Japan Australia Pages

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Samurai City Aizuwakamatsu

Aizuwakamatsu in western Fukushima Prefecture was regarded as one of the last strongholds of samurai culture when Japan made the transition from the feudal Edo period (1603-1868) under the Tokugawa Shogunate to the Meiji period and restoration of imperial rule.

Its strategic location in southern Tohoku saw Aizuwakamatsu flourish as a political and military center with a rich samurai history stretching back over 1,000 years. It has served as the seat of power for some of Japan’s most celebrated samurai warriors.

Today the local people of Aizuwakamatsu are proud of their samurai heritage and traditional culture which has seen a revival after the dark days of the Boshin Civil War (1868-1869) and the fall of the Aizu clan.

In the first part of this three-part series on Aizuwakamatsu, we will be exploring the samurai city and its connections to its samurai past.

Tsuruga Castle

Tsuruga Castle, also called Aizuwakamatsu Castle was the seat of power of Aizu Domain and the last stand for the samurai of Aizu during the Battle of Aizu in the Boshin War.

The Boshin War was a civil war fought between forces still loyal to the shogun and the new Meiji government which had returned power to the imperial court.

Tsuruga Castle, which was built in 1593 by Gamo Ujisato (1556-1595) was said to be impregnable with no blind angles and it certainly lived up to this during the Battle of Aizu in 1868 when it was attacked by imperial forces.

Tsuruga Castle

The Aizu clan, loyal to the Tokugawa Shogunate fought bravely against all odds to defend the castle against superior numbers in a month-long siege. Despite defeat and being bombarded by 50 imperial cannons, Tsuruga Castle withstood the attack and remained standing. On November 6, 1868 the castle was finally surrendered by Matsudaira Katamori (Lord of the Aizu clan), bringing about the end to the Battle of Aizu. 

Original Stone Wall at Tsuruga Castle

A great story that sums up the spirit and dedication of Aizu clan samurai is the belfry at Tsuruga Castle. The bell in the belfry was struck to announce the correct time to the people of the castle town. During the Battle of Aizu, it was targeted by imperial cannons but even under heavy cannon fire it did not stop ringing the correct time to the locals until the end of the war.

Tsuruga Castle from near the Belfry

Unfortunately, the castle was demolished by the new Meiji-era government in 1874 who left only the stone walls and surrounding perimeters in place. The current main keep is a reconstruction that was completed in 1965. The castle is famous for having the only aka-kawara red roof tiles in all of Japan.

Main Keep of Tsuruga Castle


Iimoriyama is a small hill near Tsuruga Castle that is famous for being the site where a group of twenty young Aizu clan samurai, members of the Byakkotai (White Tiger Unit) committed seppuku (ritual suicide).


The young 16 and 17 year old samurai who were fighting in the Boshin War against imperial forces became separated from the rest of their unit during the Battle of Aizu. They knew Iimoriyama well since it was close to where they lived, so retreated there to regroup. From the hill they saw what they thought was Tsuruga Castle engulfed in flames and believing the battle to be lost, committed seppuku. What they didn’t know was that the castle had not actually been taken and it was the surrounding buildings that were ablaze.

One of the samurai, Iinuma Sadakichi, who was the youngest member of the group, hadn’t received the training on seppuku, so was not successful in his suicide attempt and actually survived to eventually tell the story of the group to Aizu.  

Memorial to the Fallen Aizu Clan  Members

The heartbreaking story of these brave samurai is still talked about today by the locals. The story of their loyalty and devotion has become well known all around the world, with numerous movies and manga being made of their brave tale.

The graves of the 19 Byakkotai who died at that time stand in line in a memorial on the west-facing slope of Iimoriyama. The memorial site features tributes and gifts to honour the brave Byakkotai sent from all over the world.

The Graves of the 19 Byakkotai

Aizu Clan Samurai School Nisshinkan

The Aizu Clan Samurai School Nisshinkan was established by the Aizu clan in 1803 to educate the children of Aizu clan samurai. It was originally located west of Tsuruga Castle but was destroyed during the Boshin War.

The current site is a reconstruction built in 1987 in a different area from the original. It is no longer a school for the samurai but a museum showcasing what a school for samurai of the late Edo period (1603-1868) would have looked like.

The Entrance to Nisshinkan

In its day, the school was regarded as one of the best of over 300 Edo period clan schools, producing samurai warriors that graduated with an all-round education in Confucian studies as well as the martial arts. Subjects taught at the school included reading, Chinese classics, calligraphy and astronomy. 

Samurai Students Studying Reading at Nisshinkan

The swimming pond at the school is the first swimming pool in Japan. It was one of only two clan swimming pools in Japan at the time and was used by students to practice swimming while wearing armour.

Japan's First Swimming Pool at Nisshinkan

The school was famous for its size at 6.5 acres and educational materials. Students entered the Nisshinkan at the age of 10 and were split into neighbourhood groups, so that younger students could learn from their seniors.

Near the entrance, you can find a list of rules on display that samurai students had to learn before entering the school.

The School Rules

Gekimon Gate at Nisshinkan

During my visit, I was able to experience zazen (Zen meditation) and kyudo (Japanese martial art of archery) using bow and arrows that were the same size as the ones used by the samurai.

Zazen at Nisshinkan

We were also fortunate to see a demonstration of sword sharpening and polishing in one of the martial art halls. The master artisan is one of only two in Fukushima and expertly guided us through the technique needed to keep samurai swords beautiful and sharp.

Sword Sharpening and Polishing by a Master Artisan


I hope you enjoyed this brief look at Aizuwakamatsu’s samurai past, and please stay tuned for part 2 where we will explore the traditional culture and crafts of Aizuwakamatsu. 



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