On the morning of Oct. 23, 1868, 19 young soldiers between the ages of 15 and 17 took their own lives on Mt Iimori in the castle town of Aizu Wakamatsu, Fukushima prefecture.
It was the year after Japan’s military government had been overthrown and the Aizu domain, which rebelled against the new government, was under siege.
The young soldiers, the sons of Aizu samurai who were members of the Byakkotai (White Tiger Force), had been forced to flee from the much stronger government forces and scrambled up Mt Iimori where they could survey the town.
From their vantage point they saw a fire burning outside Tsurugajo Castle, the center of the Aizu political domain, and concluded that they had little hope of saving it.
If they returned to fight the enemy they faced being caught – a humiliation their pride as samurai could not countenance. The young men unanimously chose instead to protect their honor by committing ritual suicide. A 20th man was foiled in his suicide attempt and saved by a local farmer.
The story of the Byakkotai has become a symbol of the samurai spirit for which Aizu Wakamatsu, which calls itself the “samurai city,” is famed.
Throughout the city there are sites which take visitors back to the heyday of the samurai, from the Nisshinkan School where the sons of samurai were educated, to the Bukeyashiki, or samurai residence. The graves of the young Byakkotai soldiers on Mt Iimori are also among the most popular tourist sites in Aizu Wakamatsu.
We climbed the 183 steps that take visitors up Mt Iimori to the Byakkotai graves on a mild autumn day. It was the start of a three-day visit to the area, where we hoped to enjoy the local cuisine, soak in its famous hot springs and learn about its samurai culture.
While no visit to Aizu Wakamatsu would be considered complete without seeing the graves of the Byakkotai soldiers, my real reason for going to Mt Iimori was to see something entirely different – the Old Shoshuji Entsu Sanyodo, an 18th-century wooden pagoda more popularly known as the Sazaedo.
Built in 1796, the three-storied, hexagonal pagoda has a double-helix staircase inside, which makes it resemble a sazae, or turban shell – hence the name Sazaedo, or turban shell temple.
The staircase, structured as a twin spiral, allows visitors to climb to the top and back down again without passing those going the other way. Sazaedo is the only known pagoda in the world with this unusual structure and has been designated an Important Cultural Property.
Ever since I saw a model of the Sazaedo at an exhibition in Tokyo, I had been keen to see and climb the unusual staircase.
As with most provincial cities in Japan, Aizu Wakamatsu is not as easy to navigate as a major urban center like Tokyo or Osaka. Public transport is scarce, although fortunately there are two circular bus routes which take visitors to most places of interest in the city. The red route is served by a red bus affectionately called Akabei, after the name of the red cow mascot of Aizu, which runs clockwise from Aizu Wakamatsu station. Another route is served by a blue bus called Haikara-san, which means stylish person and runs counter-clockwise from the station.
We took the Akabei bus from Mt Iimori to Oyakuen, a secluded Japanese garden featuring a pond and medicinal herb garden.
Although the garden was first built in the 14th century, it was not until 1670 that it was turned into an herb garden by Hoshina Masatsune, the second lord of the Aizu domain, who planted various medicinal herbs in a bid to treat local residents struck by the plague.
From then on, the garden came to be known as Oyakuen, which means “Medicinal Herb Garden”.
The teahouse in the garden, Ochayagoten, which commands a view of the pond, is the perfect place to enjoy a cup of green tea with a Japanese sweet.
From Oyakuen, we again boarded an Akabei bus to Tsurugajo Castle, unique for its red roof tiles.
This magnificent castle is yet another reminder of the enduring loyalty shown by Aizu’s samurai to the Tokugawa Shogunate and the price paid by the city of Aizu Wakamatsu for rebelling against the newly formed Meiji government.
After the young Byakkotai soldiers took their lives and Aizu Wakamatsu fell to the Meiji forces, the original castle, which was built in 1384, was destroyed. The shiny white walls and the concrete used to build the current castle are a giveaway that it was built not in the 14th century but in the 1960s.
After an extensive lesson in Aizu history – the interior of the castle is a museum with displays on the history of the castle and samurai lifestyle – it was time for a good soak in the area’s famous hot spring waters.
We headed to our lodgings in the popular hot spring area of Higashiyama Onsen on the eastern periphery of Aizu Wakamatsu, which was a short ride on the blue Haikara-san bus.
As we walked in the direction of the Japanese inn, or ryokan, where we had booked a room, we were delighted to see on the other side of a river an old wooden building with a distinctive roof and an unmissable sign with the name of our lodgings – Mukaitaki – written in huge golden characters.
Everything about Mukaitaki, from the time-worn wooden walls to the grandfather wall clock in the foyer, transports visitors back in time to a bygone era.
Dating back to the Edo period (1603-1868), Mukaitaki, which opened its doors as a ryokan in 1873, was recognized by the Japanese government for its historic and cultural importance and became the first ryokan to be designated a Registered Tangible Cultural Property.
Many of the architectural details, such as the dormer-style roof gables, the intricately carved ranma, or transom panels set between the ceiling and sliding doors to allow for ventilation between rooms, and the paintings on the fusuma sliding doors are shining examples of traditional Japanese architecture. Many of the skills used to create these traditional architectural details are being lost as people opt for the convenience and modern comforts offered by western-style homes.
The conscious decision by Mukaitaki’s owners to keep the ryokan as true to its roots as possible – with the exception of commonly expected modern amenities such as flush toilets and heating – means that the public bath tubs are rather small and shabby, there is no rotenburo (or, outside hot spring bath) and the rooms are drafty.
Despite the inconvenience of local insects finding their way into our duplex, we found the accommodations well-appointed and charming.
Dinner, which was served in a private dining room, featured local specialties, such as tofu and vegetables wrapped in a Hoba leaf and grilled as well as the head of a carp cooked in a sweet and savory sauce. The kitchen staff at Mukaitaki seemed to take particular pride in the latter dish but we found it to be overly sweet and salty.
Still, to stay in Mukaitaki is to be enthralled by the beauty and serenity of the historic building and its inner garden and soothed by the clear waters of its natural hot spring.
Our lesson on the samurai lifestyle could hardly be completed in one day so the next morning we headed to Bukeyashiki, a reconstructed mansion of Saigo Tanomo Chikanori, a top-ranking samurai official.
While the main house with its 38 rooms and 328 tatami mats is a reconstruction, the expansive site, which is collectively called Bukeyashiki, includes a bailiff’s office built in 1837 (and later designated an Important Cultural Asset of Fukushima Prefecture), a restored rice mill that is still in operation and various buildings where historical artifacts are on display.
While samurai held the highest rank in Edo society, in the absence of warfare during that period, there was little use for their warrior skills and their economic fortunes began to decline irreversibly.
Meanwhile, the merchant class, which ranked at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, enjoyed increasing wealth as commercial activity flourished during the peaceful Edo period.
We were able to witness the growing influence of the merchant class in the nearby city of Kitakata, where we headed to after our exploration of samurai culture in Aizu Wakamatsu.
Kitakata thrived in the Edo and Meiji (1868-1912) periods as a city of merchants and sake, shoyu and miso brewers.
Its distinctive feature is the large number of kura, or storehouses, made with a stone foundation, wooden frame, earthen walls and shikkui or white plaster, that survive to this day.
With their distinctive thick clay walls, which provided excellent insulation, kura were ideal not only for storing the valuables of Kitakata’s wealthy merchants but also for making soy sauce, sake and miso, which need stable temperatures for smooth fermentation.
Kitakata’s many surviving kura – there are an estimated 4,000 or so kura scattered around the city and its environs – are testimony to its prosperous past.
What makes these kura particularly interesting is their range of styles, and the fact that many are still in use. There are kura with white walls, those made with black plaster and even kura with brick walls that survive as stores, breweries and homes.
One of the best preserved and grandest of Kitakata’s kura is Kai Honke Kurazashiki, which was built in 1923 by the highly successful sake, miso and shoyu brewing Kai family.
This spacious kura complex is surrounded by a brick wall and consists of a store, a miso warehouse, shoyu warehouse, family residence and a garden with strolling paths around a pond.
Kitakata is also famous for its ramen, widely regarded as one of the top three ramen types in Japan along with Sapporo ramen and Hakata (Fukuoka) ramen. Kitakata ramen is usually made with a shoyu and pork broth and relatively thick noodles.
Having started our visit on Mt Iimori contemplating the fate of Aizu Wakamatsu’s brave, young samurai, we ended our tour of the Aizu basin in Kitakata admiring the legacy of the rise of Japan’s merchant class.
It was a fitting end to our short lesson in this tumultuous chapter of modern Japanese history.