Following in the footsteps of the Samurai of Fukushima
We began our junket in Shirakawa, Fukushima prefecture. The leaves were turning and the scenery was beautiful. First on our stop was the castle. The pine trees on the grounds Shirakawa Komine Castle were immaculate and the main gate was imposing. What I learned on this trip was that what I had previously thought were Japanese castles were not the castles but actually just the watch towers or keeps called Tenshukaku which can be translated to something like, "pavilion to protect the heavens". But all in all, it is these fortified keeps that are the most impressive. It is the watch tower that looks imposing and grand. In Shirakawa we were able to visit and climb the tower and see interesting triangle and square arrow loops and riffle loops.
From there we rode our bikes passed the canals and arrived at a popular ramen shop to enjoy the local delicacies. On the menu was shoyu ramen and gyoza. The locals were open and friendly. The food was delicious. Afterwards we were treated to the experience of painting cranes and turtles on the nationally famous Shirakawa Bodhidharma dolls or Daruma, as they are known in Japanese. Let me explain. Back in the early 19th century, the realm was ruled but a great reformer and feudal lord named Matsudaira Sadanobu. Lord Matsudaira hired the famous painter Tani Buncho to come up with a Daruma design that incorporated the ever lucky Sino Japanese symbols of the crane, turtle, pine, bamboo and plum. Nearly two hundred years later, their collaboration lives on. His brows are cranes, the beard/moustache are turtles, his sideburns are pine and plum, and finally his soul patch/chin beard is bamboo. Though it was a bit of a struggle to emulate the great artisans painting with us in the daruma factory, it was all in all a delightful experience.
The lord Matsudaira was a truely extraordinary ruler in that he made the first ever scenic park for commoners. It is at this park where we were able to visit after painting the daruma. The famous park is called Nanko Koen and it has a lake surrounded by cherry and maple trees which can be viewed from a traditional tea house. The selection of cherry and maple make it a splendid choice to visit in spring when the sakura flowers blossom and in the fall when the maple turn a lovely red and yellow.
We closed the day by revisiting the Shirakawa Komine Castle and were met with the spectacular light show. Colored lights were projected on the fortress walls which was all visible from the samurai themed gift shop and restaurant across the courtyard. The legacy and presence of the historical Shirakawa domain and its reforming feudal lord are yet to be found in modern day Shirakawa city. It is a surprisingly lesser known but amazing place to visit.
From Shirakawa, those of us on the junket were treated to the most amazing days in Ouichijuku and Aizu city. These places are well traveled and have been written about extensively. So I will leave it to other fellow travellers to expound on the beauty of those places. What excited me on this junket was the two lesser known but equally fascinating cities of Shirakawa and our final destination, the great city of Nihonmatsu. Unlike Shirakawa, which is on the southern border of Fukushima prefecture, the city of Nihonmatsu is situated in the centre of Fukushima prefecture and sits between the larger cities of Koriyama City and Fukushima City. Upon arrival I could not help but be mesmerised by the family crest or Kamon of Niiwa clan which was the family of the ruling feudal lords. The crest is extremely rare and is none other than a simple X, not unlike the cross of St. Andrew. However, unlike that which is found on such flags as that of Scotland, the Niiwa clan's "X" is not slanted but the cross bars are perpendicular and intersect at ninety degree angles. This beautiful crest is seen in a variety of places from the temples to shrines and of course the castle.
When we arrived at the castle, we were pleasantly surprised to see the chrysanthemum festival in full swing. The flowers were gorgeous and the pageantry was spectacular. They had wax mannequins all dress up in a variety of chrysanthemum flowers. The mannequins were that of famous people but mostly characters from the Boshin-war which was the civil war that was fought to bring Japan into modernity. At the center of the flower pageant was the Shonentai. What we learned was that the Shonentai (Nihonmatsu boys brigade, or youth corps) are lesser known than their contemporaries the Byakkotai(another boy brigade from the Aizu domain), but no less amazing.
They were the boys who were left to defend the castle as the adult troops were off fighting the Imperial court or new government troops. The corps which included 62 boys, ages twelve to seventeen, fought valiantly. Seventeen of them died during the battle and they ultimately failed in defending the castle. At the feudal clans official grave site, not far from the castle, there remains a memorial to the boys which travellers can see today. The friendly guide described the scene where the leader of the youth corps was injured on that very site and demanded his fellow adolescent soldiers to decapitate him so that they could quickly return with his head to defend the castle. The story left all those in attendance mesmerised as
we tried our best to imagine what it was like to have grown up in the age of the samurai. This heavy sense of pain was quickly forgotten when we were able to enjoy one of the main products of industry from Nihonmatsu. Namely,Sake. The Sake we were treated to was extremely dry and tasty. Not unlike the taste of Champagne, albeit without the fizz. It was perhaps the best sake I have ever tasted.
Fukushima has many famous places to visit most notably the former Aizu domain. But I was surprised to see these other two hidden gems, the cities of Shirakawa and Nihonmatsu, and I cannot recommend them enough.
Samurai Spirit Tourism