Aizuwakamatsu, Nostalgia for a Glorious Past
Fukushima prefecture sadly jumped to the news when in 2011 a strong earthquake followed by a tsunami caused enormous devastation on the entire coast. Many people, however, may not know that the largest and most important cities of the prefecture, including the one that bears its name and serves as the capital, are actually about 50km inside, along the valley of the Abukuma River and they have avoided the devastation brought by the tsunami. Many also may also not know that the most important city of the prefecture is not the capital but Koriyama, which does not have particular attractions but it can serve as a starting point for exploring the most interesting areas of the region. From the shinkansen station of the city, depart on the local train on the Ban'etsu Saisen line towards the west direction that in little more than an hour of scenic journey, allows to reach the historical city of Aizuwakamatsu. Aizuwakamatsu is a feudal capital of the clan of samurai Aizu (called Byakkotai, the "White Tigers") until the fall of the shogunate, at whose side the clan warriors had sided in the war against the emperor which led to the Meiji restoration.
Aizuwakamatsu has a considerable number of very interesting sites. Even if the urban center is not particularly large, most of the most touristic points are scattered on a quite large area close to the hills around the town and it is impossible to make the visit on foot; a good solution to this problem is to use the two loop-buses, one for each direction, which make a loop journey starting from the railway station and stop in the vicinity of all attractions.
The first place worth stopping at is Iimoriyama Hill, where a long stone staircase allows access to the site where the group of Byakkotai (White Tiger Battalion) performed ritual suicide through seppuku after the defeat in battle against the troops of the emperor and here are also housed their graves. At the base of the staircase a memorial pavilion explains the story while descending through a path, you pass first the Sazaedo Temple, a curious hexagonal Buddhist temple with inside two spiral stairs that intersect, to reach a small Shinto sanctuary that forms a very scenic ensemble.
Continuing by bus to the south-eastern end of the city you can reach the Aizu Bukeyashiki; a mansion belonging to the head of the clan, restored and partly rebuilt, is definitely one of the most interesting villas of samurai to visit all over the country. The visit of the Aizu Bukeyashiki includes dozens of rooms, the beautiful garden that surrounds the whole complex, the rice warehouses and a small water mill; also worth noting that from a window in the fence you can admire the castle in the distance.
After the Aizu Bukeyashiki, I suggest to continue the tour of the city by visiting the Oyakuen Garden, the classic traditional meditative garden of Japanese nobles which was also used to grow medicinal herbs; and the Tsuruga Castle that encloses one of the most beautiful and fascinating stories of the whole country.
A vast green space surrounded by wide moats and fenced by large walls houses several gardens and buildings, including some small sanctuary and a traditional tea house, but at the center of the scene stands the massive male, rebuilt in the sixties. The interior of the central tower and side wing houses a museum with historical artifacts and weapons, as well as a shop, but the main attraction is the breathtaking view over the entire city.
Around the castle area, there is a sake distillery that organizes guided tours and has a small museum dedicated to this area to the beverage. A small walk will lead you to the Nanukamachi-dori Street, the most central and most nostalgic part of the city. You will enjoy the magic atmosphere of a long-gone time among a high concentration of Japanese storehouses and stores.
For lovers of Japanese history, I suggest spending at least 3 days and 2 nights in Aizuwakamatsu. Dive into the past and relive the glory of the samurai.