A Trip on the Samurai Train ・ Part 1 ・ Nikko, Tochigi

The Samurai Train

Early this fall, the Japankuru team set off on a trip to recreate the final glory days of samurai in Japan, following warriors from the history books on a route from Tokyo into the north, through Tochigi, Fukushima, and Yamagata Prefectures. In the last years of Japan’s tumultuous Edo period, samurai clans fought one another for power, and for honor, and the rise and fall of those in charge led to intrigue, fallen samurai banished to the sticks, and a string of battles throughout Japan. On this trip, we traced the path of the Boshin War as it brought an end to the days when samurai ruled Japan, by walking the ancient roads the samurai once tread, visiting the castles they once protected, learning in the schools they once attended, and even meeting a few samurai transported to the modern-day, who carry on their own samurai traditions. This trip through Nikko, Aizu, and Yonezawa is the perfect path for Japanese history buffs, fans of samurai culture and Japanese sword-fighting, or anyone who loves to venture off the beaten path to see more of Japan ー so follow the Japankuru team as we hop on the Samurai Train and head back in time!

Day 1: From Asakusa to Nikko, Tochigi

In the late 1860s, international trade and cultural exchange took off around the world, and while the isolated islands of Japan were still largely closed off from most foreign visitors, the growing influence of the outside world was enough to reach even reclusive samurai society. Unhappy with the policies of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate, a handful of samurai clans from western Japan banded together in support of the Japanese emperor and decided to overthrow the shogun ー the beginning of Japan’s Boshin War. This war spelled the end of Japan’s golden age of samurai, the end of the Edo period, and the end of the Tokugawa clan’s rule. Those who were once in power fled from the major cities of Kyoto and Tokyo (then called Edo), finding their way through modern-day Nikko, Aizu-Wakamatsu, and Yonezawa.

So on this trip, we followed the paths of those fleeing samurai and the battles that doggedly followed them as they went, beginning by making our own getaway out of Tokyo!

Meeting Kengishu Kamui on the Skytree Train

Our trip begins at Tobu Asakusa Station, not far from the site of an 1868 Boshin War battle that took place in what is now Ueno Park, and just steps away from Sensoji Temple, which was already ancient at the time of that battle (after being founded in the year 645)! Arranged by Tobu Top Tours*, this itinerary starts with a ride on the Tobu SkytreeTrain, which has huge picture windows and seats facing the windows for great views of Tokyo Skytree on the way out of town.

But as lovely as the Japanese countryside might be out the window, most passengers will definitely be more interested in what’s going on inside the train! To make sure this trip is all about the samurai from the very start, the highlight of this train ride is a performance from “samurai artist” group Kengishu Kamui, led by Tetsuro Shimaguchi. Fans of Kill Bill might already recognize this name, as Tetsuro Shimaguchi is the “Samurai Artist” responsible for the stunning sword-fighting choreography that made the movie so incredibly popular. Shimaguchi directed Kill Bill’s martial arts, and even made a cameo himself, and these days he shows off that same expressive mix of swordplay and performance (which he has dubbed “kengido”) in the shows he does with Kengishu Kamui, even right there in the aisle of the train.

*Tobu Top Tours may not be offering this exact itinerary in the future. If you’re interested in taking a similar trip and would like them to arrange it, contact them and see what’s available!

Arriving at Nikko Toshogu Shrine

After the thrilling onboard samurai performance comes to an end and the train pulls into Nikko station, it’s time to head to this tour’s first destination, a peaceful historic spot that came in contact with the fiery battles of the Boshin War, and found itself mercifully spared. Nikko Toshogu is a beautiful Shinto shrine that was constructed in 1617 as a resting place for Tokugawa Ieyasu ー the very first Tokugawa to rule Japan as shogun.

Nowadays Nikko Toshogu is incredibly popular among sightseers due to the ornate carvings that cover the various gates and shrine buildings, but during the Boshin War, a group of shogun-supporting holdouts fled to the shrine after suffering defeat in a battle in Utsunomiya, a little to the south. Famous Japanese military man and politician Itagaki Taisuke, who supported the new imperial government, arrived at the shrine knowing that he either had to force his enemies out of hiding, or burn down this historic site. We can all be thankful that Itagaki managed to find a way around this conundrum and convince the troops to leave the shrine without causing its destruction!

The fantastic carvings by famous artisan Hidari Jingoro are just one of the reasons that Nikko Toshogu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and some of these colorful decorations are iconic. The three wise monkeys (who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil) are now known the world over, but they actually originated from this one carving at Nikko Toshogu, which depicts a troop of monkeys living by Confucianist codes of conduct! It’s worth taking a moment to really appreciate the many little carved scenes, all over the shrine.

▶︎ More on Nikko Toshogu Shrine here!

Nikko Toshogu Shrine (日光東照宮)
2301 Sannai, Nikko, Tochigi
Official Website (jp)

A Kanaya Lunch and Samurai Guesthouse

After a busy morning at the shrine, we had our lunch just a quick bus trip away at the Cottage Inn Restaurant, run by Nikko’s venerable Kanaya Hotel. Meals at the Cottage Inn include bread from Kanaya Hotel’s popular bakery, which is light and fluffy as a cloud, and just one part of the hotel’s long history of bringing western culture to the area ー along with a number of foreign guests.

Next door to the Cottage Inn Restaurant is the original Kanaya Hotel, which is now open to visitors as a historical museum. The Kanaya Hotel is still up and running in a grand old building just down the street from Nikko Toshogu Shrine, but the original guesthouse was founded in a smaller samurai home nearby. Some of Nikko’s first foreign visitors were welcomed into this traditional Japanese building, which still has a number of surprising staircases, windows, and trap doors, all ready for the former samurai residents to make a quick exit. Who knew hotel history could be this interesting? It’s definitely worth taking a quick tour of the house after lunch!

Kanaya Hotel History House + Cottage Inn Restaurant
1–25 Honcho, Nikko, Tochigi
Official Website (jp)

To Aizu: Traveling Back in Time at Ouchijuku

After eating, our time in Nikko came to an end, and we followed the flow of the Boshin War towards the Aizu area of Fukushima. But as we journeyed north, it only made sense to stop in at an Edo-era post town on the way! Back in the days of samurai, the people of Japan would travel between cities using a network of well-maintained roads, and it’s no surprise that small towns sprouted up and prospered by catering to the travelers along these busy routes. Some of those old roadside towns have become modern cities, and some have disappeared, but a handful have been preserved in their old-fashioned state to this day, like the little village of Ouchijuku (pronounced oh-uchi-juku).

​When waves of modernization spread through Japan in the 20th century, rural Ouchijuku was a little left behind, and throughout the years the residents continued to maintain their traditional old houses with heavy thatched roofs instead of rebuilding with modern techniques. Of course, that means that the small community still looks just like it did when samurai passed through the area to fight their enemies to the north, and walking down the main street feels like stepping back in time. Ouchijuku isn’t a living history museum, though! The buildings are still privately owned and lived in as regular homes, and locals run guesthouses, small shops, and restaurants out front. Lots of travelers who visit Ouchijuku will grab a bite to eat at one of the shops selling the town’s famous “negi-soba” (ネギそば, eaten with a huge leek instead of chopsticks), and we recommend snacking on some senbei (煎餅) rice crackers too!

▶︎ More on Ouchijuku and negi-soba here!

Ouchijuku (大内宿)
Ouchi, Shimogo, Minamiaizu District, Fukushima
Official Website (jp)

Dinner in Aizu

On our tour, we were left to our own devices for dinner, but since we were staying the night in Aizu that could only mean one thing ー sauce katsu-don! Katsu is a breaded, fried pork cutlet that makes it onto many lists of “must-try foods in Japan,” and the tender cuts of meat are commonly eaten on top of a bowl of rice as “katsu-don,” but in Aizu they take the dish to the next level by dunking the pork into a sweet-and-savory sauce right before serving! On this trip, we stopped in at Tonkatsu Banban for our sauce katsu-don, where they offer a version using a sauce made with egoma, sometimes called wild sesame, an extra-local specialty!

Tonkatsu Banban (とんかつ 番番)
2–1–32 Higashisengoku, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima
Tabelog Page

Read more about the trip in part 2, coming soon!

For more info and updates from Japan, check Japankuru.com for new articles, and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook!

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Meaning "come to Japan", we‘re an international group working to introduce Japan to the world from as many interesting angles as we can find.

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Meaning "come to Japan", we‘re an international group working to introduce Japan to the world from as many interesting angles as we can find.

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