Stepping back to the samurai era

Lyna Mohammad

Anyone remembers the award-winning movie, The Last Samurai? While the box office film starring Tom Cruise released in 2003, I am sure many still remember it – at least the interesting parts.

What I am going to share is not fully related to the movie but stems from my recent experience of going on a walk through the era of the samurai in Aizu Bukeyashiki (Samurai Mansion), which was one of the stops for the ASEAN Journalists Visit Programme to Japan in early February.

In the Fukushima Prefecture, beautiful snowflakes welcomed our arrival at the mansion, and being there felt like we were going back to the era of the samurai.

First, a bit of the history: the samurai were the hereditary military nobility and officer caste of medieval and early-modern Japan from the 12th Century to their abolition in the 1870s. Samurai were the well-paid retainers of the daimyo (the great feudal landholders) and the term originally denoted the aristocratic warriors (bushi), but it came to apply to members of the warrior class who rose to power in the 12th Century, and ruled the country until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

The samurai of the Kamakura Period, emerging from provincial warrior bands, developed a disciplined culture distinct with their military skills and deep pride in their stoicism, from the earlier, quiet refinement of the Imperial Court.

A display at the Samurai Mansion
Tsuruga Castle compound

Under the growing influence of Zen Buddhism during the Muromachi Period in the 13th to 15th Centuries, many uniquely Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony and flower arranging were produced by the samurai culture and continue to today.

An ideal samurai was supposed to be a stoic warrior following an unwritten code of conduct and later formalised as bushido, which held bravery, honour, and personal loyalty above life itself.

A ritual suicide by seppuku or disembowelment was institutionalised as a respected alternative for dishonour or defeat.

Aizu Bukeyashiki is a historical site of reconstructed samurai residences during the Edo period with preserved sections including the residences of the former chief councillor Tanomo Saigo, a magistrate’s office and a replica of the Rinkaku tearoom of Tsuruga Castle.

Visitors can learn about the samurai’s lifestyle and the Boshin war, which was a rebellion against the newly formed Meiji government at the museum on site.

The Saigo residence is open to the public from mid-December to early April, so we were lucky to visit the mansion during the opening period.

Inside, there were a variety of Aizu’s traditional cultural experiences, including painting the local lucky charms Akabeko (red cattle), glass engraving and having your picture taken dressed as a villager of the Edo period.

For me, there was one spot that left a lasting impression – the living room where seppuku took place. I looked at each one of the displays narrating the incident: a lady dressed in white holding her baby kneeling down before an armoured man.

I was told this was a scene where family members of the killed samurai conducted the ritual to die in honour. One may say it’s just a display like any other, but I felt a pinching pain in my heart, which was made even more heart wrenching by the background music.

Making my way out of the artefacts and accessories display, I headed over to the next block to join the rest.

Taking our shoes off, we were asked to put on room slippers before stepping inside the building with numerous rooms.

We peeked into the rooms and most of us took pictures of the various displays, such as one showcasing a tea ceremony.

When time was up, our guides Keiko and Ken ushered us back to the bus as we needed to make one last stop before heading down to the train station for our return trip to Tokyo.

The last stop was the magnificent castle of Tsuruga, rebuilt as a concrete reconstruction in the 1960s and renovation works were completed in 2011 to make way for the safety of visitors to the seven-storey castle. The colour of the roof tiles reverted from grey to the original red, which is a unique colour among Japanese castles.

Initially built in 1384, the castle changed hands between different rulers of the Aizu region and was destroyed after the Boshin War in 1868.

The Meiji Government took over control from the Tokugawa shogun, putting an end to Japan’s feudal era. However, Tsuruga Castle was one of the last strongholds of samurai loyal to the shogunate. The scenery was covered in white, except thinner than the other places we visited. The surrounding river around the castle was almost covered with snow. It was quite a long walk to the castle entrance but with the weather and photo stops, we didn’t feel tired as we made our way up.

Tickets in hand, our group queued up to view the displays, suits of armour and weaponry at every level before we ended up on the seventh floor, which is the tower section of the castle.

We were told the castle tower’s stone walls survived a devastating earthquake in 1611 and stand in their original form.

Looking out from the tower provided a breathtaking view of the city and the castle’s surroundings, and I just can’t imagine how beautiful the view would be in spring and autumn, as the castle is famous for its thousand Cherry Blossom trees, illuminated at night to show off the vividly changing colours of the leaves.

During winter at the castle, which is open as a museum, visitors enjoy a panoramic view of the city of Aizuwakamatsu from the top floor. The place fills with visitors during the “Aizue Candle Festival” in winter and the view of the snow-covered castle illuminated by traditional hand-decorated candles is unforgettable, so they say.

The Rinkaku tearoom in the Tsuruga Castle Park, built by the tea master Sen no Rikyu’s son-in-law, is the perfect place to enjoy a cup of tea in the castle’s traditional garden.

After more than an hour of exploring the castle and having the chance to grab souvenirs, our group was ushered to the nearby restaurant for a quick late lunch before heading to the train station, finally bidding sayonara to Fukushima Prefecture.