Destination Spotlight

Tsurugajo Castle & the Meiji Restoration

Tsurugajo Castle & the Meiji Restoration

Tsurugajo Castle is a popular spot to visit among tourists coming to Fukushima. Whether you’re discovering the samurai history of Aizu-Wakamatsu City in the castle museum, relaxing while taking a sip of freshly-prepared matcha at Rinkaku Tea Rooms, or snapping some photos from the observatory on the top floor of the castle, Tsurugajo is an epic destination for visitors to Japan, and an absolute treasure trove for history buffs.

WHAT MAKES AIZU-WAKAMATSU CITY SPECIAL?

Aizu-Wakamatsu City, surrounded on all sides by mountains, has been a bustling, scenic castle town for centuries. The region’s climate is thought to have enabled regional agricultural prosperity, which led to rich cultural developments. From the Sengoku Period (1467 – 1568) right up to the end of the Edo Period (1868), Aizu – with Aizu-Wakamatsu City at its heart – was ruled by successions of powerful warlords who revered Aizu for its strategic location as the gateway to the Tohoku Region. As the Sengoku Period came to a close, Aizu was blessed with a 225 year period of relative peace and stability, allowing for the flourishing of the arts and culture (like tea ceremony and martial arts) to take place. Aizu-Wakamatsu City became a hub of Japanese culture – and this can be still be experienced today.

WHEN WAS TSURUGAJO CASTLE BUILT?

Tsurugajo Castle was originally built as a palace in 1384 and underwent key structural changes in the centuries that followed as ruler succeeded ruler. Probably the most important structural change was the construction of a seven-story castle tower at the request of Sengoku Era Feudal Lord Gamo Ujisato in the 2nd half of the 16th century, which gave Tsurugajo its recognizable form of a Japanese castle. The castle tower was reduced to a five-story tower sometime after the conclusion of Ujisato’s feudal rule. For 225 years, starting from 1643, Aizu was held and ruled by the Matsudaira Clan from 1643. The castle was destroyed by the Meiji Government in 1874 in response to the castle’s role in fighting to keep the old regime in power.

HOW OLD IS THE CASTLE YOU CAN VISIT TODAY?

The castle was reformed in 1965 and had its signature red tiles replace in 2011. That being said, the stone walls that made up the base of the castle area and moat remain from the original castle.

WHY IS TSURUGAJO CASTLE SO IMPORTANT?

1) THE CASTLE IS A SYMBOL OF SAMURAI LOYALTY AND COURAGE

Throughout the Boshin War of 1868 (during which loyal followers of the Tokugawa Regime fought against Imperial forces, which eventually led to the Meiji Restoration), Tsurugajo Castle gained a reputation as being an impregnable fortress. At the peak of the war, Tsurugajo Castle withstood over a month of heavy fire from the forces of the would-be Meiji Government. In 1868, Tokugawa forces (including Aizu) lost to the imperial faction – signifying the end of the Boshin War and the end of the age of samurai. The battle at Tsurugajo Castle is thought to have been one of the very last big battles leading up to the conclusion of the Tokugawa Era.


2) WITHOUT TSURUGAJO CASTLE THERE MIGHT NOT BE ANY TEA CEREMONY.

Feudal Lord Gamo Ujisato took the son of the 16th-century tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyu under his wing and brought him to Aizu, where he was raised. The tea rooms at Tsurugajo Castle are thought to have played an important role in the continued development of Japan’s school of tea ceremony. The son of Sen no Rikyu built the tea house Rinkaku that stands on the grounds of Tsurugajo Castle. This tea house was actually moved and hidden during the period of political unrest that occurred during the fired decades of the Meiji Restoration, in order to avoid its destruction alongside the castle. If this tea house had been destroyed, it might have had a catastrophic effect on the expansion and development of the tea ceremony practice prevalent in Japan today.

3) IT’S DEEPLY CONNECTED WITH THE LEGACY OF THE BYAKKOTAI

Everyone in Fukushima Prefecture knows the legacy of the Byakkotai – a group of 20 young samurai warriors who had trained at the prestigious samurai school Aizu Hanko Nisshinkan. At the height of the Boshin War, the Byakkotai warriors fled to the top of Mt. Iimoriyama. From the top of Mt Iimoriyama, the Byakkotai boys saw Tsurugajo Castle in flames. Assuming this meant the loss of the war, the boys attempted ritual suicide there on top of the hill. Of the 20 that attempted seppuku, 1 boy survived to tell the tale. The 19 boys who died on top of Mt. Iimoriyama were buried there and became legendary, hailed as heroes for their bravery and loyalty.

4) IT’S THE ONLY CASTLE IN JAPAN WITH RED ROOF TILES

This reason is a little simpler than the others. The red roof tiles are really iconic and look beautiful when they contrast against the white snows of winter.

WHAT’S INSIDE THE CASTLE?

Tsurugajo Castle tower is laid out like a museum. As you move up the floors, you are gradually led through the history of the city, leading right up to and beyond the fall of the Aizu Clan. Many interesting artefacts, including historic scrolls and katanas, are displayed in the museum. There are no elevators in the castle, but you are rewarded for your climb up the flights of stairs that make up the castle tower when you reach the panoramic view waiting for you at the top. On the way back down, there’s an area on the ground floor where kids can dress up like samurai!

See here for information on entrance fees, opening hours and more.

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  1. Useful Information

    Guide to Visiting the Famous Tadami River Bridge Viewpoint

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GET TO AIZU-MIYASHITA STATION To reach Mishima-juku, take the JR Tadami Line (JR只見線) from Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (会津若松駅)  to Aizu-Miyashita Station (会津宮下駅): One-way costs ¥860 and is covered by the JR East Rail Pass. The train ride takes approximately one hour and twenty minutes. Get your camera ready because the views from the train are beautiful! See here for information on getting to Aizu-Wakamatsu Station from Tokyo, Sendai etc.   2.) TAKE THE BUS FROM AIZU-MIYASHITA STATION TO MISHIMA-JUKU A commuter bus leaves Aizu Miyashita Station Monday to Saturdays at 8:10 a.m., and arrives at Mishima-juku approximately 5 minutes later. The commuter bus doesn’t run on Sundays or Japanese National Holidays. No booking is necessary for this bus. Please pay the driver upon exiting the bus. The one-way fare is ¥500 for adults and ¥300 for children (under 12 years). 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For more information on catching these buses, take a look at this information provided by Oku-Aizu.     WHEN TO SNAP YOUR PHOTOS The most famous pictures taken at the Tadami River Bridge No. 1 Viewpoint are those taken when the train carriage passes over the bridge. The train that you can see from afar is passing between Aizu Nishikata Station and Aizu Hinohara Station. Below I’ve listed the times that you can view the trains passing over the Tadami Bridge (Correct as of November 2022). Please note that the train only runs Monday to Friday, and doesn’t run on Japanese National Holidays, nor from December 30th to January 3rd. AIZU NISHIKATA STATION (会津西方駅) TO AIZU HINOHARA STATION  (会津桧原駅) (Passing from left to right as seen from the viewpoint) 06:03 - 06:07 07:39 - 07:43 09:18 - 09:22 13:01 - 13:05 16:06 - 16:10 AIZU HINOHARA STATION (会津桧原駅) TO AIZU NISHIKATA STATION  (会津西方駅) (Passing from right to left) 07:21 - 07:26 08:59 – 09:04 14:21 – 14:25 18:13 – 18:17 Please note: I haven’t listed trains that leave later than 19:00, as you wouldn’t get a good view of the train regardless of the season. The times listed above may change depending on the season or on weather conditions so please check an up-to-date timetable for the JR Tadami Line in winter through the official page (available only in Japanese) or call the JR infoline number to find out the latest information (English, Chinese and Korean support is available). As you can tell from the information above, the commuter bus arrives nearby the viewpoint at 8:15, which means you’d make it in time to watch the train passing from 8:59 to 9:04. However, passengers on the commuter bus cannot reach the viewpoint in time to see a number of the earlier trains passing over the tracks. For those who want to see these earlier trains (especially the extremely early 6:0 3 train which looks absolutely spectacular in the early morning summer mist), I recommend staying overnight in Miyashita Onsen town.   STAYING IN MIYASHITA ONSEN (宮下温泉) For those who would like to stay overnight in Miyashita in order to see the first train cross over the Tadami Bridge, take a look at the accommodation information listed below: Miyashita Onsen Eikokan Miyashita Onsen Furusato-so (website here) Oku-Aizu Nonbirikan (website here) Guesthouse Sokokashiko  (website here) These ryokan and guesthouses have some experience with guests from abroad. See Mishima’s Tourism Website for more information about local ryokan.   ABOUT THE JR TADAMI LINE The JR Tadami Line crosses approximately 135 km of beautiful Japanese countryside, passing through 36 stations along the way. See here for more information about the stops and timetable. Due to damage caused by heavy rains in 2011, service was suspended for certain parts of Tadami Line, but on October 1, 2022, the entire line resumed operations after almost 11 years. The Tadami Line is operated by JR East, so you can use the Tohoku JR East Pass (Tohoku Area) to ride on this line! If you’d like to know more about the many attractions along the Tadami line, there is an official guidebook in English available on the Tadami Line website. See below for an English-language tourist map we made of Mishima Town (三島町) (Miyashita Onsen [宮下温泉] and Hayato Onsen [早戸温泉]).

    Guide to Visiting the Famous Tadami River Bridge Viewpoint
  2. Useful Information

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    Visiting the most Extreme Wild Onsen in Japan!
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    Ouchi-juku Kimono Experience

    On a clear autumn morning, I stepped out in a bright purple kimono, tabi socks and wooden sandals, my hair up in a pink flower kanzashi hair pin and a cloth purse in hand. The sky looked sparkling blue in the quiet town of Ouchi-juku, located between the mountains of the Japanese countryside. What happened next was unforgettable. The Start of my Ouchi-juku Kimono Experience “Kimono is for everyone”, the kimono specialist, a middle-aged woman with a thick Aizu accent, reassured me. Few garments are as universal and inclusive as kimono. Sunlight was timidly spilling into the room through the translucent paper windows when my kimono experience began. We were in a wide room parched with tatami floors, warming up close to a heater. First, using a kanzashi hair pin, she quickly and effortlessly arranged my hair. Next, it was time for me to pick my kimono. Kimono means ‘a thing to wear’ in Japanese, and is a timeless item of clothing adaptable to different body types and designed to last for generations. I opted for a bright purple kimono that matched the fuchsia flowers on my hair. I put on white tabi socks and a black cloth bag with embroidered cherry blossoms. As a cat lover, I was delighted when the staff suggested I wear a white obi with pictures of cats. That same kimono must’ve been worn by many before me. Kimono has no sizes and is a timeless piece. In the face of ultra-fast fashion (and its subsequent toll in the environment), this sustainable and inclusive garment has stood the test of time and remains as relevant as ever. Welcoming as it is, kimono does have its intricacies—for one, you need someone to fit you into it. The kimono specialist will answer all the questions you may have, as well as teach you a few local secrets to make your visit even more memorable. Booking a kimono experience brings you closer to Japanese culture in more ways than one. Stepping into the Past: Picture-perfect Ouchi-juku Ouchi-juku is an old town preserved to look exactly the way it did 300 years ago. Rows of thatched roof handcraft shops and restaurants, no cars nor electricity poles on the streets and little streams shushing along the road, it’s a postcard-like gem hidden between the mountains of the Aizu region. Either people in Ouchi-juku are extremely welcoming or the kimono was truly special, because visitors and locals alike would go out of their way to compliment me or even ask to take my picture. Elderly ladies tending for the shops would greet me with a broad smile and a friendly “kawaii, desune!” (‘You look very cute!’). It was a lovely way to connect with everyone—the flowery kimono helped start many warm conversations. A Taste of Aizu Samurai’s Soul Foods It finally was time to sit down for a meal. If you visit Ouchi-juku, make sure to build up some hunger and indulge in local specialties. This is what I ordered and would recommend you try! Takatosoba (高遠そば) is Ouchi-juku’s signature dish: buckwheat noodles served with grated radish soup and eaten with a green onion. The radish used in this dish is called ‘azagi daikon’ and grows naturally in the Aizu mountains. It smells as tangy as it tastes. What makes this dish unique is that you eat it with a green onion instead of chopsticks or a spoon. You’re welcome to bite into the green onion, too, once you’re done.     Nishin no sanshosuke (にしんの山椒漬)is pickled herring with sansho (Japanese pepper). The herring was buttery soft and marinated in soy sauce. The Japanese pepper leaves on top had a strong but refreshing taste. Kozuyu (こづゆ) is a staple dish of the region, said to have been a favorite of the Aizu samurai. It’s made up of a hearty scallop broth, fish cakes, carrots, konjac noodles and gluten croutons. This delicately presented dish is the perfect way to warm-up during cold days. Sweet soybean flour-flavored tochimochi (栃もち・きな粉) was my personal favorite. These two chewy, warm and powdery mochi were arguably the best I’ve had in over four years that I’ve been living in Japan. Each bite had just the right amount of sweet, with the sweet soy flour kinako powder sprinkled on top leaving behind an almond-like aftertaste.   The Most Instagrammable View of Ouchi-juku The best view of Ouchi-juku can be found after a short walk through the main street towards the shrine. Climb up the stone stairs and you’ll find yourself in front of a famous photo spot overseeing the traditional minka houses, mountains stretching out in the background. In spite of its striking beauty, this town remains quiet and rarely sees crowds, making it perfect for visitors who enjoy taking their time to explore places off the beaten path. After looking through the pictures of that day, I noticed that the prints of kimono look even more vivid against the backdrop of Ouchi-juku’s earthy hues. Strolling through such a well-preserved historical site in a kimono was a one-in-a-lifetime experience. If you’d like to wear a kimono in Ouchi-juku, read more about the Ouchi-juku Edo Time Slip and Kimono Tour, which includes a two-hour stroll in a kimono, matcha and sweets at a traditional tea house, and entry to the townscape exhibition hall where you can learn more about the way of life way back then at Ouchi-juku.

    Ouchi-juku Kimono Experience
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