Little over 150 years ago, on May 11, 1869, the first year of the Meiji Era, Hijikata Toshizo, charismatic vice commander of the storied Shinsengumi -- Japan's last samurai -- met his end in battle defending the group's final stronghold on Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido.  

While the whereabouts of Hijikata's remains are unconfirmed, his sword did find its way back from the battlefield in the city of Hakodate, to the warrior's birthplace, the city of Hino in western Tokyo, following his death at the hands of the Meiji government forces he had so staunchly resisted. 

Today the sword -- Izumi no Kami Kanesada -- is revered enough that an annual airing at a museum in town attracts fans of Hijikata from around Japan and beyond.

Whether because of the man or his legend, or both, the object he wielded so often to such deadly effect has appeal enough that some people make the journey to Hino annually to view it.

Hijikata and the Shinsengumi -- literally “Newly Selected Corps” -- devoted their lives to defending a Tokugawa shogunate in the final throes of defeat to Meiji Restoration reformers.  While many of the group's core members, Hijikata and Shinsengumi Commander Kondo Isami included, were born, or spent formative years, in and around the area that is today Hino City, the Shinsengumi reached the peak of its influence during a bloody period protecting the interests of the Tokugawa Bakufu on the streets of Kyoto.

That Hijikata has emerged as something of a hero from this turbulent period -- that ultimately ended in defeat for the Shinsengumi and the end of over two centuries of Tokugawa rule in Japan -- is perhaps as much a testament to the character of the man himself as it is to the jaws of that defeat biting out gaps in the group's historical records. 

This relative lack of official records regarding the group and the personalities behind it has paved the way for storytellers to create a modern-day image of Hijikata, the Shinsengumi, and their exploits, that might be at odds with those accounts as detailed by the group's victors on the side of the Meiji Restoration.

What better place to reconcile fact and possible fiction regarding who Hijikata was then, than where it all started for him, in Hino City and the site of the home where he spent his years as a child?

The Hijikata Toshizo Museum opened in 1994 in response to the demands of Hijikata fans who came to Hino to learn more about their hero from the novels, manga, and video games. 

Housed in a room of the (now rebuilt) ancestral home where Hijikata grew up, the museum is run by Megumi Hjikata, a descendent of one of the Shinsengumi vice commander's older brothers.

"Actually, this is a regular home.  But since I was a child the doorbell would ring many times with visitors saying things like, "We've come from far so would you be able to show us the artifacts?" or, "Could you tell us about him (Toshizo)?"" Megumi Hijikata told us of the fans who would make a pilgrimage of sorts to Hino in search of insights into their hero.

With their own lives to lead the family made the decision to open up a private collection of artifacts related to Toshizo and the Hijikata family so that they might better balance the demands of fans with that of daily life.

Among the museum's collection is a wooden practice sword used by Hijikata while he was getting to grips with the Tennenrishin-ryu school of swordsmanship, the set of armor that the Shinsengumi vice commander was wearing during the much-talked-about Ikedaya incident during the Kyoto years, and a collection of haiku poems composed by Hijikata before his, and the Shinsengumi's departure for Kyoto.

It's here, too, that Hijikata's storied sword is put on display for the public for a limited time each year.

(Hijikata Toshizo's sword - Image courtesy of Hijikata Toshizo Museum)

"What I think is good about this museum is that it is packed with items related to Toshizo and the Hijikata family, actually in the place where he grew up," said Megumi Hijikata in a nod to the challenges that come with running a private collection such as this, especially when compared to the advanced capabilities regarding the preservation of historical artifacts of the larger museums.

"Here though, visitors, while looking around the garden where he grew up or thinking that, 'this is where the home he was brought up was built,' can also look at the items that he used, which I think is a good thing."

"It's easier for us to convey the sense of Toshizo having lived here, and what kind of person he was. This, I think, gives meaning to the running of the museum at this location."

(Megumi Hijikata stands in front of an image of Toshizo at the Hijikata Toshizo Museum in Hino)

The location of the home, in a quiet suburb in the city's east, formerly known as Ishida Village, is as much removed from the frantic pace of central Tokyo today as it would appear to have been from the chaotic events that unfolded around Hijikata and the Shinsengumi.

It was here that a young Hijikata, surrounded by the relative affluence of an agricultural community fed by the waters of the nearby Tama River -- water channels from which still trickle through the Hino of today -- was able to engage in such cultural pursuits as haiku poetry, calligraphy, and kenjutsu (Japanese swordsmanship).  In the garden of the house visitors can even see the bamboo originally planted by the young would-be warrior.

"I think when he was planting bamboo, the feeling of the samurai was also planted in him," speculated Megumi Hijikata -- bamboo being associated with samurai due to its suitability for the making of arrows.

From a feeling of the samurai as a child to actually attaining such a status as a warrior in the service of the shogun -- a remarkable achievement for one born outside the samurai class -- visitors might be forgiven for thinking that our young Toshizo was earnest and serious.

"Not at all," said Megumi Hijikata with a laugh.  "He was a mischievous child.  He would climb up the roof of the temple and pick eggs from birds' nests and throw them at people on the street."

"But he had a sense of humanity and was kind to the people around him," she continued.

It was this sense of humanity that, according to some, would come to the fore as Hijikata managed to maintain a following despite the hopelessness of his cause.

Hino City's relative calm is broken during the annual Hino Shinsengumi Festival.  Held over a weekend in mid-May, the festival sees the city's streets, shrines, and temples fill with Shinsengumi enthusiasts and demonstrations of Tennenrishin-ryu samurai sword art.

To mark the 150th anniversary of Hijikata's passing, festival organizers this year introduced a ritual homecoming of their warrior's sword (a replica in this case) to event proceedings. 

The new addition headed up the festival's main program -- a parade of cosplaying Shinsengumi, lead through the center of town along the old Koshu-kaido Road by competition winners assuming roles as figureheads of the group, among them Shinsengumi Commander Kondo Isami, master swordsman Okita Souji, and, of course, Hijikata himself.  Or herself in the case of this year's parade leader.

(Contest winner as Hijikata Toshizo -- "Mister Hijikata" -- during the Shinsengumi Festival parade)

Moments before this year's parade set out from the bustling gymnasium of a local school, Tetsuo Yamaguchi, head of the Shinsengumi Festival organizing committee, explained that more than half of the contestants who competed for the role of Hijikata were female.  Of the nine finalists, eight were female.

While questions might remain regarding the life and actions of Hijikata, there can be little doubt about his popularity among young females today.  And on the very day of the parade indeed, during which the young lady assuming the role of our vice commander appeared to be pursued by groups of camera-wielding female fans here in Hino to capture the moment with their hero.

Perhaps the sight of the parade marching along the Koshu-kaido, eyes aimed at the backdrop of mountains to the west, might be said to echo scenes of Hijikata's and the Shinsengumi's return to Hino in 1868 when Japan's last samurai marched from Edo to the those same mountains in Yamanashi Prefecture (on the way to a failed bid to take the castle at Kofu).

Despite having been driven out of Kyoto, it seems they were given a warm welcome from family and supporters, prominent backer and Hino resident Sato Hikogoro among them.

150 years on, and this year's incarnation of Hijikata and the Shinsengumi appeared to be welcomed as heroes.

(Parade of "Japan's last samurai" marches along the Koshu-kaido Road, Hino, Tokyo)

(Hinojuku Honjin on the Koshu-kaido Road parade route in Hino - this inn reserved for Daimyo is also believed to be the scene of meetings between Hijikata and Shinsengumi Commander Kondo Isami)

A few blocks south of the Koshu-kaido, Hijikata fans and visitors to Hino can further their understanding of the vice commander and the Shinsengumi as a whole at the Shinsengumi Hometown History Museum (Shinsengumi Furusato Rekishikan).

According to the museum's director, Hirofumi Konno, of the around 16,000 visitors the facility welcomes each year, 60 to 70 percent of these are females in their teenage years to their 30s, many of whom have come to know of Hijikata and the Shinsengumi through the game Hakuouki, among others.  They visit the museum wanting to find out more (as well as to partake in their own Hijikata cosplay -- costumes available at the facility come replete with replica sword).

This year, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Hijikata's passing, the museum has been holding a special exhibit through which the curators hope to convey a sense of the real Hijikata.

"Hijikata Toshizo - The Real Image from Artifacts" runs until the end of June.  The special exhibit displays artifacts, documents, and replicas charting Hijikata's life from his childhood in Hino, through the formation of the Shinsengumi and the Kyoto years, and onto the struggles Hijikata faced during the Boshin War and his ultimate demise in Hakodate.

Among the items, Konno pointed out records from Nishi Honganji, a large temple in central Kyoto where the Shinsengumi established a new headquarters.  The records, according to Konno, reveal Hijikata's skills as a negotiator with the vice commander managing to secure favorable conditions for his men at the same time as placate the temple's priests whose sympathies lay with the group's opponents.

Also on display is the last letter found to have been penned by Hijikata himself -- composed in Aizu Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, where he had taken his fight north following the abdication of the Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu and the death of Shinsengumi Commander, Kondo Isami. 

In the letter Hijikata displays his battlefield tactical savvy, imploring commanders for greater troop numbers in the defence of a point in the area he identified to be of strategic importance.  No such numbers were given.  The location, and ultimately Aizu, fell sending Hijikata ever north to meet his end.

Now, no longer just the commander of the Shinsengumi, this peasant-born warrior was also joint commander of an army -- a leader unwavering in the face of defeat or even death.  It's during these final months where perhaps the appeals of Hijikata that draw his fans to Hino today, had the greatest influence on his followers 150 years ago. 

"During the war in Hakodate, when he was in the position of leader, he understood that people had followed him because of his charisma and so he revealed his human side. The soldiers adored Toshizo, like a baby adores its mother," explained Megumi Hijikata back at the museum.

"The people who come to the museum are drawn by this human side and the way he lived.  There is a part of them that empathizes with him."

At the time of his death Hijikata Toshizo was only 34 years old.  It took nearly 20 years for the dust to settle and for the powers of the Meiji Era to show enough empathy themselves to allow the construction of a monument to both Hijikata and Kondo.  Located in the grounds of the former's childhood temple, Takahata Fudo-son in Hino, the Monument of Two Great Martyrs now sits next to a statue of the man himself.

Holding a stoic, determined repose, this interpretation in bronze of Hijikata would have the young man appear much older than his 34 years, to this viewer at least. 

Others might see something different.  Great leader, battlefield tactician, and savvy negotiator.  Or perhaps kind and mischievous child, the peasant-turned-Japan's last samurai -- it's clear that the interpretations and images of Hijikata are many, and maybe more importantly, personal. 

"Everyone has their own image of Toshizo.  Then, if they come here, they can see real documents, real artifacts and through this they might find that actually, 'Ah, he was this kind of person,' and so the image that they have might change," said Megumi Hijikata.

"That's down to the individual."

The city of Hino has a number of sites related to the life of Hijikata Toshizo and the Shinsengumi through which visitors can unearth the truth for themselves.