We started the day with a bit of a lie in and weren’t on the road until 7am. We were heading up into the mountains to explore Goshiki-numa (Five coloured marshes), a collection of strange coloured ponds in the mountains north of Aizuwakamatsu, in Bandai-Asahi National Park. It was quite a fun drive going up the Bandaisan Golden line, a windy mountain road which has stunning views of Mount Bandai and the surrounding landscape. With the oncoming winter season, Bandai was even sporting a little snow on the peak!
As with many sightseeing roads in Japan there were a number of parking points to take a few photos. Unfortunately nature got us again and a large section of the mountain side was under repair, meaning the two waterfalls accessible from this road were no longer accessible. We reached Goshiki-numa a little early as none of the stores were open, after searching and finding a toilet we put on our hiking boots for our first autumn hike! It was a very easy hike, only taking an hour in each direction, which takes you alongside each of the main ponds.
The first part of the hike was serene, the only sound the jangling of bear bells (there were aggressive bears in the area) and the snap of camera shutters. This all changed once we reached the opposite end of hike, a popular visitor centre packed full of tour buses. We quickly retreated back to the calm nature trail, and made our way back to the car. The ponds/marshes were all really interesting to see, being various shades of topaz and emerald, thanks to volcanic activity in the area. Our hiking was done by 11am thanks to our early start, and so we headed back down the mountain to Aizuwakamatsu.
Once we were done up in the mountains we headed back down, we attempted to access the two waterfalls that are to the side of the Bandai golden line, but the road was closed off due to rock slides. One of the most interesting things about Aizuwakamatsu is it’s history as a samurai power during the Edo period. Aizuwakamatsu was home to what is referred to as the top samurai school in all of Japan, The Nisshin-kan School.
Male children of the Aizu clan of samurai families were sent to the school from the age of 10. The Nisshin-kan School also had the first swimming pool in all of Japan, where the students learned to swim in full samurai armour!
Although the school was destroyed it has been fully restored. It was super interesting wandering around the school. All the classrooms had been set up with mannequins to demonstrate all the different classes and subjects that were studied. One interesting aspect of the school was the shrine to Confucius! Most schools held Confucius as their patron of education, and the rules of the school reflected his teachings. In school the students would learn swordsmanship, archery, riding, survival, and as time went on the use of guns and cannons! If you’re in Aizuwakamatsu I would 100% recommend visiting the school, it was so interesting. You can even get involved with activities, we tried archery, but you can also paint akabeko!
Our next stop was a place I was really looking forward to, Sazaedo Temple. Sazaedo Temple is possibly the most unique temple in all of Japan as it is build around a double helix staircase, within a hexagonal frame! I’d only ever seen this on an NHK show and it looked absolutely stunning! To get to the temple you have to go up quite a lot of stairs, or pay for a super long escalator ride. We headed up the stairs, and once we got to the top, it was a little disappointing! This rarely ever happens when I visit somewhere in Japan, but Sazaedo wasn’t what I had expected. Of course the architectural marvel of it was as advertised, however the temple was just plonked in a concrete area with ramshackle shops behind it. We went up the double helix staircase, and it was stunning inside, but not quite what I had anticipated.
Our final stop on our historical tour of Aizuwakamatsu was to Aizuwakamatsu castle, also known as Tsuruga castle. The castle was a huge part of the samurai history of the region, and was the site of the final battle Boshin War. It was a drawn out seige and ended with the castle being sevrely damaged, and later torn down. Aizuwakamatsu castle has now been rebuilt, but it still sat within the beautiful grounds, full of cherry blossom trees. Although there are a number of reconstructed castles in Japan this one really stands out thanks to the red roof tiles used on the five levels of the castle. This reflects the original build, and is how the castle got the name Tsuruga, as the white and red of the castle reflects the colours of the crane.
I wasn’t sure I would enjoy exploring a reconstructed castle, especially as I had already visited two of the most impressive castles in Japan, Matsumoto and Himeji. The grounds were really beautiful, with a lot of the original defensive walls still in tact. At the time we visited they had started to uncover and reconstruct other parts of the castle too. The inside of the reconstructed keep was a history tour as you walked up each level, showing the history of the Aizu clan leaders, the history of the school, and the eventual end of the Aizu samurai clan. The castle itself has a fee but the grounds are free to enter, and I’d recommend having a look. The castle is lit up red at night which gives it a great atmosphere after dark.
Aizuwakamatsu is an amazing town and I’d definitely suggest you visit for a day or so as there is so much history here!