Known for its rich history, vast natural landscapes and culture, Fukushima Prefecture in Japan's northern region of Tohoku is not only a great place to experience much of Japan’s heritage in one trip but is also only a convenient 90-minute bullet train from Tokyo. But what perhaps will linger longest in visitors’ memories is its samurai history, and there are many places in Fukushima that you can travel to today to still feel the samurai spirit and learn of its traditions…
Start in the west of Fukushima in the Aizu region, known for its pine and beech forests (many of which sprang from the ash-enriched soil following the 1888 eruption of Mount Bandai), and once home to the Aizu clan. Aizu-Wakamatsu, dubbed ‘Samurai City’, was the setting for much of the 1868’s Boshin War, a bloody showdown between the samurais and the new government army desperate to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate.
Despite standing strong during the Boshin War, Tsuruga Castle was destroyed less than a decade later during a rebellion against the Meji government that had seized power from the samurais. During a renovation in 2011, the roof was reverted from grey to its original coloured tiled roof, making it the only castle in Japan today with the traditional red-tile roof. Inside, look around the samurai exhibition before climbing to the top floor for views of the surrounding city. Don’t miss the manicured park around the castle which is filled with cherry trees that blossom every April. Nearby, Mount Iimori offers alternative views of the fort and is home to the weathered graves of the Byakkotai (teenage samurai) who in 1868, fearing defeat at the hands of rebels, committed seppuku – (an honourable samurai suicide) to avoid being captured by the enemy.
Some 70km east in Fukushima's Naka-dori district, you'll find Nihonmatsu Castle, which also fell during the Boshin War. The site has since been transformed into a peaceful park. Explore it with a local guide while hearing stories of how life used to be. A good time to visit is in autumn, when the trees are ablaze with golden leaves, and the annual Chrysanthemum Doll Exhibit takes place, which features dolls adorned with chrysanthemums that depict historic stories.
Back in the Aizu region, visit the Higashiyama Onsen. Tucked in a wooded valley, the hot spring was used by generations of feudal lords and samurai warriors. Have a soak to understand why they enjoyed it here so much.