The Tale of Aizu-Wakamatsu

In summer vacation of 2016, I bought a juuhachi kippu that I used most during my travel in Hokkaido. However as I came back to Sendai I still have not used all of the pass itself. I got 2 more days to go and I thought to myself it was perfect for a one day trip in Tohoku region. One day I went north to Hiraizumi and the other I went down south to Aizu-Wakamatsu.

Aizu-Wakamatsu is a town in Fukushima prefecture that lies nearby Inawashiro Lake behind Bandai Highlands (磐梯高原). The town is highly popular to local tourists as it is one of the best castle town in Tohoku with long samurai tradition. Aizu-Wakamatsu is one of the leading tourist destination in Fukushima prefecture, which contributes to the prefecture’s revitalization after the tsunami hit the area in 2011. I can guarantee you that going to Aizu-Wakamatsu in particular and Fukushima in general  is perfectly safe. There is literally nothing for you to worry about.

The mighty Tsuruga Castle.

There were 4 places of highlight that I visited in Aizu-Wakamatsu, all reachable within a one day trip. Refer to the Google Map below the places for the cycling route:

  1. Tsurugajo (Tsuruga Castle)
  2. Oyakuen Garden
  3. Aizu samurai mansion
  4. Iimoriyama

The first thing I did when I reach the town via train was to look for access information. It turned out there is a loop bus that goes around the town with a reasonable-priced pass. However as I found a bicycle rental near the station, I decided to go with bicycle instead. And since the rental was pretty cheap, I opted for the electric bicycle to make my journey around the town smoother.

Going from the station, I traveled through a street called ‘Dr. Noguchi Street’, which commemorates Hideyo Noguchi, a prominent Japanese scientist who found the cause of syphilis disease in 1911. Along the street, there is a small museum that displays the story of the scientist complete with his bronze statue. The actual memorial hall for him is actually located in his hometown in Inawashiro.

As I am an avid fan of Japanese castles, of course Tsurugajo (Tsuruga Castle) is my number one priority of things to see. In fact, I based my trip exactly because of the castle. I have been wanting to see the best castle in Fukushima area with my own eyes ever since I learned about its existence back in 2015. And the place did not disappoint me at all. The castle is indeed huge and majestic. Located right in the middle of the town and surrounded by moats, Tsurugajo stands tall amid the low-rise buildings around the vicinity.

Not only the castle is regarded as the strongest fortress in all Tohoku, it is the oldest one as well. Built in 1384 as Kurokawajo by Ashina Naomori, the castle received its current name in 1590 when Toyotomi Hideyoshi forces conquered the castle and renovated it. Later the reigning Tokugawa family gave the castle town to Matsudaira clan to govern until it fell in Boshin War during Meiji Restoration.

Today the castle is served as the center of the city where various public events take place in the large square in front of the castle main entrance. Inside the complex visitors could also find several tea houses that charge small fee for an authentic tea ceremony experience. I really enjoyed my time just sitting on a bench eating soft cream while admiring at the castle’s architectural beauty.

Having satisfied with the castle, I moved on to my second destination: Oyakuen Garden. Given the name it means ‘medicinal herb garden’, but nowadays it is more known as Japanese landscape garden. Indeed, the garden offers a pleasant stroll through passages sheltered by trees and occasionally rock formation or flowing water. I have always been a fan of Japanese garden due to its elegance and tranquility.

Even if you are not really into gardens, I highly suggest you to come here if you have time to spare in Aizu-Wakamatsu. It will act as a relaxing spot, away from the bustling major tourist attraction points. Here you will refill your energy, and by the end of the visit you will be ready for more walking around the town. Try the tea at the tea hose as well when you are at it.

My third destination was the Aizu samurai mansion. Not so long ago I traveled to Kaminoyama and found several lower-ranked samurai houses. But those house pale in comparison with the one in Aizu-Wakamatsu, for it belonged to an upper-ranked samurai family. This place served as the residence of the region’s ruling samurai clan, the most important figure in the town. It is not a mere house, but a legitimate large complex of residence that provides housing for the samurai, employees and servants as well as quarters for guests.

The grandeur entrance to the samurai mansion.

I was astounded by the size of the mansion. It is huge, filled with dozens of rooms each adorning a name for its purpose. Inside each room there are mannequins that portray the typical daily life or some important historical events. Visitors will be taken through a set course that encircles the mansion ground from the main building to the outlying structures such as the mill and former stable.

Out of the rather accurate scenes that portray the life of a high class samurai, there was one scene that particularly stood out in my eyes as it sent the chill down my spine. If I was not mistaken it was the one that depicts a tragedy — a suicide act performed by the female members of the samurai family who thought their existences were such a hindrance to their husbands during the times of war. I could not comprehend them taking their own lives believing them not being around would help the family. Such devotion might be foolish for us today, but be as it may it represents the way of thinking of women at the time. Also, I was not supposed to take picture there but I just could not help it. It was so moving!

My last destination in Aizu-Wakamatsu was Iimoriyama. From samurai mansion it did not take long for me to reach there even though the road is a bit hilly, thanks to the electric bicycle. Once you reach the place, you will be greeted by a wide sloping street filled with shops right and left. To get to the top you could either take the normal stairs or get on the escalator — which is pretty interesting since I did not see many outside escalators.

Now, Iimoriyama, you might think it is like a place perfect for hiking or leisure stroll. Only that it is not. The place was actually the site of mass suicide committed by a group of young soldiers during the fall of Tokugawa shogunate in 1867. It was a tale of tragedy in the purest form. No less than 20 boys aged 14 to 16 years old who belonged to a military unit called Byakkotai (meaning White Tiger Corps) were mistaken in thinking Tsurugajo was engulfed in flames and that they have lost the battle. Grief-stricken and helpless, they committed seppuku in Iimoriyama for failing to protect the castle. Although their judgement was flawed, their devotion has since become well known and the small hill is commemorated as their grave site, a grim reminder of the restoration war.

The grave sites as seen from the hill top. The town of Aizu-Wakamatsu looms in the background.
Another view of the hill. It is said that one of the boys actually survived the mass suicide, and thus his statue was erected next to his compatriots’ graves.

Not so far from the grave site you would find 2 monuments from Japan’s fascist allies during the World War II, a very rare display of artifacts if you would ask me considering how strong Japanese people opinion nowadays towards the world war.

When I ventured farther down the northern side of the hill I stumbled across a very unique building. Called Sazaedo Pagoda, this building looks exactly like a helter-skelter made from wood. The whole building is loop-sided like a spiral, and you could go inside the building through the spiral ramp to the top and down again. A small shrine is also in the vicinity right beside a steady river stream. This is just the perfect place for me to rest before heading back to station to return the bicycle.

All in all, I think Aizu-Wakamatsu is a must-visit place if you have strong penchant of history. Being a famous castle town, it carries the strong spirit of samurai even up until now and that is exactly part of the charm. You might even say that Aizu-Wakamatsu embodies the whole Fukushima prefecture in its lovely, organized neighborhood. Regardless, I would still recommend you to come, see the town with your own eyes and experience all that it offers.

What are you waiting for, the humble yet beautiful town of Aizu awaits you!

Useful Information:

Japan National Tourism Organization site about Aizu-Wakamatsu

Samurai City, Aizu-Wakamatsu information site

Aizu Samurai Mansion official site (Japanese)


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