Discovering the way of the warrior in Japan's Fukushima prefecture

Aizu lies in the heart of Fukushima, and has long been known as the land of the samurai. While the last warriors fell here more than 150 years ago, their spirit lives on, preserved in the traditions of the region. Saturday, 21 December 2019

To the right of the water is, according to the sign — ‘a strange Buddhist temple’. The 18th-century Sazaedo, hewn from wood and shaped like a turban snail shell has a double-helix ramp leading up and down through its middle, a design that means worshippers never pass anyone coming in the opposite direction.

Strange in the best way, when strange is utterly beautiful. Up ahead, steep stone stairs flanked by cedar and cypress trees lead to the summit of Mount Iimori, from where I can see the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu laid out before me. It’s a picture of tranquillity, a vast mass of squat white buildings with a patchwork of coloured rooftops ringed by row upon row of green mountains, each peak licked by frosty clouds.

Over 150 years ago, 20 young samurai shared this same view, though the scenes they witnessed were less idyllic. The Autumn of 1868 marked the final throes of the Boshin War, a fierce civil war fought between the ruling shogunate and the better-equipped imperial forces. Cut off from their squad at the Battle of Tonoguchihara and vastly outnumbered, the 16 and 17-year-old soldiers retreated through the river cave, emerging on top of Mount Iimori. There, they surveyed a diorama of devastation; a city under siege and their fortress, Tsurugajo Castle, engulfed in flames. The war was lost.

Refusing to be humiliated by the enemy, in one final act of bravery, 19 of the youngsters performed seppuku, taking their short-bladed tanto swords and plunging them into their stomachs, tearing from left to right to sever the aorta artery. Though a horribly painful process, it was a swift way to end their lives. Their premature deaths were catapulted from a sad side note of war to a tragedy of epic proportions eulogized across the country. A few short weeks later, the 265-year Edo period of the samurai would also come to an end.

Later, the story is recounted to me once more. This time, however, it’s through the medium of song and dance, performed by a ruby-lipped geisha (known as geigi in this part of the country) wearing an opulent black and floral silk kimono costing more than £5,000; her hair lacquered into what looks like a work of abstract art. I watch spellbound as I eat lunch seated on tatami mats at Tsuruga restaurant. The cuisine I dine on is the same as the samurai themselves might have eaten — sesame tofu with wasabi, stewed tomatoes with yuzu, deep-fried Aizu chicken, curls of horse sashimi and a choice of 59 types of sake.

A century and half may have passed since the end of the shogunate, but the spirit of the samurai lives on in Aizu’s many passionate artisans; its restaurateurs, entertainers, artists, martial arts enthusiasts, sword-grinders and sake makers. Aizu lies in the heart of Fukushima. Long before this prefecture (region) became known worldwide for its nuclear disaster on 11 March 2011, it was celebrated as the land of the samurai. It only took a five-minute Google search before boarding the aeroplane to learn that only 2.7% of the area had been affected by the nuclear disaster, and that the prefecture had undergone an unprecedented decontamination process. Aizu, I learnt, was also more than 60 miles from the coast, had radiation levels similar to most large cities and looked jaw-droppingly beautiful. There was no way I was going to pass up the chance to learn about the way of the warrior in Japan’s most famous samurai region.

A few short weeks later, I find myself in an airy wooden dojo at the Aizu Clan School Nisshinkan, the most prestigious samurai school in Japan. The yumi (longbow) is nearly as tall as me, but the smooth lacquered bamboo feels light in my hands. I pick up an arrow and its silky white swan feathers tickle my fingertips as I slot it against the string. I brace my stockinged feet on the floor, raise my arms, squint my eyes at the target a precise 28 metres away, pull back and fire. I miss.

Again and again I fire, eventually hitting the board the target’s pinned to, if not the target itself, once or twice. The practice is both exhilarating and meditative, and I feel as though I’ve truly become a samurai, or an onna-bugeisha, as the women were known. “The mind of the samurai needs to be decisive,” my teacher Mr Iwasawa Takahiro, a 7th kyudo dan tells me. I listen to his words with the wide-eyed wonder of Luke Skywalker listening to Yoda.

Established during the Edo period, the Nisshinkan was set up to educate the sons of samurai, who’d enter the school at the age of 10. A picturesque series of neat outdoor pavilions, training halls and classrooms set around immaculate gardens and Japan’s first outdoor swimming pool, it was here that the children would learn the bushido, the way of the warrior. Classes included martial arts, of course, but also chemistry, calligraphy, astronomy, etiquette and Confucian philosophy.

It’s a funny thing about samurai that they’re often associated with violence when in fact, their way of thinking feels more in line with modern mindfulness movements — living in the moment, respecting the beliefs of others, meditating on life, being in synergy with nature and expressing gratitude for every experience, both good and bad. Peace and harmony was always the ultimate samurai goal.

Aizu today encompasses both of these things. In the city, there are magnificent castles such as the iceberg-like Tsurugajo, best ogled in April amid a blizzard of blossom; historic samurai homes like the enormous Aizu Bukeyashiki, now a museum where visitors can wander around and try their hand at archery; and Butokuden Martial Arts Dojo (training camp).

There, under the strict instruction of four septuagenarian 7th dan swordsman, I go full O-Ren Ishii from Kill Bill, dressed head to toe in white robes wielding, swinging and swishing a sword, all the while simultaneously thanking my teacher for sharing his experience, my opponent for the opportunity to improve myself, and the sport itself for existing — naturally.

In the countryside, there are stunning ski resorts and spa towns, and I spend a particularly pampered evening in an onsen (hot spring) at the golden-lit Okawaso hotel, a modern version of a traditional ryokan. Elsewhere, the boiling waters of both the Ashinomaki Onsen and Higashiyama Onsen offer more relaxation opportunities. There are also ancient temples (Enzoji Temple in Yanaizu dates back some 1,300 years); Mishima, voted one of the prettiest towns in Japan (stop at Donguri restaurant for a bowl of hot, intense chicken soba [buckwheat] noodles); and Ouchi-juku, a former post town on the road to Edo (nowadays Tokyo) through which samurai would have passed on their way to pay fealty to the shogun.

Barely changed in more than 400 years, on the day I visit it’s a vision perfectly preserved. Rows of stout wooden bungalows with thick thatched roofs stretch out before me — a Japanese version of Narnia complete with wild bears roaming the surrounding mountains. Again, it’s both strange and beautiful. If peace and harmony were the samurai goals, in Aizu they certainly achieved what they set out to do.

Essentials

Getting There
ANA, Japan Airlines and British Airways operate daily direct flights between Heathrow and Tokyo Haneda Airport.

Getting around
Japan’s bullet trains run a regular service between Tokyo and Koriyama, from where Aizu-Wakamatsu is a short train-ride away. The journey takes 2h15m, and once there, it’s best to get around by hire car.

When to go
Visit in winter for skiing and onsen. Late March-April is when the cherry blossom is out. In Autumn, the hillsides turn a vivid red and temperatures are cool. Summers are best avoided as they can be humid

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