As a castle town with particular ties and loyalty to the Tokugawa shoguns, Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture resisted the restoration of imperial power to the Emperor Meiji during the civil war known as the Boshin War (1868-69). And they lost. Even today, the impact of that war is evident in many of the town’s most famous tourist sights. Other sights extol Aizu-Wakamatsu’s samurai roots. It’s a great place to spend a couple of days soaking up history and traditional culture.
Day 1 (the eastern foothills)
Iimoriyama. Situated in the northeastern corner of the city, Mt Iimori is famous as the place where a number of samurai teenagers committed seppuku during the Boshin War, believing that their side had been defeated. The boys, part of a group known as Byakkotai (White Tigers), had become separated from their unit during a battle on the outskirts of the city and retreated to this hillside. From here they could see Aizu Castle, which appeared to be in flames, leading them to conclude that all was lost.
The site of the seppuku, and the graves of the 19 who died (one survived), are halfway up the hill, accessible by stairs or covered escalator. The stream of tour groups to this site seems constant, as is the incense in the air as visitors pay their respects. On the opposite side of the clearing from the graves sits a bronze Roman eagle atop a marble column (from the ruins of Pompeii), a 1928 gift of Benito Mussolini, who was impressed with the loyalty demonstrated by the Byakkotai.
While you’re here, take a little extra time to explore further. Return partway down the hill and around to the right to reach Sazae-do (Turban Shell Hall), a Buddhist temple built at the end of the 18th century. This unique wooden structure is a tower about four stories high; visitors can climb to the top by means of a spiral ramp inside (two ramps, actually; one for ascending and one for descending). The spirals are redolent of a sea shell, hence the name.
Further down the hill, below Sazae-do, sit two small shrines on either side of a fast-flowing channel of water. The water pours from a tunnel that was carved in the 1830s to bring water to this area from the other side of the hill.
Leave the shrines through the torii and bear to the left to the Byakkotai Memorial Hall, a small museum with interesting, albeit tired-looking, diaramas relating to the Byakkotai incident and other related battles of the Boshin War, as well as various 19th century weapons, and even a small display on women who fought in the war.
Oyakuen: These 600-year-old gardens of the villa of a local lord are unique for their medicinal herbs, cultivated for use by the local people. (The Aizu-Wakamatsu region was once a major producer of ginseng for Japan.) Even today the shop on-site sells various herbal remedies. Like all traditional Japanese gardens, it is relaxing to stroll around. Refreshments are served in a “tea room” overlooking the pond. This site was chosen for the garden because the water from the spring that feeds the pond was said to have healing properties. The ornamental carp in the pond certainly have healthy appetites!
Bukeyashiki. The 19th century samurai residence of Tanomo Saigo and his family, this complex gives visitors insights into the daily lives of the samurai class and those who served them. Guest rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms and even toilets are on display. There is also a working mill, where rice is polished, as well as a warehouse (now serving as a shop and museum), stables and servants’ quarters. One of the most poignant displays is a recreation of how Lady Saigo killed her daughters and then herself, believing her husband dead in the Boshin War, the cause lost. Next to the complex is the thatched-roofed home of a local magistrate and a tea ceremony house. If you really want to get into the samurai spirit, you can try your hand at traditional samurai archery here, too.
Day 2 (the center of the castle town)
Tsuruga-jo Castle. Although the 350-year-old castle withstood bombardment in the Boshin War (the Byakkotai boys were mistaken), it was destroyed on the emperor’s orders a few years later, leaving only the moat and the magnificent stone ramparts. Today’s castle is a 1960s reconstruction housing a museum with displays on the area’s history, especially relating to the Boshin War. Don’t miss the views from the top. Your admission ticket also gets you into the Rinkaku Tea Cottage and garden that sits on the opposite side of the castle green. And be sure to explore the castle grounds and visit the reconstructed yagura (castle turret) and weapons store house. Unlike the castle, these reconstructions used traditional methods and materials.
Aizu Sake Brewery Museum. Housed in an old sake brewery, visitors can wander through at their leisure to learn the traditional process for brewing sake and its various by-products. Have you ever wondered what that big ball hanging over the front door is for? Here’s your chance to find out! You can also experience tastings and shop for that perfect sake, or some other souvenir of the area.
Lunch at Takino. I don’t usually recommend restaurants (because you never know if they’re going to stay in business), but Takino is a family-run establishment housed in a 250-year-old merchant’s house. I think it will still be there for you. Tucked in a laneway behind the ruins of Kokamachi-guchi, one of the old gates to the city, about 500 meters north of the Aizu Sake Brewery Museum, this restaurant is a feast for the soul and the stomach. The building, in its design and décor, is beautiful. Most meals feature “wappa-meshi” (meat or fish and vegetables steamed atop rice in a bamboo basket) along with various side dishes. Horsemeat, a local specialty, is also available. (Address: 5-31 Sakae-machi; Phone: 0242-25-0808)
Experience painting lacquerware. Aizu has been producing lacquerware for over 500 years. Particularly famous is its use of gold leaf and gold powder. A number of studios offer the opportunity to decorate an item of lacquerware for yourself (reservations required; prices from 1,200 yen). Two such studios, both on Chuo-dori, about a 5-minute walk from Takino, are Suzuzen (Phone: 0242-22-0680) and Fukubun (Phone: 0242-22-2846). While you wait for your item to dry, you can browse the gallery and learn more about this beautiful and practical art form.
The sights of Aizu-Wakamatsu are easily accessed through the excellent city bus service, or rent a bicycle from one of several vendors scattered around the town, including near JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (just 500 yen per day—not available December through February). Accommodation is plentiful; Higashi-yama Onsen, not far from Bukeyashiki, is recommended.
If you have time to add another day, explore the natural delights of the area by catching a bus to Mt Bandai and Goshiki-numa, five lakes formed at the foot of Mt Bandai during its last major eruption in 1888. The water of each lake is a different color due to mineral deposits in each. The 4-kilometer nature walk is especially pretty in the autumn. Or visit nearby Lake Inawashiro, the fourth largest lake in Japan. Dr Hideyo Noguchi, the Meiji-era bacteriologist pictured on the 1,000 yen note, was born and raised here. His birthplace and a museum dedicated to his work are worth a visit.© Japan Today