Japan Destination: Walking in footsteps of samurai warriors in Aizu
Japan Destination: Walking in footsteps of samurai warriors in Aizu
Aizu, Japan, in Fukushima Prefecture’s western side, is a wonderful region. Not only does it boast beautiful mountains, lakes and ponds, but it also has a unique samurai heritage, incredible temples and shrines and is known for its classical sake breweries.
I was invited to participate in an intensive three-day crash course on everything Aizu has to offer by Aizuwakamatsu City, so I packed my bag and headed out with six other reporters of the foreign media.
Though the region’s scenic sights like Mount Bandai, Goshikinuma (five-color ponds) and interesting architecture surrounded by gorgeous autumn leaves dazzled us, by the end of my time there, it was the warm-hearted people of Aizu, the rich heritage and samurai tradition which has left me with a lasting impression.
According to our tour guides, the residents of Aizu are known for their discipline and perseverance, virtues dating back to their local samurai descendants.
Throughout the Edo period (1603-1868), the Aizu clan devoted their service to the Shogunate, as a relative of the Shogun was assigned as a lord to them. When pro-Imperial nationalists attempted to overthrow the Shogunate in the mid-19th century, the Aizu clan entered a heavy battle against the modern troops of the Imperial Forces. In the end, their town they fought to protect was destroyed and the clan surrendered.
This history is one marked by bloodshed, sadness and loss.
During the battles in 1868, young warriors of the Byakkotai group high above on a hill, saw black smoke rising from their castle. Misconceiving it as a sign Aizu had fallen, these teenaged-warriors committed mass suicide. The fire was rising from the town and not from the castle. Later, the wife and daughters of the Saigo Family also killed themselves in an act of loyalty to the samurai clan just as enemies were about to converge and capture them.
These stories are still very much a part of the locals’ conversation and daily lives, a continuance of that loyalty and fighting spirit passed from generation to generation.
On our tour we visited the solemn sites related to these two tragic events in the region’s history. These helped shed a different light on the background of the area and the demeanor of its people.
Though it has a tragic history, Aizu offers other less emotionally wrenching spots. The area boasts of several award-winning sake breweries and a traditional paper-making atelier which we also visited on this tour.
Arts and craft making were encouraged by the lord of the Aizu Clan as a means of stimulating the local economy after a severe famine in the mid-18th century. These traditions and skills, much like the samurai spirit, continue and ring true for the younger generations in Aizu.
Over glasses of smooth and full-bodied sake, the locals shared with us their stories and local folklore. They said the ways of the samurai that were passed down to them became a driving force to revitalize not only Aizu, but also Fukushima Prefecture after another, more recent, test of their strength – The Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent nuclear power plant meltdown in 2011.
Though this region is far from the coast and away from the devastation, it hit home for many and especially for the people of Aizu. It is through a place like Aizu, with its tragic history, where one can truly begin to understand resiliency in the people of the area.
Below is a taste of all that I saw and experienced in my trip to this beautiful and delicate region.
Videos of Aizu Tour:
8:30 a.m. – Tour starts at Tokyo Station
I, along with six other reporters from faraway lands like Denmark, France, Italy, Spain and Mexico, gathered ahead of our 8:56 a.m. Shinkansen boarding time. I was lucky to sit next to the Danish and French journalists, and as the train quickly passed the cityscape which gave into rolling hills and greenery, we became quick friends eagerly anticipating our forthcoming explorations in Fukushima’s western region.
10:13 a.m. – JR Koriyama Station
Within an hour and 40 minutes, we found ourselves at Koriyama Station in Fukushima Prefecture. Our tour guides led us to a chartered bus and away we went. As we headed to our first stop on the tour, our guides briefed us on Aizu’s rich history.
11:30 a.m. – Lunch at soba joint Yui
After a busy morning of commuting to Tokyo Station and then traveling to Fukushima, I had worked up quite the appetite. Aizu is famous for its superb soba (buckwheat) noodles and our first stop was for lunch at Yui, a popular soba joint. Located at the foot of Mount Bandai, Yui is run by local farmers serving up fresh and high-quality ingredients in all their dishes. I ordered their signature noodle dish, Yuinomura soba, in a set for 1,600 yen. Soba noodles were served up in a bamboo basket, along with a bowl of chicken in hot broth, seasonal vegetables and pickles. The dark gray soba noodles had a great aroma, and the sweet flavors burst in my mouth the more I chewed. Though the broth was not as salty, the potatoes, mushrooms, radishes, beans and other veggies were a welcome and hearty addition.
Location: 93 Shinmurakita, Inawashiro Town
Hours: Wed - Mon, 11 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
1 p.m. – Hanitsu Shrine
After lunch, we visited Hanitsu Shrine, a Shinto shrine established in 1675 according to Aizu clan lord Hoshina Masayuki’s wishes after his death in 1672. The classical stone bridge, white torii gate and stone-paved approach were surrounded by trees with bright autumn leaves. As we ascended the stairway to the main shrine, I found myself taken back by the beauty of this small wooden shrine with its autumnal backdrop. Although the original shrine structure was as majestic and beautiful as that of Nikko Toshogu, the battles of 1868 destroyed it and the current building dates to 1880.
Location: 3 Miyayama, Inawashiro Town, Yama-gun
2 p.m. – Tsurugajo Castle
Our next stop was a landmark of the region, Tsurugajo Castle, built some 600 years ago. This white castle is known for having unique red tiles, the only castle in Japan to have them. Tsurugajo Castle also has a majestic tower and everything one would expect from a castle: lush grounds, stone walls and plenty of moats. The interior of this castle is a museum with various displays throughout its five stories. Here I learned about the castle’s history, area lords and battles within and around it against Imperialism. There’s also an observatory for a great view of Aizuwakamatsu.
Location: 1-1 Outemachi, Aizuwakamatsu City
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Admission: adult: 410 yen, ages 6-14: 150 yen
3:30 p.m. – Tsurunoe Shuzo Brewery
Tsurunoe Shuzo Brewery, dating back to 1794, is one of the oldest breweries in the region and was our next stop on this long journey. Its sake brand, “Aizu Chujo,” was a gold prize winner in the 2019 Annual Japan Sake Awards. Yuri Hayashi, a brewer and daughter of the 7th chief brewer, explained that Aizu is blessed with three important factors in high-quality sake brewing – high-grade rice, pure water and a cold winter. “In this region, we brew sake only during the cold season when the air is purest, and that enables sake in Aizu to be full-bodied with a particular rich and sweet flavor, so they go along with sweet and salty local foods,” Hayashi said. We had a chance to sample several of the sakes brewed here and found them rich, fresh and smooth with a slight sweetness and lingering dryness.
Location: 2-46 Nanukamachi, Aizuwakamatsu City
Hours: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
6 p.m. – Traditional papermaking
To wrap up our Day 1 activities, we headed to try our hand at making traditional Japanese washi paper. Aizu is known for its washi, which has been around for hundreds of years. In the craft shop housed in an old local wooden house, an instructor explained to us of the washi making process - peeling the bark off from mulberry tree, drying it in air, cleaning the bark after boiling, beating the boiled bark to soften, mixing it with glue and water in a bucket, then finally scooping the fibrous mixture into a rectangle board and pressing down to expel excess moisture.
8:30 p.m. – Kitazo private lodging facility
After a full day of activities and getting acquainted, we arrived at Kitazo, a private lodging facility housed within the private home of a local farmer. This is quite an experience, where visitors are able to meet with and spend a night or two with a local Aizu farmer. The grounds had many large tile-roofed wooden buildings and warehouses. The rooms had tatami floors, wooden walls, shoji screens and we had to lay out our futon bedding ourselves before going to sleep. The owners, The Minagawas, prepared dinner for their guests consisting of pickled mountain vegetables, boiled soybeans, boiled freshwater fish with soy sauce, steamed Fukushima rice and the local festive soup, Kozuyu, a soy sauce-based soup of seasonal vegetables, and Welsh onions and pickles. Later, over glasses of local sake we discussed Aizu and the 2011 earthquake. “Aizu people are industrious, resilient and kind, and that, I believe, is a legacy of samurai warriors,” the farmer said. According to Minagawa, Aizu is located far west over high mountains from the nuclear power plant on the coast and was hardly affected by the disaster.
Location: Onumako, Kumaguramachi, Shingo Kitakata
Owner: Kenichi Minagawa
9:30 a.m. – Nisshinkan
We awoke to a delicious and nutritious farmer’s breakfast of steamed rice and various mountain vegetables, then left the lodging for Nisshinkan, once considered the top samurai school in the country. The school dates back to 1803, and though this school no longer teaches future samurai, it is preserved as a piece of Aizu’s history. Despite its age, I was impressed with how the pristine garden and grounds reminded me of a modern university campus. Our tour guide took us in for a closer look at the classrooms, a shrine for Confucius in the center of the building, and even a demo of traditional archery.
Location: 10 Takatsukayama, Minamikoya, Kawahigashimachi, Aizuwakamatsu City
Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Admission: adults 620 yen, high schoolers: 500 yen, elementary schoolers: 450 yen
11:30 a.m. – Oyakuen (traditional herb garden)
Our next stop on the second day was to Oyakuen, a traditional Japanese garden. Developed in the late 17th century, this picturesque garden with a large pond and teahouse, was a place for the Aizu Clan to grow medicinal herbs to help locals combat sickness and disease. We ended our time there at the gift shop with a sampling of various herb teas cultivated in the garden.
Location: 8-1 Hanaharumachi, Aizuwakamatsu City
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults: 330 yen, High Schoolers: 270 yen, Middle and Elementary Schoolers: 160 yen
12:40 p.m. - Takino: local wappamaeshi dish
After all that strolling and practicing archery, it was, at last, time for lunch, So, we tried Takino, a local restaurant serving up wappameshi, a local dish consisting of steamed rice and salmon, mushrooms, crab, egg and other ingredients that are steamed in a circular wood container. I sampled “salmon wappameshi” for 1,500 yen. The complicated flavor of salmon and mountain vegetables was paired nicely with the flaky texture of the steamed rice. It was really delicious.
Location: 5-31 Sakaemachi, Aizuwakamatsu City
1:45 p.m. – Aizu Bukeyashiki (samurai residence)
After lunch, our next destination was Aizu Bukeyashi, a museum park where several historical buildings of the Aizu Clan were restored and exhibited. Touring a restored residence of a high-ranking samurai family made me a little bit emotional, as this was the site where the samurai family relatives committed ritual suicide just before the enemy broke into their residence in 1868. Despite this dark history, the grounds are interesting and well-preserved and show what life was like for high-ranking samurai.
Location: Innai-1 Higashiyama-machi, Ishiyama, Aizuwakamtasu City
Hours: Sat - Wed, (Apr – Nov) 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m., (Dec - Mar) 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Admission: Adults: 850 yen, Middle and High Schoolers: 550 yen and Elementary Schoolers: 450 yen
3:15 p.m. – Mount Iimoriyama and Sazaedo
Our last attraction for the day was Mt. Iimoriyama, one of the most sacred locations for Aizu locals. We walked up a steep road and stairs for around 15 minutes before we reached torii gates leading to Sazaedo, a temple building dating to 1796 with three stories and a double-helix wooden structure. We went into the temple and climbed up and down on the wooden slope while checking out each drawing of different Bodhisattva enshrined at the 33 stations within the building. Here, you’ll find the 19 tombs of teenage samurai who committed ritual suicide after misinterpreting a smoke signal as one indicating their castle had been conquered by enemy forces.
Location: 155 Yawata Takizawa, Ikki-machi, Aizuwakamatsu City
Hours: Apr – Nov, 8:15 a.m. – sun-set, Dec – Mar, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Admission: Adult: 400 yen, Students (age 16 or older): 300 yen, Students (age 7-15): 200 yen
5:45 p.m. – Active Resorts Urabandai
It was finally time to rest and our bus took us to our hotel for the night, Active Resorts Urabandai. This large, modern hotel is behind Mount Bandai and features clean rooms and on-site hot springs, or onsen. As soon as I unpacked my bag in my room, I made a beeline straight to the outdoor onsen for a soak surrounded by chilly mountain air. After, the hotel served up a dinner featuring tastes of the local region, which we enjoyed while going over the day’s activities.
Info: An 8-minute walk from Goshiki Numa ponds, this modern hotel facility offers a great hotel facility to tour around the ponds, along with the Morohashi Museum of Art. It has a tea lounge, izakaya pub, and indoor and outdoor hot spring baths. Both western and Japanese-style guest rooms are available.
Location: 1093-309 Kengamine, Hibara, Kitashiobara-mura, Yama-gun
9:15 a.m. – Goshiki Numa (five color ponds)
After a relaxing morning soak and all-you-can-eat breakfast at the hotel, we headed toward Goshiki Numa (five color ponds), home to over 30 ponds and marshes. The volcanic substance in the water makes the ponds change colors depending on the season, weather, temperature and time of day. Here we took a stroll around the Bentennuma Pond and enjoyed the fantastic landscape and view of Mount Bandai. If you’re lucky, like me, you might spot a large white carp in the water with a red heart-shaped mark on its scales. Locals believe spotting this particular carp will bring you happiness.
Location: 1093 Kengamine, Hibara, Kitashiobara-mura, Yama-gun
10:35 a.m. - Yamatogawa Shuzo Brewery
Our luck guaranteed thanks to the heart-marked carp, our next destination was to Yamatogawa Shuzo, a sake brewery dating all the way back to 1790. On our tour of premises, we met the brewery president, Yauemon Sato, and he gave us some insight into his brewing philosophy. From this conversation we learned the brewery has remained a self-sufficient for hundreds of years, the brewery uses local rice and spring water, and the organic byproducts from production are used as ecological fertilizer for the region’s rice fields. The brewery’s commitment to both sake they produce and to being ecological is shown in its success and quality of products. Yamatogawa Shuzo has also won gold awards in the annual sake convention for the past eight consecutive years.
Location: 4761 Teramachi, Kitakata City
Hours: 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
12:15 p.m. - Daidai (Kitakata ramen noodle)
For lunch, we made our way to ramen shop Daidai in Kitakata City. The city is known for its tasty ramen, often counted as one of the best three ramen in the nation, and Daidai is one of the most popular joints in the city. I sampled ramen with sliced rib pork in soy-sauce flavored broth for 880 yen. My bowl of ramen arrived topped with large, thick slices of pork rib meat. The smooth stock complemented the tender meat and yellow, chewy noodles. The seasoning was not too salty and had a well-balanced flavor. After devouring a bowl of Daidai’s ramen, I knew why it’s one of the best!
Location: 2911 Kitamachi, Kitakata City
Hours: Thu - Tue, 7 a.m. - 2 p.m.
2:15 p.m. - Sakudari Kannon Temple
After lunch, we took a one-hour bus ride and 15-minute walk along an uphill path to teh 21st stop of the 33 temple pilgrimage sites in the Aizu Region. This is Sakudari Kannon, a temple built on a steep mountain slope in 830 A.D. for priests training in ascetics. The structure of this nearly-1,200-year-old wooden temple has lattice work similar to Kyoto’s Kiyomizu Temple. And much like that temple, Sakudari Kannon also offers a stunning view, but of the Aizu Basin, the region’s rice fields and Aka river with majestic Mt. Bandai as a backdrop. Visitors today will find that the pilgrimage to this and the 32 other sites are still active even though the pilgrimage has been in existence since the first lord of the Aizu Clan.
Location: 1173 Higashi-Sakudari, Oishi, Aizumisato-machi, Onumaga-gun
Tel: 0242-56-4882 (Aizumisato-machi Tourist Association)
3:40 p.m. – Ouchi-juku (gate village)
Our final stop on this lively tour was Ouchi-juku, an unusual village made up of 44 traditional wooden houses with thatched roofs lined along a stone-paved road. This is considered a “gate village” as it was a connection on the way to Imaichi and Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture. Many of the thatched-roofed houses in the village have remained unchanged since their construction nearly 400 years ago. From an observatory on a hill, we had a view of the whole village and this impressive view made me think about what life was like in the time of the samurais. After, we strolled along the shops housed inside these traditional homes. I dropped by a shop and bought a bottle of local honey for a souvenir.
Location: Ouchi, Shimosato-machi, Minami Aizu-gun
6:20 p.m. –Tour ends at JR Shin Shirakawa Station
After a great trip full of new attractions and experiences, it was time to head home.
Takayuki Amano, a spokesman of Aizuwakamatsu City, reiterated what I already had seen in the region and its people.
“The charm of the Aizu region lays on the tasty foods, quality sake and kind, hard-working and persevering people,” Amano said. “And I believe those are the legacy of our ancestors, Aizu samurai.”
Another example of the perseverance is the return of foreigners after a sharp drop in numbers after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Fortunately, the number of arriving foreigners are on the rebound. Many American sailors have been visiting the city, since Aizuwakamatsu City and Yokosuka City, home of Yokosuka Naval Base, signed a friendship city agreement 17 years ago, as well, according to Amano.
“I hope more people from overseas will visit us and enjoy the natural beauty, profound history, delicious food and sake we have to offer,” Amano added.
We soon arrived at the JR Shin Shirakawa Station and hopped on a 90-minute shinkansen ride back to Tokyo, and, for me, another 120-minute commuter train ride back to my home in Yokosuka.
It was a long trip, but I made some new friends and enjoyed learning about a new place I had never visited before. To have the opportunity to sit and learn from a local farmer was an experience I will always remember. Just like our tour guides mentioned, Aizu’s people are the most precious legacy that Aizu samurai left for the following generations. I know will go back to see them again … and for another glass of sake.
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