Aizu-Wakamatsu is a city nestled in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture, about 3 hours north of Tokyo by train. During Japan’s feudal period it was a castle town and, as a tourist destination, it is still known for its castle and various sites related to its samurai history and role in the Boshin War (1868-69), a brief civil war fought to determine whether the Tokugawa shogunate would continue or whether Imperial rule would be restored.
Oyaku-en (literally “the honorable medicine garden”) began as a feudal lord’s villa nearly six centuries ago. From the early part of the Tokugawa Period (1603-1867), the second Lord of Aizu, Hoshina Masatsune (1647-1681) began the cultivation of medicinal herbs in order to promote the health of his people during a time of epidemic. Apparently, the water of a spring in this area had long been regarded as having healing properties, making this a logical location for a medicinal herb garden. The garden acquired its name when one of Masatsune’s successors added ginseng to the plants under cultivation around the end of the seventeenth century.
From that time until this, the garden has had two sections: the “samurai strolling garden” of antiquity, and the medicinal herb garden from which it gets its name. It’s a perfect spot to see herbs under cultivation and learn about making herbal tea.
The Herb Garden and Herbal Tea
I started with a stroll through the medical plants. Around 400 varieties of herbs, both native and imported, are grown here. Each patch of plants is labelled, alas in Japanese with only the Latin names to guide those who don’t read Japanese. This labeling will surely delight dedicated horticulturalists, but can confound mere amateurs.
My tea making experience took place in Choyokaku, a traditional building standing on the end of the herb garden that has its own interesting history. Choyokaku was built in 1928 to be used by Princess Setsuko (1909-1995), a daughter of the local nobility, as she prepared to marry Yasuhito, Prince Chichibu, the younger brother of Emperor Hirohito. Choyokaku was moved into Oyaku-en in 1978 to preserve it and it is now mostly used for special occasions. It is a lovely example of early twentieth century Japanese architecture.
"Herbal teas are made from three main groups of botanicals: 1) stems, leaves, and flowers, 2) seeds, and 3) roots."
We gathered in a large room on the second floor where we met our teacher Shimizu-san, who explained to us that herbal teas are made from three main groups of botanicals: 1) stems, leaves and flowers, 2) seeds, and 3) roots. He had laid out a number of small dishes containing samples of each group. These were ultimately to become our individualized tea blends.
Shimizu-san explained the various functions of each of the ingredients he was providing to us. For example, turmeric, Nikko maple, and Chinese wolfberry all aid liver function, while Kuma bamboo grass, Chameleon plant and Japanese angelica tree relieve hypertension. Chameleon plant is also effective to treat constipation, as is Senna. Jujube and Japanese prickly ash improve digestion and ginger calms stomach upsets and promotes appetite. Shimizu-san added that the various botanicals could be blended to produce an individualized result.
The first step in our tea blending experience was a brief origami lesson, as Shimizu-san had us fold a sheet of paper into the shape of a traditional winnowing basket, an ideal shape for collecting the seeds, dried leaves, bark and roots to make a tea blend.
He encouraged us to pick small quantities of various botanicals, based on our own preferences and particular health goals of the moment, and place them into our paper “basket”. When we had collected all we wanted, we moved to the next stage of the blending process: crushing everything together.
For this we used a traditional Japanese tool called a yagen. It’s a polished hunk of stone with a boat-shaped indentation to hold the herbs to be crushed. A stone wheel with a dowel for an axle is then rolled over the herbs to crush them.
Once the herbs are crushed fine enough—not powder, just smaller—we turned them to our paper baskets and moved to the next stage of the process: toasting them. For this we used a small cast iron skillet, constantly moving the herbs in the skillet until they began to brown and release their aromas.
Next we poured our herbal tea blend into two tissue paper bags.
One we placed into a tea pot of hot water to steep. The other was the subject of another origami lesson as Shimizu-san explained how to fold a small paper envelope to hold it, the packaging for carrying it home to enjoy later. This process took almost exactly the amount of time our tea needed to steep, after which we could relax with our soothing cup of tea. Ah, contentment!
The Samurai Strolling Garden
After enjoying this delicious tea, perhaps all the more tasty because I have chosen the ingredients myself, I ended my visit to Oyaku-en with a quiet stroll around the pond that forms the heart of the samurai strolling garden. It is scenic and serene, the serenity perhaps enhanced by the effects of my herbal tea.
Although the garden is pleasant and placid today, it also played a significant role in an episode of conflict during Japan’s nineteenth century history of modernization. During the Boshin War (1868-69) there was a battle fought at Aizu-Wakamatsu. Wounded Imperial soldiers were evacuated to this site for medical treatment. Scars on the banister of the tea house on the island in the pond are said to have been made by an Imperial officer, testing the sharpness of his sword.
"Although the garden is pleasant and placid today, it also played a significant role in an episode of conflict during Japan’s nineteenth century history of modernization. "
The bannister perhaps shows signs of an Imperial officer testing the sharpness of his sword.
For visitors to this garden who don’t have the opportunity to make their own tea blend, the garden’s tea house also serves herbal tea. To sit in this historic structure and sip tea while enjoying the view over the pond can also be a pleasing experience.
8-1 Hanaharumachi, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture
8:30-17:00 daily; admission: ¥330
Herbal tea making experience:
9:30-11:30 on the second Sunday of the month, advance reservations required. ¥8,125/person (contact, in Japanese only: 0241-22-0533)
Website (in Japanese):