It starts to snow soon after the train leaves Koriyama, and further inland at Aizu Wakamatsu the snow is knee deep. My hosts, Nobuyuki and Mikiko, are waiting at the station. I’m relieved to see they’ve brought boots for me.
Aizu has been part of my life for years. A good part of my new novel, “Across a Bridge of Dreams,” is set there. I’ve read everything I can find about it: Shiba Goro’s moving memoir, “Remembering Aizu”; “Okei,” Saotome Mitsugu’s novel based around the city’s calamitous fall; and academic papers about the domain and its warriors. I’ve studied pictures, too, and have imagined myself walking the streets of samurai houses beneath the towering white walls of Tsuruga-jo — Crane Castle — with the River Yukawa running alongside, lined with willows.
But I’ve never actually been there.
The Aizu I write about ceased to exist in 1868, when the city was sacked, and I’d thought it best not to muddy my imaginings. But now the book is finished, I can’t wait to see the place I’ve lived in in my imagination for so long. I’m thrilled to be visiting at last.
Bone-chillingly freezing though it is, my first impression is that Aizu Wakamatsu is truly beautiful. Now home to some 125,000 people, the city is spread across a plain with hills all around, glittering with snow. The streets are laid out in a grid. Thick-walled storehouses with a criss-cross plaster design along the base were features of the old city. We pass Shibukawa Donya, a general store preserved from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) with its black walls and wooden latticework windows. Snow lies in a thick crust on its steep tiled roofs and icicles hang from the eaves.
Several of the storehouses along the main street now have long cracks sustained during the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. Aizu is in Fukushima Prefecture, 100 km from the stricken nuclear power plant, and the shaking was strong enough to send people running out of their houses. But, says Nobuyuki, two mountain ranges separate the city from the reactors in meltdown on the Pacific coast. And as radiation does not cross mountains, he tells me, people here aren’t worried about that.
Tourists, however, both Japanese and those from overseas, all canceled and few have returned. Communities of refugees have relocated here, in theory temporarily, though no one knows when they will be able to go back to their homes in contaminated areas or to new ones yet to be built in place of those destroyed by the tsunami. At least my visit is a sign that normality is returning.
I’m eager to see the castle. We cross the bridge that spans the moat between great granite ramparts. In spring the expansive grounds are awash with cherry blossom. And there before me the donjon’s glistening white walls soar, with its red-tiled roofs laden with snow and ornamental dolphins flipping their tails at the ends of the roof beams. It’s a reconstruction, but it’s elegant and imposing and very moving to behold.
We walk up the steps to the first of the castle’s five floors. These days the entire interior is a museum, celebrating the city’s glorious past and commemorating its fall.
In pride of place there is a photograph of the seventh daimyo, Matsudaira Katamori, taken in the 1860s. He is young, serious, intense, with a long, thin face, sitting wearing his swords and robes and headdress of office. The floors display princely treasures that once filled the castle — racks of swords and long-handled naginata halberds, armor, moustachioed helmets, gold-embroidered kimonos, screens, tea-ceremony bowls and calligraphy. Old photographs and stylized paintings show the city and the siege and fall of the castle.
Aizu Wakamatsu was once the fortified heart of the Aizu domain, one of the most powerful in the country, famous for its education system and strict samurai code. People spoke of the “Aizu spirit.” At its school, the Nisshinkan, young men studied Chinese and Japanese classics, Confucian doctrine, astronomy, arithmetic and medicine alongside martial skills.
The trouble began in the early 1860s. The southwestern clans, who were the ruling Tokugawa shoguns’ ancient enemies, plotted to overthrow the incumbent Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi, and by 1862 samurai — particularly of the Choshu clan — had swarmed into Kyoto and were fighting and assassinating shogunal officials. Katamori, a member of the shogun’s family and one of his most stalwart allies, was appointed Protector of Kyoto, charged with restoring order. He was reluctant to take the post — perhaps he sensed it was a poisoned chalice — but as a loyal retainer he had no choice.
For five years Aizu men fought on the streets of Kyoto and in its inns and byways with Satsuma warriors from Kyushu and their Choshu allies from present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture, and an implacable hatred developed between the rivals.
In the end, of course, the shogun’s side lost. In 1867, Iemochi’s successor, Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu, abdicated and handed over power to Emperor Meiji, thus bringing about the Meiji Restoration. Overnight the Aizu people found themselves on the wrong side. The new regime, headed by Satsuma and Choshu, ordered the military subjugation of Aizu, and in autumn 1868 government armies headed north, picking off city after city until, in October, they arrived at the gates of Aizu Wakamatsu.
Most of the Aizu men were away defending other northern cities. The people remaining there knew they were doomed but were determined to resist. The Imperial troops settled down to besiege the city. Then they burned it to the ground and surrounded the castle, pounding it with cannon fire night and day. More and more troops arrived until there were 30,000 men encamped outside the walls. Holed up inside were 3,000 warriors and 1,500 women and children. The women cooked, tore their clothes into bandages and threw wet sacks over cannonballs as they landed to stop them exploding — while children flew kites as a mark of defiance.
But after a month the defenders were out of food and ammunition. A painting shows Katamori surrendering to the general of the Imperial troops. What was left of the castle was demolished in 1874. Amazingly for those times, after being kept under house arrest in Tokyo, Katamori’s life was spared. He later became Chief Priest of Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, where the first of the Tokugawa shoguns, Ieyasu, is enshrined. He died on Dec. 5, 1893.
From the top of the reconstructed donjon we gaze down on the battlements and the daimyo’s physic garden, now buried under snow, and out across the city to Mount Iimori. The story most associated with Aizu is that of the Byakkotai (White Tiger Brigade), and their tragic deaths have come to symbolize the sack of this once mighty domain.
When the city was first attacked, the Byakkotai, a force of some 300 teenage samurai, charged out but were beaten back. Twenty were separated from their comrades and retreated to Mount Iimori. Seeing smoke and flames rising from the city they thought all was lost and committed seppuku. One lived to tell the tale. On Mount Iimori the row of graves pokes from the snow with quiet dignity, while a museum there houses mementos of the young warriors.
The next day the sky is blue and sunlight glitters on the white fields. Snow walls the road. We visit some friends of Nobuyuki and Mikiko. Their house is completely buried and we have to climb up steps cut into the snow and down the other side to reach the front door. Across the road the weight of snow on a barn has ripped the two halves of the roof apart.
From there we move on to the house of Saigo Tanomo, where snow blankets the grounds and etches the tiled roof of the entrance gate. Saigo (no relation to Saigo Takamori, the famous “Last Samurai”) was one of the chief elders of the Aizu domain and his house — also, of course, a reconstruction — is a sprawling 38-room mansion which housed soldiers and servants as well as family members. The treasures on display hint at the domain’s past greatness — a Japanese compass with the directions marked in characters, a telescope and a sundial no bigger than a wristwatch.
There are also photographs. One shows Sutematsu Oyama, a glamorous society lady in a Western gown who was the belle of the Rokumeikan, the Hall of the Baying Stag, where Tokyo’s high society used to waltz in the 1880s. In fact, readers who are also television viewers in Japan will soon be introduced to Sutematsu’s fascinating tale courtesy of NHK’s current Sunday-evening drama, “Yae no Sakura.” This depicts life in Aizu in the mid 19th century, and will feature Sutematsu as a friend of the title character, Yamamoto Yae, the daughter of an Aizu-domain weapons instructor.
At the time of the attack on Aizu, Sutematsu was a child. Shortly after the fall, she was sent to America with three other young girls. She spent 10 years there and went to Vassar College at Poughkeepsie in New York state. Upon returning, she married Gen. Oyama Iwao — a splendid match that much advanced her social position.
Looking at the picture, Nobuyuki snorts, “How could she? How could she marry a Satsuma?” In fact Oyama was not just a Satsuma, but one of the commanders who led the attack on Aizu. Nearly 150 years on, the anger still rankles.
At Enzoji, a beautiful temple in the hills outside the city, there are bullet holes in the walls. As we pick our way across the icy grounds, Nobuyuki plucks a stem of fuki (butterbur). He collects a handful and buries his nose in it. “The smell of spring,” he says. At the end of despair there’s always hope.
Getting there: From Tokyo, take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Koriyama and change onto the Banetsusai Line for Aizu Wakamatsu, where a bus circles all the key locations. The Mukaitaki ryō kan (www.mukaitaki.jp) in Higashiyama Onsen is said to be good. Lesley Downer is a writer and journalist who has written many books on Japan. She lived in Japan for many years and is now based in London. Her latest novel, “Across a Bridge of Dreams,” revolves partly around the fall of Aizu and the fate of the Aizu samurai.