several other castles. This one sounds like a nice one to visit, but I really want to go to Matsumoto Castle, which is known as Karasu-jo or Crow Castle because of it's black color.

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Another back castle is Hiroshimajo. Dark wood on the outside if I remember correctly.

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