Kakunodate — samurai town

Kakunodate is one of the smallest towns I’ve visited in Japan. The tourist heart of the town was a short walk from my guesthouse.

Kakunodate is most well-known for its samurai houses. Some of them went on to be owned by (wealthy) families and are now wholly or partly (in the case of the family still living there) viewable by the public.

Samurai were warriors who served either the daimyo, feudal lords, or the shogun overlord, and in return received either land or salary. Unlike vassals in the European feudal system, each samurai held his fief from only one lord. In their domains, the daimyo were in control of not only samurai but also other residents in lower classes, such as peasants, artisans, and merchants. The shogun reigned over the daimyo, exercising absolute rule under the nominal leadership of the emperor. Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and his descendants ruled the country for over 260 years, from 1603 to 1867. Their reign is called the Edo period after the name of the city where they placed the shogunate — the present-day Tokyo. The feudal system came to an end when samurai from the southern domains carried out a coup d’etat in 1867 that led to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Subsequently, Japan introduced constitutional monarchy with the emperor as head of state.

Samurai and the Japanese Feudal System

The most extensive house was the Aoyagi Samurai Manor Museum. For a long time, the 200-year-old main house was not open to the public. The house sits in a 10,000 square metre garden with other buildings, including an armoury (containing swords, armours, helmets, guns), a folk museum, the Samurai Tool and Utensils Museum (showing household items), and gallery, which has the first translation of a Dutch anatomy book published in 1774. There is a statue of the illustrator, Odano Naotake (also a samurai) in the garden.

The museum combined everything contained separately in the other samurai houses. As an added bonus, you could experience holding a samurai sword (under controlled conditions) in the armory. You could also try on three samurai helmets. I tried them all on: they weighed a ton! You’d need a neck with the strength of a decent size tree trunk to wear a helmet for long!

I also went to Kakunodate Densyokan, the heritage museum. Apart from displaying beautiful pieces of Kabazaiku, there is a room displaying possessions (samurai costumes, armour, painting) of the Satake-Kita family, who once ruled Kakunodate.

I watched a man demonstrating Kabazaiku and he explained as best he could in English what he was doing. Before I spoke to him, he was making chopsticks. The museum’s accompanying leaflet explained Kabazaiku:

Kabazaiku is the handicraft art of manufacturing objects from polished mountain cherry bark. The Goshono family of monks (Aikawa, Akita) first introduced the technique of Kabazaiku to Kakunodate over 230 years ago. It began life as a sideline industry for [lower ranking] Samurai. [It was seen as a positive and practical way for samurai to channel their bushido spirit and express their crativity.]

Since then the craft of Kabazaiku has faced many difficulties, but has been successfully passed down from generation to generation and survives to the present day. In the early 1900’s the folk craft movement leader Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889-1961) reemphasized the practical application of this craft in addition to its artistic value. This interpretation, stressing both the functional and aesthetic importance of the object, still endures today. As times have changed so have Kabazaiku products. Different products symbolize different time periods. In the Edo era the Douran (small case) and Inrou (pillbox) were very popular. Now, craftsmen make various objects combining traditional technique with modern-day efficiency, but the most popular item is the tea container.

The craft of Kabazaiku

The museum also contained pottery, Itaya (maple tree) handicrafts, lacquerware and handicrafts (and shoes!) made of straw. The oddest inclusion was a steam generator brought to Kakunodate in 1913. It provided electric power and light to the town and its inhabitants.

I visited a few more houses and realised that I could go to Akita in the afternoon. So, I made my way to the station, taking photos of the beautiful town that I didn’t see in the dark last night.

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