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Chapter Ten—Lost Samurai

Shin: To become a person who is trusted, and who can trust others.

—a principle of the Aizu people

As the Wakamatsu colonists began to leave Gold Hill, Matsunosuke “Mats” Sakurai began to have vivid dreams from his past in Aizu. It was almost as if the celestials were populating his world in his sleep to compensate for the ones who left in reality.

Gone were the Saitos, the young couple whose marriage seemed to be strained by the complaints of the competitive wife. No longer would Mats be entertained by the antics of the seven-year-old Nozomi, whose front teeth had fallen out during the first year of the colony. My, how she had cried when separated from her black cat, Neko-chan, upon their departure. Keiko Shinshi, the older woman who had been so devoted to the silkworms, had left in the middle of the night with her younger husband. The local doctor had later spilled the beans that Keiko was pregnant, news that delighted Mats. Makoto, his face scarred from the Boshin War, had abruptly taken off, leaving his odd housemate, Kintaro, behind. Mats wasn’t quite sure who would be monitoring Kintaro’s behavior. Kintaro was now the colony’s responsibility.

The Schnells were still here. Also a few carpenters, a couple of farmers and, of course, Okei. Mats, who was in his late thirties, saw himself as an uncle figure to the teenage Okei. She was here without any blood relatives or a spouse. Mats could relate. They were both alone in a new land.

Before Mats could not sleep through the night on Gold Hill. Now two years later, he was in constant slumber. He traveled in his dreams above the red tile roofs of Tsuruga Castle, its exterior walls a pure white. The structure reminded him of cranes ready for flight, their expansive wings extended. Beside the castle was the Oyaku-en, the garden of herbs around a pond. There was a patch of mugwort, a leafy, feather-like plant that grew like weeds. Mugwort was dried and ground to create moxa, which seemed to balance the blood and mitigate pain.

The winter months were long, covering Aizu with snow, even a meter’s worth a night when the drift was heavy. The samurai visiting from the southern part of Japan had a difficult time with the weather, but Mats adored it. It made everything dirty clean, at least for a season.

In preparation for such cold, brutal weather, the households of Aizu dug holes in the ground and buried stacks of harvested daikon before the snow came. The soil preserved the temperature and when they needed the vegetables, they unearthed the underground daikon, washed and sliced them into rounds, and strung them with straw for two months. After two months, the dried slices were taken down and simmered into oden.

Aizu was such a particular place. Outsiders didn’t understand it. Mats loved the hush of the winters, the crunch of the snow as his genbei, straw shoes, cut into fresh snow. In January, children ran with their hands full of okiagari koboshi, little papier mâché figurines painted in red or blue. No matter how many times you tried to knock the figures down, they would pop up.

In battle during the Boshin War, the teenage boys assumed the position of the okiagari koboshi, ready to face the emperor’s forces. But soon the pristine walls of the castle were marred with bullet holes. The boy warriors were humiliated and 19 of them took their own lives when they thought that all was lost.

Looking at the destruction, Mats wanted to commit seppuku, too. However, he didn’t deserve such an honored fate. He was destined to live. To serve those who had suffered.

He woke up, the sun blinding his eyes through the window of his small house. He walked outside to admire the strong oak trees and the keyaki tree in the distance.

“Sakurai-san, good afternoon,” Okei called out. She was carrying the younger Schnell daughter, Mary, in her left arm while holding onto the hand of the older sister, Frances.

Mats waved his hand in greeting. He remembered once when Okei had asked him whether he ever got homesick for Aizu. “No,” he told her. “California is my new home now.”

Aizu was only a memory. A dream. He would never go back. Instead of the boy warriors, Okei was his charge. Katamori Matsudaira was no longer his master. The man in the main house, Veerkamp, was now his new lord.

To be continued…



Gold Hill History: Memorial for the Lost Samurai (

Aizu: Land of the Last Samurai Part One (

Aizu: Land of the Last Samurai Part Two (


© 2020 Naomi Hirahara

california fiction issei Matsunosuke Sakurai naomi hirahara Wakamatsu Colony

About this series

Not much is known about the women of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, including Jou Schnell, the Japanese wife of the colony’s founder John Henry Schnell. Silk is a fictional account which imagines what life may have been for these women and men in 1869–1871.

Author’s Note: The nonfiction sources used for this fictional creation included Daniel A. Métraux’s The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm and the Creation of Japanese America, Discover Nikkei articles, and Gary Noy’s Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots, and Rogues.

Read Chapter One >>