3 Historic Things to see in Aizuwakamatsu Fukushima

  • History
  • Aizuwakamatsu is a city in the centre of Fukushima prefecture, in Tohoku Northern Japan. Once known only as Wakamatsu (meaning young pine), the name of the area changed to Aizuwakamatsu in 1955. Aizuwakamatsu has a rich and long history, being the site of the ancient Mutsu province. This region was said to have been settled since the 4th century AD. Aizuwakamatsu has had a long military history, with the infamous Date Masamune, who formed Sendai, assisting their ruling clan before taking the area for himself. One of the most well known events in Aizuwakamatsu was the Battle of Aizu in the year 1868.

    The Battle of Aizu

    Aizu was well known across Japan for its military prowess, boasting as many as 5000 troops. The samurai of Aizu were assisting in security in Edo (now Tokyo) when Commodore Perry arrived in Japan. However, the Aizu troops fought on the losing side in Kyoto which resulted in the Aizu being enemies of the Court. On the losing side again in the Boshin War, the Aizu troops were left fighting alone, with no allies, after losses at the Battle of Bonari Pass. The troops retreated to Tsuruga Castle (also known as Aizuwakamatsu castle) where a month long siege began. During this battle a group of young teenage samurai witnessed smoke rising from the direction of the castle from nearby Mount Iimori and ended their own lives thinking Tsuruga castle had fallen. Eventually the Aizu troops surrendered, but not before their castle was severely damaged.

    1. Aizuwakamatsu Castle and Gardens

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    The castle which stands in the centre of Aizuwakamatsu was originally built in 1384 by Ashina Naomori. The Ashina clan managed to protect their region from the greatest warlord in Tohoku, Date Masamune, for many years. However, he managed to capture the castle in 1589. The daimyo who was seated in the castle was related to Ieyasu Tokugawa, the Shogunate family of Japan during the Edo period. Sadly, badly damaged and structurally unstable, in the Boshin war the castle was demolished in 1874. In 1965 a reconstruction of the original tenshu, tower castle, was built out of concrete. In all of Japan Aizuwakamatsu castle is the only red and white castle! This was the original colour of the roof tiles which gave Aizuwakamatsu castle it’s original name Tsuruga castle, thanks to the similarity in colour to a crane (tsuru).

    The reconstructed castle sits within the original garden, walls, and moats which were built hundreds of years ago. As with many castle gardens, the grounds are planted with sakura (cherry blossom trees) which grace the castle with fluffy pink blossoms for about one week in April each year. In fall time the cherry blossom trees leaves turn red, along with the numerous maple trees planted throughout the grounds. The castle grounds are also full of sculpted pine trees which are beautiful all year round, especially in winter when they are topped with snow. Entering the castle garden park is free and so everyone is able to stroll around the grounds, enjoying the ancient stone walls and beautiful plants. Within the castle grounds you can also find the Rinkaku Teahouse.. For a fee you can have a cup of tea and sit where lords sat before, as feudal lords used to use this area for tea ceremonies.

    A ticket to enter the reconstructed castle itself costs around 400 yen. Whilst climbing up the staircase and through each level you can follow the history of the Aizu clan and the history of Tsuruga castle. It shows the lords who have sat in the castle, the disaster of the Boshin war, and how the region has changed since then. One of the highlights of the castle is the 360 degree panoramic view of Aizuwakamatsu you can see from the top! As of late 2019 a new castle building is starting to be restored, so look forward to that in years to come!

    2. Aizu Clan School Nisshinkan

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    Unsurprisingly, the Aizu region has a strong and proud samurai history. This is not only because the epic battles, it also may be in part thanks to the fact that Aizuwakamatsu was home to one of the best clan schools in all of Japan who produced elite Samurai graduates.

    From the age of 10 the sons of elite samurai families entered the school. Whilst at school, these young boys would learn everything they needed to know to move through the world of samurai. The sprawling facilities boasted a gym for training in martial arts, an observatory to study the night sky and the oldest swimming pool in all of Japan! The swimming training the boys received must have been harsh, learning to swim whilst wearing full samurai armour! The school also boasted an archery range, for training with the bow, a gun range, to train with state of the art Western weapons, and even a cannon range! The boys did not simply learn to fight, they also were taught proper table manners, tea ceremony, writing, reading and history. The school also held a shrine to Confucius, revered by those training there. Although this school was destroyed, it has been restored to its original state. For an entrance fee of 620 yen you can learn to shoot a bow, to paint the locally worshiped akabeko (red cow) and freely explore the grounds and buildings.

    3. Aizu Sazaedo

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    Old and beautiful buildings are thankfully common across Japan, including some truly ancient pagodas and shrines. Aizuwakamatsu can, however, boast a most unique structure, the Aizu Sazaedo, a double helix pagoda! Built in 1796 the Sazaedo temple building features a double helix staircase, so that whilst entering the 16.5 meter tall structure you will not meet those leaving. The two staircases do not meet, except at the top of the tower! An Important Cultural Property, Sazaedo is certainly exceptional! By entering the building and climbing up you are said to have completed a pilgrimage, by passing 33 replicas of Kannon statues on the route. The walls and ceilings of the building are swathed in ofuda, a household talisman giving the building an even more spiritual feeling. Whilst visiting this rare building you can also visit the graves of the young samurai who, thinking that Aizuwakamatsu castle had fallen, ended their own lives on the very mountain that Aizu Sazaedo stands.

    Aizuwakamatsu is a city filled with the history and splendour of the Edo era, the final time of the samurai. Unlike other modern Japanese cities, Aizuwakamatsu stills holds true to their history,so visiting Aizuwakamatsu can give you a glimpse into the history of Japan.

    featured image: author’s Photo