The idea of a Samurai School conjures images of swords, bows, armour and warfare in most western minds. But in reality the real Samurai schools were Japan’s historic equivalent of our elite private schools today, set to train the sons (sorry girls there were no places for you) of the ruling samurai military class in the ways of their forbears.
The curriculum was extensive, and designed to turn out a fully rounded, and grounded, adult who was much more than a warrior. Alongside swordplay and archery, domestic cleaning and cooking, calligraphy, astronomy and much more were taught.
Aizu Clan Nisshinkan School is a fully restored example, rebuilt from the remains and plans of the school that lay within the castle town grounds of Aizuwakamatsu. The original school and much else, including Tsuragajo castle, was devastated in the Boshin Civil War of 1868.
The Aizu Clan were among the last supporters of the Tokugawa shogunate against the modernising forces of the new Meiji government – as portrayed with poetic licence in The Last Samurai – and suffered in the defeat. Losing land, titles and livelihoods, many of those who survived were exiled to the tip of northern Honshu.
Visiting the Samurai School provides a fascinating glimpse into the period, and the lives of the students. The extensive grounds and buildings are divided into areas for furthering different studies, and the classroom scenes have been faithfully recreated with lifesize, and very lifelike, figurines portraying the activities undertaken.
Most feature excellent English captions so it’s easy to work out what’s on display if that’s not obvious. Nice to show the teenagers how Samurai kids learnt to scrub walls and floors!
One of Japan’s first swimming pools was another surprise. We are not talking indoor heated here kids, no, outdoor, bloody cold most of the year no doubt, and you learnt to swim in armor while keeping weapons dry.
As you would expect, Zen precepts play an important role, and the teachings of Confucius were central at Samurai School. Learning by rote and repetition of verses and calligraphy classes helped inculcate these in the minds of the young students.
Talent was recognised: there was no set time to progress through the system, talented kids could rise more quickly through it, which helped identify future leaders.
The schools were not boarding, the kids went back home to their families at night, with the school originally centrally situated within the fortified town surrounded by a moat.
These days no visit is complete without enjoying some participatory activities like Kyudo – Japanese archery, painting, Zazen meditation or tea ceremony. No prizes for guessing which we opted for ..
There is something to engage all ages. The exhibit room with relics and mementos from the Boshin War and Aizu Clan exile period are particularly poignant.
One 15 year old exiled ex-student wrote to his mother complaining about the lack of food; she replied admonishing him for worrying about that while conditions back in Aizu were also tough. Her letter back fell out of his pocket, was seen by others who mocked him for it, so he committed hari kiri. At 15.
Yep, it was a tough school Samurai School, but Nisshinkan is well worth visiting when you are in the beautiful Aizu region.
Aizu Clan Nisshinkan Samurai School info, rates, access
Nisshikan is only a 20 minute or so taxi ride from Aizuwakamatsu Station (about ￥2,500).
Entry is ￥620 adults, ￥500 high school and ￥450 elementary school kids. Activities are a few hundred yen more.