The primary reason we made a stop in Kakunodate, other than the amazing Wabizakura ryokan, was the samurai district which offers glimpses into the way samurai lived. The samurai district of Kakunodate is known to offer some of the best examples of samurai architecture and residences in all of Japan.
Episode 11: https://youtu.be/p6euB8gn-fQ
For the first time on this trip I managed to sleep past daybreak, waking up to see daylight starting to replace the darkness I had become accustomed to starting my day in. It was a great feeling, I had been struggling with jet lag for an unusual length of time on this trip. I was also happy as I laid in bed enjoying the beautiful scenery out the large window in front of our cozy futons.
I celebrated with a soak in the private onsen we were lucky to have in our room. I opened up the sliding windows and let the brisk fresh air flood into the bathroom as I hid my body in the hot, soothing waters of the bath. It’s a morning ritual I could easily adopted, especially in the cold winter months of Canada. Nicole eventually found her way out of bed and into the onsen and we both enjoyed the soak while watching the snow which had obscured the mountains off in the distance.
While we really wanted to, we couldn’t soak the day away, there was an exciting outing awaiting us after another leisurely Japanese breakfast. This was another ritual which we could both easily adapt to, being presented a beautiful meal in a private room overlooking a picturesque garden. Breakfast was almost as varied as dinner the night before, several different intricately presented dishes. We must have been hungry, we devoured every last bit. The food has been outstanding.
We had a little time before the ryokan shuttle service would take us into town. We relaxed in the room for a bit, and I got our gear ready for the day. I also made an instant coffee which I found in the fancy tea set in our room. It was very similar to a dripon which I showed in a Sapporo episode. I needed that! I cannot remember if I forgot to ask or it wasn’t offered, but there was no coffee at breakfast.
Ready for the day we headed down to the lobby, out to the front and jumped into the van and were off to Kakunodate. The drive is not too long, maybe about 20 minutes, but it’s an interesting and scenic drive. The ryokan is situated in the countryside outside the city of Kakunodate, not only do we pass beautiful fields with mountains off in the distance, but we get to see some of the local life. Homes and small farms outside the tourist center is always a fascinating thing to see.
The shuttle drops us off at our first stop for the day, Ando brewery. Unlike the Nikka brewery we visited in Yoichi, this brewery does not produce alcohol, but rather soya sauce and miso. The establishment is an interesting mix of retail shop, tasting room and beautiful tatami reception room. We start in the tatami room, which is a large room surrounded by beautiful gold panel walls. There are some artifacts in the room, including some pictures of events being held in that very room. Upon leaving the room we notice some details we had read about, namely the massive fire proof doors and red brick walls protecting the room. Kakunodate had several devastating fires and in the 1800s buildings started to be built with brick and fire proof doors and window shutters.
Next up was the tasting room which had several soya sauce, miso, soup and teas to sample. There were a lot of tables, kind of like a little cafe and being a weekday in the offseason, we were the only ones there. We got an array of samples and sat down at a table and gave them a try. Most everything was exceptional, the miso soup stands out in memory not only because it was delicious but because it was a nice shot of warmth on that chilly day.
The retail shop was the last stop in the Ando brewery where we found a large array of products to buy and sample. We picked up a few bottles of soya sauce and a sesame based sauce, thanked the staff who were extremely friendly, and headed on our way to the samurai district.
Navigating from the Ando brewery to the samurai district was extremely easy as they were all on the same road. The Ando brewery is in the merchant district on one side of Kakunodate, and you just have to follow the road to the other side of Kakunodate to the samurai district. It’s a 10-15 minute leisurely stroll.
The atmosphere definitely changes as you cross over Yoko-machi into the samurai district. The buildings become less dense, with each one separated by quite a bit of land. The architecture is also noticeably different, going from more modern, brick buildings to old-style wooden structures. The road itself also changes, from a cramped street lined by buildings to an open and airy street lined with massive weeping cherry trees, famous for their blossoms in spring.
We stroll down the street taking in the sights. Each residence feeling slightly different but all sharing definite themes. Beautiful wood construction with sweeping roof lines, well maintained Japanese gardens all fenced in by wooden walls with gated entrance ways. It does really feel as if you walked into a bit of living history, especially if you allow your imagination ignore some of the modern touches added here and there.
As we made our way down to our destination, a specific samurai residence, one of six open to the public, it started to snow. It added a beautiful atmosphere to the scene in front of us. Seeing it all in full cherry blossom bloom would be outstanding, but nice fluffy snow is a close second for us.
A few detours into some shops along the way, we clue into one of the cherished crafts of Kakunodate. As we find out, Kakunodate is famous for cherry tree bark crafts, ranging from bookmarks, tea scopes, cups, bowls, to almost anything you might imagine. How these items are crafted from bark is beyond me, but it does create an amazing look.
Nearing the end of our outing we come to the Aoyagi Samurai House Museum. Of the six residences open to the public, this is one of two especially well known. It’s also somehow associated with our ryokan as we gain free access with our stay. Samurai were paid a salary or received land for their services, and this family seems to have been paid handsomely in land. They have an impressive amount of land, beautifully manicured, all fenced in. There are several buildings on the grounds, and we managed to explore three of them.
The most impressive in our opinions was the larger of the buildings, the armoury, which housed the main exhibit. They had a large display of samurai armour, swords, flags, banners, and sword guards. It would take pages to highlight all the items that were on display. For us the samurai armour were favourites, along with the weapons. Nicole was also really impressed with some of the embroidery on display, noting intricate stitching and patterns.
One of the highlights was the ability to pickup a real samurai sword. They had it in a protective case, with just the handle sticking out, you mainly could get a sense for the weight of the sword, which was surprisingly heavy. You’d have to be in a good shape to wield one of these swords.
The third building we explored was full of more recent relics, namely artifacts from WWII and an impressive record collection amassed by the family.
Sadly the last surviving member of the family passed away some 50 years ago, but we are very happy to see the upkeep of their history. Someone is taking great care of the grounds, buildings and artifacts, and if you ever make your way to Kakunodate we definitely recommend a visit.
By the time we finished our tour we had to rush up to the end of the street to meet our ride. It was only 2pm, we had several hours to enjoy the ryokan before dinner. We couldn’t wait to reach the hot waters of our onsen after a chilly afternoon exploring Kakunodate.
Our day was capped off my another outstanding kaiseki meal. We have noticed at other ryokan, and the Wabizakura was no different, that the more nights you stay, the more elaborate the dinners seem to get. Almost as if you level up. 🙂
What an amazing day, a good mix of exploration and R&R.
If you are interested in visiting Kakunodate do check out the samurai district. I found this page a good one to give a good idea of how the merchant and samurai districts are laid out.
- Kakunodate Sanso Wabizakura (Ryokan) – An amazing modern ryokan which maintains a traditional feel. The food was top notch, prepared by a 2 Michelin star chef.
- Ando Brewery – An interesting building to explore housing delicious wares to take home.
- Aoyagi Samurai House Museum – Definitely a highlight of the day, the samurai artifacts on display are fascinating. If you are a samurai buff you would not be disappointed with a visit to this museum.
There were several locations featured in this episode
Thanks for watching/reading!