While Akita City has lost nearly all of its historical relics, nearby Kakunodate (角館) still has the air of a feudal town, with its strictly delineated samurai and merchants’ quarters. Kakunodate was established as a military outpost in 1620 by the lords of Akita, with a castle on a hill to the north, a samurai town of around eighty residences, and 350 merchants’ homes in a cramped district to the south. This basic layout and a handful of the samurai houses have survived the years, as have several hundred of the weeping cherry trees brought from Kyoto three centuries ago. It’s still an atmospheric place, and although you can visit on a day trip from either Akita or Morioka, it merits an overnight stay.
Pick up a town map from the tourist information centre before setting off for the samurai quarter, roughly fifteen minutes’ walk northwest. You can’t miss the division between the packed streets of the commercial town – now mostly modern and rather run-down – and the wide avenues where the samurai lived in their spacious mansions among neatly fenced gardens. The most interesting of the samurai houses is the Aoyagi-ke (青柳家), a large, thatched house towards the northern end of the samurai quarter, which is easily identified by an unusually grand entrance gate. Aoyagi-ke was built in 1890 and occupied until 1985; it now contains an odd mix of galleries, including samurai armour, agricultural implements, memorabilia from the Sino-Japanese and Pacific wars, and a wonderful display of antique gramophones and cameras.
A little further up the same street, the impressive Ishiguro-ke (石黒家) is one of the oldest of Kakunodate’s samurai houses. Built in 1809 for the daimyō’s financial adviser, its main features are two large fireproof warehouses (kura) used for storing rice, miso and other valuables. At the top end of the street, inside a sterile, green concrete exterior, the Hirafuku Memorial Art Museum (平福記念美術館; daily) houses a small but decent collection of traditional Japanese art. Heading south again, the Denshōkan (伝承館) occupies a more attractive red-brick building. This museum of Satake-clan treasures also doubles as a training school for kaba-zaiku, the local craft in which boxes, tables and tea caddies are coated with a thin veneer of cherry bark. Developed in the late eighteenth century to supplement the income of impoverished samurai, kaba-zaiku is now Kakunodate’s trademark souvenir. If you prefer your bark still on the trees, turn right outside the Denshōkan, where there’s a 2km tunnel of cherry trees along the Hinokinai-gawa embankment.