[From October Issue 2011]
Located in the west of Fukushima Prefecture, Aizuwakamatsu City has long thrived as a castle town. It’s famous for its history and rich nature. Situated in the Aizu Basin, the area has snowy winters and very hot summers. The east of the city faces Lake Inawashiro, the fourth largest lake in Japan, and rising high in the north is the majestic Bandai San (Mount Bandai).
When they hear the name “Aizuwakamatsu,” many Japanese will think about the Byakkotai (White Tiger Force), a group of teenage samurai recruited by the Aizu domain. The Byakkotai fought in the Boshin War (1868~1869) to maintain the Tokugawa Shogunate. Nineteen of the group’s members committed suicide on Iimori Hill in order to remain loyal to their masters and families whom they believed to be dead. Halfway up Iimori Hill, the graves of the 19 Byakkotai are visited by many people. This sad story is famous and there have been many TV dramas based on it.
To visit historic sites related to the Byakkotai and other sightseeing spots, it’s convenient to use sightseeing buses such as the “Haikara San” and “Akabei.” Running every 30 minutes, these buses stop at the major tourist spots in the city. A one-day pass for them is available for 500 yen. It’s fun to travel around the city on one of these colorful buses.
The first spot to visit on the sightseeing bus is Tsuruga Castle in the center of town. The castle was renovated last year and its roof tiles were replaced with red ones similar to those used at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Now visitors can see what the castle used to look like in those days. Tsuruga Castle is also where many people come to see cherry blossoms when they’re in season.
Every autumn, the Aizu Festival is held. The main event is the Aizu domain procession, where 500 people dressed up as past lords of the domain or as Tokugawa Shogunate period style samurai parade through the city. During this period, the whole city is energized by the festival which brings the history of Aizu to life.
One of the charms of sightseeing around the city is to look at the old fashioned buildings. There remain a number of buildings from the Edo to Taisho periods in Aizuwakamatsu City. Constructed in a mixture of Japanese and Western styles, these buildings are used as restaurants, general stores and other establishments. Especially popular among them are unique cafés. These rows of buildings are found on Nanokamachi and Noguchi Hideyo Seishun Streets, to the south of JR Aizuwakamatsu Station.
Sazaedo Hall, located halfway up Iimori Hill, is recommended for those with an interest in unique buildings. At 16.5 meters tall, it’s a small building, but its interior structure is quite unusual. From the entrance you climb up in a spiral along a narrow hallway that winds round at an angle of 270 degrees. Instead of making a U-turn at the top, you wind back down another hallway at an angle of 270 degrees. Before you know it, you arrive back at an exit next to the entrance.
The Sazaedo Hall was built in 1796. Originally a Buddhist temple, it housed statues of Kannon (the Goddess of Mercy) from 33 temples in Western Japan. Just by entering Sazaedo Hall, visitors here were able to simulate the experience of making a pilgrimage to the Kannon statues at those 33 temples. The Kannon statues were removed from the hall in the Meiji period. As one of the very few wooden buildings in Japan with a double-spiral structure, in 1995 Sazaedo Hall was designated an important national cultural property.
The charms of Aizuwakamatsu City lie not just with its historic buildings and quaint landscape. The food produced by the fertile Aizu Basin is another attractive feature of the city. Aizuwakamatsu is blessed with an abundance of clear groundwater; sake and soba (noodles) are made using this high-quality water. The local climate’s extremes of temperature have also earned the area quite a reputation.
Since Aizuwakamatu City is in an inland area removed from the ocean, a number of its traditional dishes contain dried seafood. Kozuyu is a traditional dish often served on festive occasions consisting of a soup made from dried scallops with vegetables and ofu (dried wheat gluten) added to it. In recent years, original local specialities, such as “sauce katsudon,” (a pork cutlet on a bed of rice topped off with a special sauce), and “curry yakisoba,” (stir-fried noodles with curry on top), have been gaining popularity.
It’s also a good idea to go on a short trip from Aizuwakamatsu City to Lake Inawashiro, which takes 30 minutes on the JR Banetsusai Line. Lake Inawashiro is a place where you can play various outdoor sports in summer or watch white swans in winter, thereby enjoying Aizu’s natural beauty all year around. Another popular tourist spot in the town of Inawashiro is a memorial hall to honor NOGUCHI Hideyo, a famous bacteriologist whose likeness is printed on 1,000 yen bills.
North of Mount Bandai stretches a plateau called ura (rear) Bandai, where Goshiki Numa (a cluster of lakes) is located. A 3.6 kilometer hiking trail through the area offers views of ten large and small lakes showing different colors, such as cobalt blue, red and emerald green, depending on the minerals contained within them.
“The three tears of Aizu,” is an Aizu expression describing the way visitors there typically behave. This expression means: visitors to Aizu first cry over the difficulty of fitting in with the people there, then when they are accepted they are moved to tears by how compassionate the people are, and finally, they shed tears of sadness when they leave the city.
To get to Aizuwakamatsu City from Tokyo, travel on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line for roughly one hour and 20 minutes to JR Koriyama Station. There, transfer to the JR Banetsusai Line and travel for about one hour and five minutes to Aizuwakamatsu Station. An expressway bus, which takes approximately four hours and 30 minutes, is also available from Shinjuku.
Text: SHIBATA Rie