We all know samurai, those armor-clad sword-wielding warriors of pre-modern Japan. It is a romantic image. Equally romantic is the image of the delicate, pink sakura blossoms that make their appearance only briefly in the spring. Sakura is often regarded as symbolic of the fleeting nature of life itself, a notion that particularly appealed to the samurai spirit. Indeed, it was during the Pax Japonica of Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1867) that sakura rose to popularity, supplanting the late winter-blooming plum as the excuse for blossom viewing parties.
In the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan, visitors can simultaneously enjoy both these icons. Kakunodate, in Akita Prefecture, is home to a well-preserved district of samurai houses surrounded by weeping cherry trees while at Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture, the castle and its extensive grounds give insights into the role of a castle in Edo Period life.
Kakunodate: A Living Museum of Edo Period Life
Kakunodate is very much a product of the Edo Period. It was founded in 1620 when a castle was constructed on the mountain side overlooking the Hinokinai River and the productive farming area of the Senboku Plain. Naturally, the town developed to support the activities of the castle. While the castle is long gone, many Edo Period features of the town remain. Kakunodate’s samurai district is particularly well known, but there are also remnants of the historical mercantile district to be explored. Pick up the handy strolling map from the tourist information center outside the train station.
The samurai district was once home to around 80 samurai families varying in rank. They lived in family compounds, with residences, other essential buildings, and gardens surrounded by high walls. Unlike the jumble of narrow laneways we often associate with urban Japan, traffic was carried on broad avenues that also served as firebreaks.
Today, those avenues are shaded by tall, stately pines and cedars, as well as shidarezakura (weeping cherry) and rickshaws carry visitors along.
The shidarezakura are an astonishing sight when in full bloom. There are said to be about 400 of these trees in the town. They are taller than many other varieties of sakura, and their blossoms are much smaller. Viewed from a distance they almost look like sheets of pale pink lace. Even outside the blossom season, these trees, with their delicately drooping branches of green, are an especially beautiful sight.
Visitors can wander through the area freely drifting in and out of many of the well-preserved 19th century homes, imagining elegant samurai lifestyles. Some complexes, formerly home to mid-ranking samurai families, are now owned and maintained by the city as living museums open to the public, with displays of memorabilia that aid the imagination and its quest for samurai life. Of the homes that remain in private hands, Ishiguro House and Aoyagi House are also open to visitors for a fee. Ask for an English language tour at Ishiguro House (admission ¥300) and you may find your guide is the 13th generation Ishiguro, who still resides there.
Denshokan Museum can also be found in the samurai district, hosting displays on one of Akita‘s most famous craft products, kabazaiku (cherry bark work) as well as items relating to Kakunodate’s samurai history and its modernization.
If you are visiting during sakura season, which is usually from around mid-April to the beginning of May, be sure to take a stroll along the Hinokinai River. Two rows of Yoshino cherry trees have been planted along fully two kilometers of the riverbank, creating a stunning cotton candy-esque tunnel of pink. In summer, this same tunnel, now deep green, is shady and cooled by breezes off the river.
Kakunodate’s merchant district lies between the samurai district and the train station. Merchants were near the bottom of the social hierarchy of Edo Period Japan, a necessary evil who, arguably had the last laugh. Check out various remnants of their lives, as well as those of their modern descendants. Tatetsu House has displays of antique local craft products as well as a shop selling modern equivalents. And be sure to drop by Ando Jozo, a soy sauce and miso brewery since 1853 with displays on production techniques and even tastings (COVID-conditions permitting).
Hirosaki: Sakura on Steroids
Hirosaki is another Edo Period castle town, founded a decade before Kakunodate. In its heyday, it was the center of the Hirosaki Domain of the Tsugaru daimyo clan. Unlike Kakunodate, which preserved its Edo heritage, Hirosaki jumped into Meiji Period (1868-1912) modernization with both feet and is still home to a number of Meiji-era structures.
But Hirosaki does still have its Edo Period castle, sitting at the center of an expansive castle park that is also home to around 2,600 cherry trees of more than 50 varieties.
Sakura were first planted on the castle grounds in 1715. Originally just 25 trees, more and more have been added, throughout the grounds and lining its moats until Hirosaki Castle Park is now said to have the greatest concentration of sakura in Japan. In full bloom, it is an overwhelming sight. Who knew there were so many shades of pink?
The blossoms are celebrated in the Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival, held every year between April 23 and May 5, depending on weather conditions and how early the flowers bloom. The trees are even illuminated at night to enhance everyone’s viewing pleasure. Squint a bit to imagine samurai families enjoying the blossoms by torchlight, as surely they did.
While there is an admission fee (¥320) to enter the honmaru, the center of the grounds where the keep itself still stands, the outer areas are free of charge. One distinctive blossom view is at the moats. Once the trees are past full bloom and have begun to drop their petals, the fallen petals float on the moat’s water, creating the illusion of a solid blanket of pink.
The castle’s keep, the 19th century three-story replacement of the original five-story keep destroyed by lightning in 1627, ordinarily sits on the corner of a stone wall overlooking the innermost moat. The entire building has been moved about 70 meters so that the stone wall beneath it could be reinforced and rebuilt. It should be returned to its original location in 2025. In the meantime, it is still possible to enter the keep at its temporary location.
As you wander the castle grounds, keep an eye out for a signboard showing the layout of the palace, a complex of administrative and residential buildings that was the nerve center of the samurai castle for most of its life. Without this visual reminder, few visitors can fully appreciate the role of a castle in Edo Japan.
The abundant sakura and traces of samurai heritage of these two towns demonstrate Tohoku’s vital role in Edo Period Japan. We are fortunate that they still exist for us to enjoy today.
For more information, please visit the Tohoku Destination Campaign website.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.