All About Japan

Aizu Wakamatsu Lives by the Code of its Samurai Past

Tea Castles Samurai Sword Making Fukushima Tohoku
Aizu Wakamatsu Lives by the Code of its Samurai Past

For hundreds of years, the samurai of the Aizu clan lived by a code that emphasized honor, respect and ethical behavior. Julian Ryall visited the town to see how that code is still affecting the local community.

Aizu Wakamatsu's streets are lined with historic buildings.

That samurai code is still alive in Aizu Wakamatsu, the town in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture that was at the center of their domain, with the local authority installing signs that call for residents to be polite, to respect their elders and to stand firm in the face of challenges.

The most important rule, however, is exactly the same as it was when the Aizu clan walked these streets, between 1601 and the abolition of the feudal lords system in 1871. Samurai then and residents now are urged to develop gi, which translates as doing what is right.

Along with attitudes that echo one of Japan’s most powerful samurai clans, Aizu Wakamatsu has preserved or rebuilt a number of the historic sites that played critical roles in this community and where visitors can try their hand at a number of the military and cultural practices that would have been commonplace in years gone by.

Visitors to Tsutsumi Production use time-honored methods to forge miniature replicas of samurai weapons.

In 1628, a swordsmith named Miyoshi Toshiro moved to the town and began forging the gracefully curved blades for which samurai are renowned. He was in good company, as so many skilled craftsmen had lit their furnaces in town that it had earned the reputation as the “eastern kingdom of blacksmiths.”

Miyoshi and his descendants forged some of the finest swords for around 400 years, until the wearing of such weapons was banned by the government in 1876. The company was forced to channel its metalworking skills in a different direction, turning to farm and garden implements, including a high-end hoe.

In honor of its past, however, visitors to Tsutsumi Production are encouraged to get their hands dirty and to transform a 20cm length of steel into a miniature replica of a samurai sword. It takes plenty of pounding with a heavy hammer on red-hot steel, but gradually the weapon takes shape, with a more experienced metalworker helping to twist the handle and then polish the final piece.

Tsutsumi Production's website.

The tea house in the Oyakuen looks across a pond and landscaped gardens.

As well as being required to eliminate their enemies, samurai were expected to master a range of cultural pursuits, including the tea ceremony. Within the grounds of Tsurugajo Castle stands an unusually spacious tea house that legend has it was built by Shoan, the son of Sen no Rikyu, the historical figure with the most profound influence on chanoyu, or the Japanese “Way of Tea.”

The tea house was dismantled after the Aizu clan was defeated by government forces in 1868 during the Boshin War. In 1990, the classically designed building was returned to its original location overlooking a large pond in the formal gardens of Oyakuen, which translates as “medicinal garden.” The garden was originally used to grow medicinal herbs, such as ginseng, that were difficult and expensive to obtain from China or Korea.

Within the tea house, Ichiro Miyazaki is carrying out the highly ritualized steps that are required to create the perfect bowl of dark green tea. A master of the Urasenke school of the tea ceremony, he uses a hand-crafted bamboo spoon to take the dark green powder from a colorful caddy and place it into a bowl. Adding hot water from an earthenware pot in a hearth in the tatami mat floor, he uses a whisk of finely split bamboo to combine the ingredients.

With all the ritual associated with the ceremony, guests bow and admire the bowl before taking a long draught, wiping the rim and passing it to the person alongside them. The strong and slightly bitter taste is offset by some locally produced sweets and we watch as the snow settles on the garden.

Oyakuen FB page (in Japanese)

Archery was an important part of the syllabus at the Nishinkan, with visitors today able to test their skills on a range.

On a high bluff a short distance north of the town is the Nisshinkan, a school set up to educate the sons of samurai around Japan. Originally built in the shadow of the castle, Nisshinkan was one of around 300 such schools around the nation, though only a few remain today.

The school was faithfully recreated here around 40 years ago, with classrooms edging a square courtyard with a pond and overlooked by the Taisei-den, a shrine dedicated to the worship of Confucius. Students here learned calligraphy and etiquette, they learned the ways to handle a sword and money, they learned the arts.

In the outer courtyard, these young men were schooled in the arts of the warrior. Their lessons included kendo as a precursor to fighting with razor-sharp swords, and practice at an outdoor firing range where they tested the earliest guns to reach Japan. The complex also includes what is believed to be the first purpose-built swimming pool in Japan, where warriors learned to swim in full armor.

Kyudo, or archery, was also a critical part of their studies, with a long room dedicated to this form of fighting. Visitors are able to rent a bow and loose arrows at a target just 11 meters distant—with varying degrees of success.

Nisshinkan website

Tsurugajo Castle was first constructed in 1384, but the present impressive tower dates from the 1960s.

Back in the town, the five-stories of Tsurugajo Castle dominate its surroundings. The first fortress was constructed here in 1384, but decades of war, punctuated by some powerful earthquakes, took their toll on the structure, culminating with the Meiji government ordering that it be demolished after the Aizu clan was defeated.

The present structure is a faithful recreation of the original and was completed in the 1960s. Over a bridge that crosses a wide moat, the outer defensive walls are impressively thick as they twist and turn. In the innermost courtyard are gardens that are popular places to enjoy the cherry blossoms in the spring, while the castle itself houses an impressive museum. From the uppermost floors, the view across Aizu Wakamatsu to the mountains beyond is spectacular.

Tsurugajo Castle website

Tetsuro Shimaguchi is the founder of the samurai artist troupe Kamui and is widely recognized as one of the foremost samurai fight choreographers in the world today.

In a prefecture famous for its onsen hot spring baths, one of the most famous places to enjoy a luxuriously long soak is at Ookawaso, a hotel built overlooking the gorge that runs through the nearby village of Ashinomaki. The lobby of the hotel resembles a three-dimensional labyrinth of stairs, raised walkways above a stream and, at its center, a stage where a woman in a kimono is playing a shamisen. For anime buffs, this may all be familiar; this is the original template for the Infinity Castle in the TV series and 2020 film Demon Slayer.

The venue has other links to the movie world. It is a favorite of Tetsuro Shimaguchi, creator of the samurai artist group Kamui and renowned as one of the greatest samurai combat choreographers in the world today. Shimaguchi rose to fame after director Quentin Tarantino asked him to plan the spectacular fight scenes in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and train his actors.

A strong advocate of the samurai way of life, which he emphasizes has important lessons for modern-day Japan, Shimaguchi can regularly be found giving demonstrations of his art at the hotel.

Ookawaso website

Ouchi Juku was an important staging post on the trade route during the Edo Period.

Across a snow-covered pass to the west lie the hamlets of Ouchi Juku, which was a key staging post on the road linking Aizu with Nikko during the Edo Period. With modernization, the village became a backwater but its residents stuck to their traditions. Today, its wooden homes with thatched roofs attract visitors in search of the Japan of yesteryear.

Looking just as it did in the Edo period (1600–1868), the main street is flanked by streams, with the thatched buildings beyond transformed into restaurants, inns, and shops selling pickles of locally gathered mountain vegetables and handicrafts. A small temple overlooks the village from the northern end, with the lack of telephone lines, neon and vending machines noticeable. And appreciated.

A group of younger people from Ouchi Juku have learned the dying skill of thatching and are teaching others how to repair and replace their own roofs. It is, they say, part of their heritage and they fully intend to protect their way of life and hand it on to their own children.