A day in Kakunodate Samurai Village
The Shinkansen pulled away with a lurch from Toyko station at 6:00 am. The sky was a deep purple and the sun hadn’t peeked over the horizon. Outside, the streets were mostly vacant, save a few bicyclists making their way to work in their business suits, their single bike lights gliding in the dark like spirits.
As the train picked up speed, I pulled out a small bag of chocolate purchased on the platform. I inspected the red package, tore the corner, and shared some with Jeremy, who had already discovered our chairs could recline and was settling into his aisle seat. He looked at me with exhaustion on his face, but eagerness in his eyes. We were ready for a change of pace. The neon signs and cramped spaces of Tokyo combined with the mental strain of constantly trying to navigate the complex subway systems and unmarked streets had worn us out and overstimulated our senses.
Our destination was the small northern town of Kakunodate, a historic place in the Akita prefecture. It is home to a samurai village, a well-preserved collection of traditional Japanese houses, owned by samurai during the Edo period. The plan was to arrive early morning, walk around and then have lunch before taking another train to Akita for the night.
Small houses sit at the edge of dense forests in the Japanese Countryside, the fog creeps through the toothpick thin trees.
Within 15 minutes of leaving the train station, our scenery changed from high rises and bridges into large expanses of green and yellow fields divided by narrow gravel roads. Off in the distance, small houses clustered at the edge of dense forests with trees tall and thin like toothpicks. The shinkansen whizzed on, the scenery blurring behind the rain-streaked glass.
Our rain-streaked view from the shinkansen to Kakunodate Samurai Village
After three hours speeding through fields and small towns, we arrived at our stop in Kakunodate. We quickly shoved our bags in lockers and ventured out into the quiet puddled streets, umbrellas in hand. The town was virtually empty, with not a sole out braving the early Sunday morning rain. We walked past blocks and blocks of used shoe stores and restaurants, their storefronts dimmed and signs turned off. The rain picked up, as we continued onward, in search of any sign of the Samurai village.
A vending machine and beer boxes outside a closed store in Kakunodate, Japan
We checked the quickly disintegrating paper map of the village more than once, it’s surface now smattered with raindrops and blurry ink. As soon as we thought we were good and lost, with no soul in sight to give us directions, we happened upon a wide lane, lined with dark wood fences and tall trees reaching over them with their branches still full of bright green leaves. On each side of the street, a deep channel of running water ran along the sidewalk with small concrete bridges to mark the fence entrances. We had finally arrived at the samurai village and we had it all to ourselves.
The wide lane marking the Kakunodate Samurai Village area
The narrow channel of water flowing along the fences
We walked along the lane to the sound of rain hitting our umbrellas and the rushing water in the channel below. For the first time in our entire trip, I felt at peace. We hopped over puddles, and ducked into doorways of each samurai house, admiring the craftsmanship of the old woodworking techniques. We walked through each house, pointing out the subtle differences in floor plans, contemplating the purpose of each room. Their history was ever-present, lingering in the air, old and silent, like dust moving through a beam of sunlight.
Wet stone steps leading up to a Samurai house museum in Kakunodate
A Samurai house in Kakunodate Samurai Village
The entrance of a samurai house
Many traditional houses in Japan have an open layout with screen partitions.
The long narrow rows of wood is a common design element in Japanese architecture and design.
A personal shrine cleaning well outside a Samurai house
A personal shrine with red tori gate in Kakunodate
A red postal box catches my eye in Kakunodate
An old edo period village map of the Kakunodate Samurai Village
Later in the morning, we realized we were no longer alone in the Samurai village. Small groups of umbrella-wielding tourists lead by a guide marched from building to building snapping pictures.
The heavy rain does not deter some die-hard tourists looking to explore the samurai village
We spent the next few hours exploring our share of samurai history and perusing local artisan shops. Off in the distance, a low repetitive drumming and clang of a tambourine could be heard. As we approached, we saw a group of women performing and beckoning tourists to enter. Jeremy looked longingly but knew that the sound of my stomach growling would outweigh his desire to find out the source of the music.
A personal pond in one of the Samurai house gardens
We returned back to town, soggy and satisfied. We found a small restaurant, now open, and were greeted by an elderly woman who motioned for us to sit down at the western style tables. After 10 minutes of translating the menu with google translate and viewing the photos, we made our choices. Jeremy opted for a rice porridge type dish, and I pointed at the Akita style ramen. It looked safe enough and on a cold rainy day like this, a hot bowl of soup sounded perfect.
Cold Akita style Ramen in Kakunodate, Japan
As we waited a few more patrons entered and sat at the lower Japanese style tables. The windows began to steam up and the place, once silent but for the sounds of the kitchen was alive with chatter. Our food came out, and to Jeremy’s surprise, the porridge was exactly what he wanted. I, on the other hand, looked down at my goopy cold soup dish and tried not to gag. I had learned that Akita style ramen is served cold and slimy. Numerous piles of slimy textures sat fixed in my goop. I did my best to eat the noodles and mushrooms, leaving the goopiest parts to be mixed in. I was dissatisfied with my choice but still glad I had tried something different.
After our lunch, we found ourselves back at the platform, ready to venture onward to Akita.
Our brief stop in Kakunodate felt like hitting pause. We needed a moment of quiet, a moment of peace and history to recharge.
The famous Cherry blossom grove along the river in Kakunodate is still beautiful in the fall.