Castle holds memories of last days of shogunate

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Tsurugajo castle is characterized by reddish kawara roof tiles. It is said that the roof tiles were burned to reinforce them after being glazed in the production process.

By Takehiro Ito / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterAIZUWAKAMATSU, Fukushima — One hundred and fifty years after a historic incident, Tsurugajo castle looked calm and bright when I visited in early July. The effects of a recent typhoon had receded, and tourists strolled around at a leisurely pace.

In 1867, the Taisei Hokan — in which the Tokugawa shogunate returned the right to rule Japan to the emperor, at that time Emperor Meiji — took place. The Boshin War, during which forces aiming to create a new government battled fighters supporting the shogunate, began in 1868.

In the final years of the Edo period (1603-1867), the Aizu feudal clan was troubled by the upheavals of the time. It resisted the new government forces, and its samurai warriors were besieged in Tsurugajo castle for a month before it finally fell.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Sazaedo temple, where visitors climb up and down spiral staircases

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

Kenji Watanabe, an official of Aizuwakamatsu’s tourism bureau that manages the castle, spoke of the battle as we stood inside the tenshukaku tower.

“They [warriors of the Aizu clan] were driven into a corner by shellfire from Mt. Odayama, seen in the southeast,” he said.

A comfortable breeze blew under the summer sky. Where the castle’s honmaru main keep used to be was now only covered with green grass.

The contrast between this view and the fact that thousands died here in a fierce battle was a little bit bewildering.

The last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was forced to carry out the Taisei Hokan when anti-shogunate forces comprised mainly of the Satsuma and Choshu clans — based in what is currently Kagoshima and Yamaguchi prefectures, respectively — went on the offensive.

But the new government regarded the Aizu clan, which had supported the shogunate, as an enemy of the emperor, and a clash ensued between the two sides.

The castle fell into ruin, and everything except its stone walls was demolished in 1874. Thanks to the support of local residents, however, it was reconstructed in 1965.

Today, the castle building serves as a museum for the history and culture of the city.

“In cherry blossom season, this place is crowded with a large number of local residents,” Watanabe said.

In the castle precincts there is a teahouse called Rinkaku, which is believed to have been built by one of the sons of Sen no Rikyu, the 16th-century tea ceremony master. In the summer, visitors can rest here and drink chilled matcha green tea.

Lingering hostility

When people talk about the Aizu clan, it is clear they still have some hostility toward the Choshu people.

During this trip, I visited Ryoichi Hoshi, 82, a writer who lives in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture. He has written numerous books about the Aizu clan in the final years of the Edo period.

“Because it was a war, naturally there were winners and losers,” He said. “The Aizu people also misjudged a lot. But I believe that many local people are still angry at the Choshu clan.”

After the war, the Aizu clan was ordered to relocate to the Shimokita Peninsula, part of current Aomori Prefecture, where the climate is extremely cold. Many of them died in that place.

Hoshi said the lack of consideration for the side that lost the war was a serious problem.

“However, is it proper to continue hating each other forever? Even the Choshu clan did positive things. I hope people will take the opportunity of the 150th anniversary to reconsider the significance of the Aizu clan and the Meiji Restoration,” Hoshi said.

Ahead of the 150th anniversary of the Boshin War, projects such as a symposium and the production of a memorial publication are being undertaken in Aizuwakamatsu.

Inside Tsurugajo castle, a large screen with features such as a computer graphics display of the castle town was installed in April.

Free apps are also distributed so that visitors can use their smartphones to see the landscape as it would have looked in the last years of the Edo period.

“We are also planning a memorial declaration praying for peace,” a city government official said.

Samurai boys remembered

Concerning the Boshin War, the tragedy of a group of byakkotai boy warriors stirs the emotions of Japanese people. When they saw the castle town engulfed in smoke, about 20 young soldiers committed suicide with their swords on Mt. Iimori.

The site is a five-minute bus ride from Aizuwakamatsu Station. I panted up the steep steps of the mountain slope, then offered incense sticks in front of the graves of the byakkotai warriors — which line halfway up the mountain — and put my hands together in prayer.

A group of elementary school students that had come from Miyagi Prefecture on a school excursion listened intently to the explanations before happily purchasing souvenirs.

I felt sympathy for the local people of the Aizu region who are stubborn but sincere, and the weighty themes of war, resentment and the lives of people drifted through my mind.

A trip tracing the lines of history is not an easy task, but its purpose is one of its charms.

Sazaedo temple a must-see

In Aizuwakamatsu, there are many must-see spots other than those related to the history of the Edo period’s last years. On Mt. Iimori, there stands Sazaedo, a Buddhist temple built in 1796. It is designated as an important cultural property by the government.

Visitors climb up and down the temple’s spiral staircases, which have a rare structure that means people can only go in one direction at a time.

In the city central, there is a site related to bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi.

For tours of the city, there are convenient sightseeing buses called Haikara-san and Akabe.

■ Access

Koriyama is 1 hour 20 minutes from Tokyo on the JR Tohoku Shinkansen Line. After transferring to the Banetsusaisen Line, it is another 80 minutes. Telephone inquiries: (0242) 23-8000 for Aizuwakamatsu tourism bureau; (0242) 39-1251 for the city government’s tourism section

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit

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