Travel

Kakunodate town: Looking back on historical charm

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

Despite the fact that we’ve arrived on a weekend, the parking lot along Kakunodate’s river is relatively empty. From our spot under the shady branches, my friends Felicity and Nori and I haul our convenience-store-purchased picnic up to the edge of the walking path that hugs Hinokinai River. The cherry blossoms that make this riverside ramble one of the most renowned hanami destinations in northern Japan have long since deserted the numerous branches. However, the trees’ coat of late season green is the perfect backdrop to our impromptu picnic in what is arguably Akita Prefecture’s most beautiful town.

We’ve been on the road for a week in Tohoku, flitting from area to area in a frenzy of seasonal festival excitement. With fatigue setting in and a train home looming on tomorrow’s schedule, I’m beginning to mentally wind down my wanderings. Yet, as both my traveling companions have repeatedly extolled the beauties of Kakunodate’s old samurai quarter, I can’t help but insist we add it to our itinerary — a final stop in an action-packed week.

While the carpark on the town’s western perimeter doesn’t eliminate all vehicular traffic, it makes the wander down the roads of the historical area a bit more peaceful. The town’s layout remains largely unchanged from its initial construction in 1620, when local lord Ashina Yoshikatsu relocated the district from slightly north of its present locale. Under his patronage, around 80 samurai families moved into the area, constructing large estates along the tree-lined blocks. While descendants of a number of the original families still reside on some of the properties, a few of the compounds have been opened to visitors, the most popular being Aoyagi House.

Despite having been unsuccessful in procuring a neighborhood map, we need no assistance in tracking down the Aoyagi estate. A massive gate fronts the property, dwarfing all other entryways along the street.

“The size of an estate’s gate was an indication of wealth,” the museum’s ticket seller confides to me when I express my surprise at its enormity. The Aoyagi raised the current edifice in 1860, with special permission from the local lord in gratitude for contributions to the domain. Two other, smaller, gates were also used by the family’s guests, the rank of the visitor being the determining factor in which door they were permitted to enter.

Inside, the sprawling estate comprises the main house, several outbuildings and storehouses and a garden of seasonal blooms. We peruse the displays of scrolls and armor in the well-kept main building before retiring to the cooler climes of the garden. I keep my eyes peeled for the Aoyagi eight-petal red weeping cherry tree — a species that can only be found on this particular parcel of land — but without any blooms to assist in my search, I settle for simply admiring the gardeners’ painstaking efforts.

At the rear of the property, an open-sided craft shop draws us in with artfully arranged cherry-bark crafts. I speak to the carver, who tells me he has been working with the local wood longer than I have been alive, and he points out the unique features of the craftwork known as kabazaiku.

“Due to the individual nature of each tree, each piece is unique,” the soft-spoken septuagenarian explains, bringing forth works of drastically varying hues for me to examine. Even creating one of the smaller pieces on offer can take upwards of a month or more.

“The wood is locally sourced,” is his reply to my obvious question, yet there is rarely a shortage of natural materials. Apparently, the mountain cherry tree has the unusual ability to reproduce its own bark in a relatively short time. It explains the predominance of the folk art in Kakunodate for the past two centuries. I leave both enlightened and with a new kabazaiku tea canister to add to my kitchen.

We spend the next few hours in a slow wander up and down Kakunodate’s main thoroughfare. Absent of its springtime coat of candy-colored cherry trees, I find the city’s beauty in the little details. A single purple bloom in an ikebana arrangement sits against a shoji paper screen in the Odano samurai house. Next door, a wooden bridge leads across an emerald moss garden at the Kawarada mansion.

A jinricksha carries a couple past the boughs of the street’s weeping sakura cherry trees, while a handful of youngsters cool their feet in the water channels that run along the road’s edge. The few modern concessions the district seems to make are the cafes scattered among the mansions. It’s an addition for which I am very grateful as I tuck into a slice of soy-based cheesecake on the terrace of the Sakuramaru Coffee shop.

Just outside of Kakunodate, we steer our little car into a cut in the mountains. A scarlet suspension bridge, barely more than a smudge on the scenery at this distance, marks the entrance to the Dakigaeri Gorge. The story goes, the rather unusual name — which means to turn around and embrace someone — stems from the narrowness of the path that hugged the walls of the gorge. When travelers met, they would have to physically embrace to squeeze past each other and continue in their chosen direction or face tumbling to the watery depths of the river below.

Thankfully, the name is no longer a reflection of the trail’s condition and a wide, even paved at times, path leads us into the leafy woods. Before long, it emerges onto the Kami-no-wa, Akita’s oldest suspension bridge that was built in 1926. We pause, letting the wind sway us gently on the structure from side to side, as we gaze upriver into the craggy terrain.

The path does indeed narrow as we progress into the valley’s interior. Our trek winds through forests of cedar and across old bridge trestles. Twenty minutes down the trail we arrive at our first tunnel. Though lit with flickering bulbs placed at seemingly haphazard intervals, our pace slows until we can comfortably make out our feet in the gloom.

The darkness of the tunnel makes the aquamarine color of the Tama River even that more striking when we emerge. While the hue looks like it belongs in a watercolor painting, it hasn’t done any favors for the local fish. Until the recent construction of a water plant, the river was too acidic for aquatic life.

A mile and a half along our route, we emerge from another tunnel to find a recent landslide has made the rest of the trail impassable. Luckily, a small trail branches off just before the rock pile, leading to the Mikaeri Falls.

The journey to the waterfall is impressive, but the cascade itself is even more so. Tumbling down the rock face in three separate sections, it rivals any of the more-touted waterfalls I’ve visited in Japan. We relish having this natural wonder all to ourselves before subtle changes in the light signal our need to return to the car before sunset.

The name Mikaeri means “look back” falls, something that I do frequently as we retrace our steps on the mountain path. And I can’t help but cast one final lingering gaze on the entire valley, a more than worthy conclusion to our Tohoku travels, as we drive away in the dusky twilight.

Kakunodate is easily reached by the Komachi Shinkansen in three hours from Tokyo Station (¥16,810). The city’s samurai quarter is a 20-minute walk from JR Kakunodate Station. To visit Aoyagi House costs ¥500; most of the other houses in the district are free to enter the grounds. In autumn, free shuttles connect JR Kakunodate Station with Dakigaeri Gorge. At other times of year, the gorge is reached in a 10-minute taxi ride.