Japan is a land where Samurai walked the streets with swords at their hips as recently as 150 years ago. However, those Samurai disappeared into the annals of history as the country modernized.
The Aizu region in Fukushima is known as the home to the group of Samurai who held out to the very end against the new westernized government army during the civil war that triggered the modernization of Japan. Why not follow in the footsteps of these true “Last Samurai” through the numerous surviving sites in Aizu and feel for yourself the “Samurai Spirit” that Japan once embodied?
Aizu was the last region of resistance to Japan’s revolution of modernization known as the Meiji Restoration. There were many Samurai here who gave their lives in battle despite having full knowledge that they would lose. The history of this civil war, known as the Boshin War, describes how not only the young men, but also the elderly, women, and children gave their lives in battle as Samurai. Among them, one unit called the Byakkotai, or “White Tiger Force,” formed of teenaged sons of Samurai, achieved the Samurai status for themselves when they committed seppuku (ritual disembowelment) together after observing what they believed to be the sight of their castle burning from their vantage point on Mt. Iimori to the east of their town.
If you climb Mt. Iimori, the scene of that spectacle, see if you can find the castle that those young warriors watched.Tsuruga Castle, located in central Aizu Wakamatsu when seen from Mt. Iimori, was rebuilt after the war. The seven storied central structure of the castle is one of the largest in Japan, and the red roof tiles further accent the beauty of its white walls. It is difficult to describe the beauty with words, particularly during the winter snowfall and when the cherry blossoms bloom in springtime, making Tsuruga Castle a rare example of medieval Japanese architecture that is both impressive and beautiful in form.
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You will begin to understand the Samurai spirit of self-sacrifice as you look down on Tsuruga Castle from Mt. Iimori through the eyes of the young men of the White Tiger Force and ponder what they must have felt when they committed seppuku. You can further deepen your knowledge of the White Tiger Force through the many historical records available at their memorial center, which even includes a film. Within walking distance, you will find Kyu Takizawa Honjin, a building which served as a rest stop for feudal lords and was used as a headquarters during the Boshin War. Here you can still find bullet holes and damage left by swords, evoking the raw violence of the battle fought there.
After seeing Tsuruga Castle from your vantage point on Mt. Iimori, head straight to the castle keep. The castle features many exhibits including suits of armor and swords, and items which describe the history and lifestyles of the people from those times. By learning of the traditions and culture from the age of the Samurai, you will begin to understand the Samurai Spirit that still lives on today in the Aizu region of Fukushima.
Inspired by that spirit, next climb to the observation deck on the top floor of the castle to enjoy an uninterrupted 360 degree view of the city. What will your thoughts be as you take in the view once observed by the feudal lord who lived in this castle?
Tsuruga Castle also contains a tea house and Japanese garden that provide yet a deeper sense of Japanese culture. Sipping green tea accompanied by Japanese sweets as you view the seasonal trees decorating the garden will likely sooth your mind and body of the fatigue of your journey, while giving you a taste of the times in which the Samurai lived.
Guides will sometimes be found dressed in Samurai armor near the main tower of Tsuruga Castle. If you see them, it is a great opportunity to have your picture taken with a Samurai, so don’t hesitate to ask. You can have a photo of your group taken against the background of Tsuruga Castle, or get a pair shot taken of you and the Samurai. And if you ask nicely, they may even strike an impressive Samurai pose. There is no doubt that the photo will make your trip all the more memorable.