Kakunodate - a samurai city

Day 5: Merchants and Samurai. An ironic juxtaposition of the old and new. The cherry blossoms will be in full bloom late April in this historic town - Kakunodate - nestled in mountains between Akita and Morioka so we were all alone as tourists in the winter chill. Those samurai really knew how to live the good life and the wide ambling boulevard lined with wooden fence says it all. Attempts to imagine an unpaved road and walking slowly and intentionally in kimono met with sounds of tiny cars whizzing by and a sharp ping ping and steady song of a lovely lady walking in prayer. (video below) The astonishing contrast between brand new homes across from such historic architecture was at times startling. The bricks on a merchant building signified Meiji period (the time in the west of the industrial revolution) - for function to prevent fires and likely a early sign of western influence in 1850s while the art museum was a glimpse of early 20th century Art Deco influence. Alas, the merchants won out as we ambled into a variety of shops from fancy touristy selling premium cherry wood carved objects to the cool thrift store discovered by an ambling path. And to top it off once we settled into hotel back in Morioka for the night it just so happened to start to snow and gusts of winds drove us back inside for a bit more merchant of the contemporary kind. I did not think I would be shopping much on this trip (carrying one bag for 5 weeks), but I succumbed. (original tumblr post 2015)

In scouring many guides about Japan, I was really interested in discovering places with a significant history and tradition. Kakunodate fit the bill. As I organized my wish list into the travel agenda, this worked out to be a half-day trip from Morioka after the Sendai to Morioka transport. It did not disappoint on this winter day. It is one of the most popular destinations to see the cherry blossoms in bloom as the trees line the river. However, this was a super quiet day and barely anyone out on the streets.


Kakunodate (角館) was founded in 1620 and was the home of 80 Samurai families. The other aspect that interested me in my planning was to discover the identity with place from stranger, tourist, from away, local, native and indigenous. This fit the bill for the history inquiry with the distinct neighborhoods established for the Samurai and the Merchants. On this journey, I also experienced this in Fukuoka and another trip spent time exploring the districts in Kanazawa on the Japan Sea. What remains in Kakunodate is exquisite example of this architecture and style with wide roads and majestic walls with little channel for running water so the sounds can be subtle as you walk. However, it would be worthwhile to imagine the time period and the style of clothing and footwear as people meandered these same streets.


Samurai were the hereditary military ruling class that rose to the height of their power in the Edo period (1603-1867). The castle in Kakunodate did not survive, but castles are on my agenda later in this trip. The rigid social caste system established had the Samurai at the top with the following in order – farmers, artisans and merchants. Therefore, the merchant side of this town is distinctly different. But first, some images of the Samurai streets.


As we walked in this silent, mostly empty place, we heard a sound in the distance. It attracted our attention so I started to video to capture what was happening. A walking meditation?





There are places in the Samurai district now that are open and have commercial wares such as these places. They greet you with enormous hospitality including snacks and tea. This city is now known for its handcraft merchants including doll making, cat related hand sewn objects, art of various kinds including working with cherry bark and birch. Apparently Kakunodate is the only place in the world that creates craft objects such as jewelry boxes from cherry bark and it started as a low level samurai practice. This is a good article about it.


From what I recall, this building with the brick may now be a shop, museum, or sake brewery. Once brick became a structural option it became part of the architecture due to fires. You can see the Japanese crest in the middle of the window and the more traditional window elements found in castles and samurai buildings. For more information on Samurai, visit the Japan guide article here.


Meanwhile, the merchant side of town has less majestic architecture and shows significant signs of wear from nature and time. For those like myself that relish in the wabi-sabi of objects and place however this was still just as magical. If you get out of Tokyo where much of the city was rebuilt after WW2 and often rebuilding is a common practice in commercial districts, these more quaint places are like time traveling to see old signs and sometimes just the texture of the place.




We noticed many hair salons and barbers which we thought was really odd. We also found some really amazing thrift / antique type shops which was fun, but sad that we can't carry large objects home on a plane.


I'm a weird person who gets really excited by signage - the older and more worn out the better. I guess that's the graphic designer in me or maybe what motivated me to become a designer. I love these creative illustrations and communication whether or not you can understand the kanji.


A few other discoveries that were interesting in this place. One is this art deco style architecture museum. I am not sure if we were able to go inside, but this website has more information for anyone interested. Art Deco is one of my favorite design styles as it was the second international style between the two world wars. It represented optimism and also appropriated from the past styles of Egyptian, Greek, and Mayan cultures. Due to the bombings in WW2, most Art Deco in Japan is lost so this was really exciting to discover.


This is the Hirafuku Memorial Museum. Notice the color and the decorative details. The museum primarily celebrates local living artists and commemorates the masters of Modern Japanese style painting.


There was also a sake brewery and a shrine area that was visibly less traveled due to the minimal amount of Ema. However, the stone guardians are fantastic examples. More of our stair theme. I lost track of how many stairs we have climbed.


We also became fascinated by the Japanese postal delivery service. And also love the sewer covers and finding old phones!



Knowing how much time we had from our arrival to the time our train departed in the afternoon we were able to meander this town in about a half-day. Which also included some purchases. Snacks were to be had at a convenience store and we made our way back to Morioka for our hotel night.

One of the gift-giving traditions of the Japanese is how much care and attention is given to wrapping objects. Another inspiration is all of the patterns of paper used and the folding techniques. Kristie was smart in that she bought things that were flat so she could carry them home on the plane with ease. Even your yakitori snack is wrapped with care.


We structured our time knowing when we would have to be back at the train station. Our hotel accommodations for the night were next to the train station in Morioka. These are standard business hotel options that are really great for traveling because they have amenities like the onsen on a separate floor as well as buffet breakfast. They are typically overlooking or walking distance to the train stations. And most train stations are also commercial businesses with multiple levels like an American mall but nothing like an American mall in it's style, design, etc.

Because of the cold and the proximity of the station to our hotel, we decided to meander through the shops and also get a bite to eat at one of the numerous restaurants one can find in these shopping centers. All of the food is so good and you can tell what the options are typically by the fake food displays.


I do not recall what we were looking for but a shop worker helped us in our quest. The hospitality in Japan is something that makes your heart warm. It's such a wonderful feeling that I've revisited the country multiple times and on this journey when I was solo after my friend departed it was a wonderful way to be 'lost in translation.'


In closing of our samurai and merchant day, here are some images of the contemporary merchant experience.


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