Aizuwakamatsu, samurai and a unique architectural building

I had heard of many cities in Japan but Aizuwakamatsu was not one of them. However it was our home for a couple of days as we headed north. We had booked a modern onsen style hotel which appeared to be situated in an idyllic valley on the edge of the city. It might have been idyllic once, but sadly now over development along the river by hotels have spoilt most of it. However, we had an enjoyable couple of days exploring the city and again a few surprises.

Aizuwakamatsu’s history is all about the Samurai. It was an important political and military centre and famous for military commanders who became Aizu lords. One of them Gamo Ujisato became Lord of Aizu in 1590. He is famous as the Christian.ord who brought art and culture to Aizu. In particular, he is responsible for preserving the importance of the Japanese tea ceremony, the one place where there was equality from the Samurai class system. So the first place we headed to after a hearty lunch, was Aizu Bukeyshiki, the restored samurai residence of the Aizu clan’s chief retainer Saigo Tanomo. The clan taught martial arts, but also classes in chemistry and astronomy. The working rice mill for dehusking showed us just how tough rice husks are. The cherry blossoms piled up around and they make great confetti when you throw them in the air.

The next day we went to visit Sazaedo, a wooden Buddhist temple featuring two spiral staircases, one to go up and one to go down. You can go up without seeing those coming down. Architecturally, it is one of the rarest buildings in the world. A shrine next to it commemorates the members of the Aizu clan who fought in the Boshin Civil war. It broke out in 1868, between the government of the time who wanted to make a new Japan more focused on Western principals and the samurai forces of the Tokugawa shogunate who had been in control for 225 years. Faced with the more modern warfare methods of the new government, the Aizu clan had to surrender and Aizuwakamatsu became the setting for the last battle of the samurai. A lovely little mechanical doll in front of the shrine delivered a paper scroll, though we had no idea what it said!

At another shrine nearby, we came across a ceremony taking place, but again we had no idea what it meant. The audience were mostly men, very somberly dressed, just three ladies in kimonos and priests, some of whom were wearing amazing wooden block shoes. Lots of schoolchildren were visiting, but none stopped to pay any particular attention to the ceremony, even though there was a camera crew filming it.

We were stunned again by the cherry blossoms at the Tsurugajo castle in the centre of Aizuwakamatsu. Although a dull day, the grounds in front of the castle were filled with primary school children picnicking, after having their class photo taken. Like many Japanese castles it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. First in 1611 by an earthquake, then during the Boshin civil war. In 1934 the ruins were declared a national historic site and the present castle rebuilt in 1965. It was not a home for the samurai lords, they used it during battles for control and to issue orders. Now it is a beautiful place to stroll and admire the blossoms.

After the civil war, it was the merchants who helped revive the city, plying their trades, especially brewing sake and creating beautiful lacquerware, so we explored the Nanokamachi area where many of the preserved buildings, the brewery and shops selling lacquerware are to be found. We also found Noguchi Street, but named after Noguchi Hideyo, the famous bacteriologist who spent his youth in Aizu and is commemorated on the 1000 yen note, but also renowned for being a scientist whose studies into syphilis were an early instance of unethical human experimentation. Like many cities, Aizu has a cute little red and white figure to represent it which can be seen in toys and souvenirs all over.

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