The samurai district of Kakunodate

Besides some of the most beautiful onsen of Akita prefecture, Senboku boasts the well preserved samurai district of Kakunodate, a former castle town (Jōkamachi 城下町). While Kakunodate castle no longer remains, the town, which was built with two distinct areas, the samurai district and the merchant district, is famous for the hundreds of weeping cherry trees (枝垂桜 shidarezakura) lining the wide avenues of the historic samurai district and the yoshino cherry trees at the hinokinai river banks. Today the residences are privately owned by the descendants of the various samurai clans and some of them are open to the public. During our short stay in Kakunodate on a late afternoon in January, the residences were about to close and as so often during this season there wasn’t a soul in sight but we still managed to randomly visit two of the seven samurai residences.

Interior of the Akita folk museum with traditional irori (囲炉裏 sunken hearth) and cherry-bark handy crafts on display

Walking along the empty avenue of the bukeyashiki (武家屋敷 samurai residence) district, flanked by black, solid wooden fences of the residences the Aoyagi mansion welcomed us with an impressive open gate accompanied by two kodamatsu (門松 new year’s decoration) arrangements. The different structures containing fascinating museum collections, restaurants and gift shops were surrounded by a detailed garden with ponds and stone lanterns. I had no idea what would expect me in the quaint buildings as I frankly didn’t read the pamphlet they handed out at the entrance in advance so I was surprised to find an admirable collection of western antiques such as gramophones and clocks and even cameras in one of the buildings.

Samurai armor with a distinctive crescent moon helmet (兜 kabuto)

The structure exhibiting the most spectacular artifacts for my taste however, is the armory with a collection of swords, armors, helmets, guns and war flags from the 15th to 19th century and a few stunningly embroidered, bridal kimono. What was also very interesting to see were the household items and folk art displayed in the Akita folk museum, a typical farmer residence from the Edo period. Different well-preserved cooking utensils such as shichirin (七輪 earthen charcoal brazier) with scallop shells on top and working tools show aspects of everyday life in the past of samurai families.

Those small shichirin are so cute! Maybe I’m going to get one the next tim I’m in Japan

The Ishiguro residence is considerably smaller than the Aoyagi residence yet it is the oldest and home of the highest-ranking family in Kakunodate’s samurai district of the Edo period. Built in the early 19th century it was home to the Ishiguro family, who worked as financial advisors for the Satake clan and even today a descendant continues to live in part of the house. There was something about the dimension and subdivisions of the rooms that immediately made me feel “at home”. Some of the rooms had beautiful fretwork casting shadows of turtles, on the nearby walls and paper doors. Turtles stand for longevity and immortality and are often featured in Japanese art.

Kaonashi lurking near the storeroom room of the Ishiguro family residence

The mood in both of the mansions we visited is very different and if I had to choose where to live, I’d probably take the Ishiguro residence. There’s definitely enough material to learn about samurai history in both residences but the Aoyagike features some extras such as the western antiques collection. Kakunodate must be stunningly beautiful during spring when the cherry trees are in full bloom and standing in contrast to the black fences of the residences of former wealthy samurai. Apparently in spring visitors from all over the world come to see the shidarezakura of “little Kyoto”, as it is sometimes called because of its charming and nostalgic beauty from a different time.

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