For the Hollywood view of what life was like for the old warriors of Japan, go down to the video shop and take out “The Last Samurai.” But for a more accurate glimpse of how the samurai lived and the kind of world they inhabited, take a trip to Kakunodate.
This town in Akita Prefecture has one of the best-preserved samurai districts in the country. Samurai quarters are found in other places, such as Kanazawa, Matsue and Shimabara. None of those places, however, can match Kakunodate’s authentic, sedate atmosphere, which seems straight out of feudal Japan.
Surprisingly, for a small provincial town with an overwhelmingly old-world image, most people hop on the shinkansen to get to Kakunodate. It’s on the line linking Morioka with the city of Akita, and the approach to the town from Morioka is not short of appeal. The train passes long forested valleys that disappear in a gradual succession of spurs, and it speeds across gorges, through which flow boulder-strewn, turquoise streams of remarkable clarity, before reaching the rice-paddy plains of Akita Prefecture.
The year usually cited for the founding of Kakunodate is 1620. Then it was that a feudal lord by the name of Ashina Yoshikatsu built a castle on top of Furushiro yama, a hill now situated to the north of Kakunodate. The hill did not move, of course, but the town did. Ashina decided that Kakunodate would suit him better to the south of the castle, and so it was accordingly relocated. Ashina’s castle, unfortunately, is no more.
Back in 1620, Kakunodate consisted of 80 samurai dwellings and about 350 houses were inhabited by merchants. True to their habits elsewhere, the samurai obligingly hogged most of the land for themselves, though they were far fewer in number than the merchants. For the merchants’ part, they had to cram themselves together in a district to the south. With a broad 15-meter-wide road as its main axis and flanked by narrow rivulets, the samurai quarter today has a spacious, airy quality — green and pleasant from its abundance of larches, Japanese maples and pines.
Along this thoroughfare, all the buildings stand behind a 1 1/2-meter-high, black, wooden fence running on either side of the road, and all modern dwellings have been rendered in appropriately subdued colors. Among the older structures in this area, you get to see samurai dwellings, a samurai well, samurai shrines, even a samurai toilet. The latter was the typical Japanese-style hole in the floor, though oddly it was stuffed full of pine branches. What Tom Cruise might have got up to in there with a fistful of pine branches would have been worth the price of admission to “Last Samurai.” On second thought, no thanks.
The original samurai houses are well preserved, their plots of land separated by wattle fences. Grandest of the houses is the Aoyagi residence, built in 1860 and comprising an attractive, rambling collection of buildings. One of the buildings is given over to a museum that houses paraphernalia from Meiji (1868-1912) times, including a remarkable collection of audio gear from over a century ago.
Most charming of the old houses is the comparatively diminutive Matsumoto dwelling. The thatched roof, covered with large stones and thick moss, looks like a raised extension of the garden.
Samurai decide to chill out
After a while, the samurai of Kakunodate came to realize that there was more to life than just perfecting the art of hacking people apart. So it was in the 1780s, that samurai Fujimura Hikoroku learned kabazaiku, a craft that is usually translated inelegantly as “cherry-bark work.” Kabazaiku involves covering household or decorative items with cherry bark and polishing them to a fine, satiny finish. After mastering the craft, Fujimura taught it to other samurai. Today, products made by the successors to those early samurai craftsmen — everything from kabazaiku shoehorns to kabazaiku lampshades — are amply displayed in numerous shops and the agreeable tang of cherry bark hangs over them.
Cherry trees are another main attraction in Kakunodate. More than 300 years ago, a small number of weeping cherry trees were brought to Kakunodate from Kyoto. The local samurai thought that having cherry trees in Kakunodate was a rather good idea and took to planting more of them. Over 400 such trees can be viewed today, 153 of which have even been classed as a National Monument. Because of its cherry-tree links with Japan’s old capital and its wealth of preserved history, Kakunodate is fond of calling itself the “Little Kyoto of Tohoku.”
For my money, though, Kakunodate makes for a better day out than the “Big Kyoto of Kansai”: Kakunodate is atmospheric, compact and you don’t spend half your time sitting on the bus traveling between temples. But, of course, word about Kakunodate has gotten around. Visit this town on a fine weekend and you feel that the entire population of a medium-size city has decided to come along too.
Away from the samurai quarter, Kakunodate quickly descends into typical rural Japan. I passed shoe shops that mainly sold hefty gum boots and forlorn women’s shoes that looked as if they had been waiting for a buyer since the days of the Tokyo Olympics. I came to a greengrocer’s with produce so fresh that the vegetables smelled as if they had been tugged out of the ground that morning. And they were so ridiculously cheap I had to buy some, even though it meant having to haul them all the way back to Tokyo.
At the end of my day, I walked back up the hill toward Kakunodate Station behind a couple of elderly ladies. The women of Akita are renowned throughout Japan for their great beauty. And no doubt half a century earlier, I would have been gawping at the two women instead of inspecting their shopping carts to see what they had been buying. I walked behind them for five minutes, trying to follow their conversation, but even the gist of it was beyond me. The local dialect is rich and not at all unattractive. But to the untrained ear, it is as thick as the deep forests of Akita.