Kakunodate, the organization of my trip to Japan started with this amazing samurai town.
When I decided that this winter travel was going to be a long road trip through Japan, I immediately thought of the country I had in mind since childhood, the one coming out of historical novels populated by geishas and samurai, punctuated by extraordinary craftsmanship and poetic details and then I thought about the Tokyo glimpses I had during my past business trips. I told myself that it was better to start some researches to organize a not too disappointing route.
Looking in my red Moleskine notebook, the one I always carry around and keep on the nightstand should I wake up with a special idea, the one I fill with notes taken while reading a book or watching a movie or even talking to someone, I found this note of April 18th, 2009: Japan – for samurai town check Kakunodate, Akita.
I have no idea who or what suggested it, but I’m glad I did take this note!
It’s a small town 45 minutes by train from Akita, but I got there from Hakodate in 3h30, changing Shinkansen in Morioka.
The town was founded and designed as a castle town in 1620 by Ashina Yoshikatsu, lord of the Satake clan, and later several samurai clans settled there. Originally the city was built around the castle on Mount Furushiro. Still, a relentless series of fires and floods destroyed everything, and the village was then rebuilt in the valley, along the banks of the river Hinokinai, on which hundreds of cherry trees were planted.
What to visit in Kakunodate
Many of the samurai houses are in perfect condition. They are open to the public, giving life to the wonderful buke yashiki, the samurai district that I found wrapped in a blanket of soft snow, with a dreamy look and an everlasting smile on my face.
To avoid tourist groups, I arrange my stay there during the week, and I’m thrilled I planned it that way: I only run into two or three Japanese tourists, and everything is wrapped in a surreal silence due to the snow. I really had a magic experience.
The largest and most important samurai residence is the Aoyagi House (500 yen). To visit its various buildings and the beautiful display of locally found objects and dresses dating back to all the generations of the family, you need at least one hour.
Just in front of the Aoyagi House, there’s the Heritage Center (400 yen, with discount coupons to be collected at the information desk at the train station), which boasts a beautiful exhibition of handicrafts and writing boxes that made me dream.
However, the most amazing experience was the one I had visiting the Ishiguro House (300 yen), where I was welcomed by mother and son direct descendants of the eponymous clan who still live on site. The son accompanied me, telling me everything about the life and the family-related anecdotes, describing the samurai lifestyle, and using the different rooms and the various entrances of the residence. Here too, there’s a stunning exhibition of traditional clan everyday life items.
Throughout the visit, I held back tears of joy. I felt them there, ready to pour on my smile at any moment … I was so delighted to be there!
The visit of all the other houses in the neighborhood is free because they left everything as it was without organizing the visit circuits or internal exhibits. The entry gates along the avenue are open, and you can enter them. Not to skip any steps, I recommend you get the Kakunodate samurai district detailed map at the information office.
Among the many residences, I particularly liked the Matsumoto House, the Kawarada House, and Iwahashi House.
A beautiful – and yummy – visit was also the one to the miso and soy sauce factory, with a free tasting included! The factory is actually worth a visit, even just for its architectural beauty.
As already mentioned, my visit was magical with the snow, but I have to point out that the best time of the year in the spring, during the hanami, when thousands of cherry blossoms paint the river bank and the samurai district.
If you opt for the sakura season, I recommend booking both the train and the accommodation months in advance! For the accurate prediction of the bloom week, you can contact the information office during November/December.
Where to sleep in this samurai town
I stayed at the Hotel Folkloro (6120 yen, breakfast, and dinner included), literally next door to the entrance of the train station and in front of the information office.
The only hotel of my trip to Japan and, despite the lack of charm and tradition, it really is very well managed and offers all the needed comforts. I really appreciated the laundry area, the super-equipped bathroom, the yummy international breakfast, the dinner with soup noodles to be cooked at the table, and the luggage storage available all day long at the front desk.
This town opened the doors to Japan I was looking for, and I heartily recommend you to include it in your Japanese itinerary!