David Chart's Japan Diary

May 5th 2007

So, back from holiday. Back from our last holiday as a couple for quite some time. Fortunately, it was quite good enough to play that role; we will, I think, have good memories of this week for the rest of our lives, quite apart from showing our child pictures and saying "you're in there!". I know that at least some people want to know about our holiday, so here's a report, with pictures.

The destination for this trip was Tohoku, the north-eastern region of Japan. This is the bit that most foreign tourists don't get to; you have to go quite a long way north of Tokyo to reach it, and while foreigners do visit Hokkaido, they tend to skip Tohoku. We went in Golden Week, the annual set of four national holiday at the end of April and beginning of May, which meant that some places were very busy. Not, however, everywhere, which was interesting. We travelled predominantly by train and bus, with a lot of reserved shinkansen seats to make sure that Yuriko could sit down everywhere. We went for seven days and six nights, over several centres, so I'll split the report into sections.


The first stop was Kakunodate (the final "date" is two syllables, "dah" and "teh", not "date" as in the day of the month). This is a small town in Akita Prefecture, famous for its samurai homes. It is also, conveniently, a shinkansen stop, and thus one train from Tokyo. Granted, it takes oover three hours, but you don't need to change, and the shinkansen are comfortable. The route is nice, too; for the latter part, the train is going through mountains, which means great views when you aren't in a tunnel. There were also a number of level crossings, which seemed a bit odd. Although Japan has a lot more level crossings than England, I somehow don't think of the shinkansen as having them. The station at Kakunodate was also quite small, like a normal rural station, which also didn't really seem to fit with the shinkansen image. Still, the journey was easy and pleasant, and we arrived mid-afternoon.

The view from our room The view from our room in Kakunodate.

The first job was checking into our hotel. We stayed in the Tamachi Bukeyashiki Hotel, and it was very nice. I booked the hotel six months ago, and at that point, just after reservations were opened, there was only one room left. (You can book multiple nights from that day, which is how the rooms could be booked before booking for that day opened.) The hotel is actually a new building, but it doesn't look like it; it is very nicely done in the style of the old samurai homes of the town. The room was tatami style, although they do have western rooms, and the food was served in the attached restaurant.

At dinner in Kakunodate Yuriko and me at dinner in the hotel in Kakunodate.

The food was very good. In the evening, it was Italian/Japanese fusion, with pasta and the like. It was all delicious, and a good amount. Breakfast was Japanese style, including a whole grilled fish that still contained eggs. That was an interesting experience, and a tasty one. Overall, we were very happy with the hotel.

Cherry trees by the river The cherry trees along the river. The river curves to the left beyond the red bridge, so the trees follow it.

Since we arrived in the afternoon, we went out to do a bit of sightseeing on the first day, which was April 28th. Kakunodate is also famous for its cherry blossoms, and, thanks to being in the north of Japan, they bloom around the end of April, right in Golden Week. This is one of the reasons that it is such a popular destination at that time. There are two areas of famous cherry blossoms, and the one we went to see first is along the large river running through the town. There is a tunnel of cherry trees two kilometres long running along one back, with a path through it, and a park running alongside the river. Conveniently, it's close to the hotel, and you can walk along the river to reach the historic parts of the town. I would guess that the flowers here were about 80% open, so they already looked great, as you can see from the picture. There also were not too many people around, although things did get more crowded as we approached the main tourist area in the north of the town. The town holds a Cherry Blossom Festival every year, which means food stalls, and people gathering to sit on plastic sheets and ignore the flowers.

On the second day, the 29th, we walked back along the river from our sightseeing, and saw a number of groups who weren't just eating and drinking. They also had Japanese drums, which someone was beating while someone else played a flute. In one group, two young women were dancing a traditional festival dance, which looked a little odd as they were both in jeans rather than kimono. That's not something you see in Tokyo, and Yuriko asked about it when we got back to the hotel. Apparently, there is a big summer festival, and the groups that do that also get together for the cherry blossoms, take their drums along, and make their own small festivals.

I don't have pictures of that, because I didn't want to take any. They weren't performing for tourists, they were just enjoying themselves in the sunshine and with the cherry blossoms. This is, then, one aspect of the "Real Japan".

The historic parts of Kakunodate, on the other hand, are not. They are preserved as tourist attractions, which means that they are about as fake as something that actually exists can be. In the Edo Period, Kakunodate was a castle town, although there is nothing left of the castle now. As in most castle towns, the samurai who served the lord lived in houses below the castle, with the highest-ranked samurai closest to the castle, and ranks falling as you moved away. Then there was the area for non-samurai townsfolk. Kakunodate is famous because quite a lot of the samurai houses have been preserved, which means that not only does it have historic houses, it also has a historic streetscape.

Kakunodate streetscape The streetscape in Kakunodate.

However fake it may be, the streetscape is very attractive, particularly in cherry blossom season. This is because there are a lot of weeping cherry trees planted along the roads, and their blossoms cascade down over the black wooden fences that mark the grounds of the houses. This scene appeared on quite a few of the tourism posters we saw, generally with one or two attractive women in kimono looking at the flowers. In reality, there were few kimonos, and lots and lots of people.

The surviving houses seem to fall into three categories. The first are open to the public as, essentially, museums. You can go in and look around, and there are guides to explain things to you (in Japanese). In Golden Week, the guides talk quite quickly, but maybe they are a little more relaxed at other times of the year. We went in one of these on the 28th, one that belonged to a high-level samurai family.

A samurai home One of the samurai homes in Kakunodate.

The second group are open to the public, but serve a function other than that of museum. We went in a couple of these on the 29th. One had been largely converted into a pickle shop and factory. Japanese people like their pickles, and Yuriko's father particularly likes them, so we bought some and had them shipped to her parents. One of the old warehouses had been converted into a museum to show some artefacts of from the samurai family. The warehouse itself was important because it was built of brick in the Meiji period, which made it rather different from most of the others.

Another such house was a complex of several buildings: the main house and four or five warehouses. The main house is now a tea room, where we had a cherry-blossom flavour soft ice cream. One of the warehouses is a souvenir shop, another is a restaurant, and another two are museums, although one was closed when we were there. The open one was interesting, as it had things like the diaries that family members had kept on trips to Tokyo on display.

The final group are not open to the public. Interestingly, it seems that a lot of the houses are still in the families that used to be samurai families. In a couple of cases, there were family trees on display, showing the thirteen generations of the family down to the present day. The house where we had icecream belongs to the Nishi-no-Miya family, and the family museum displays their transformation from samurai, through landlords, to traders. In some ways, that was the most impressive one, as the family have clearly approached the changing times positively, and seem to be doing quite well out of it.

Like most places in Japan, Kakunodate has famous local products. For food, it is Inaniwa Udon, a noodle dish. Naturally, we had that for lunch. The restaurant is in a converted Edo-period school, which may be the oldest surviving building in the town. It certainly has a nice atmosphere, although it was busy, with a line stretching into the street. They also had a special menu for the cherry blossom period: Inaniwa Udon, hot or cold. I think they may actually offer a choice at other times of the year. Of course, even if there had been a choice we would have eaten the speciality, so it didn't make any difference. It was good. One of the nice things about Japan is that, as a rule, even the restaurants in the centre of tourist traps are good, and not too expensive.

Kakunodate's other famous product is cherry bark work. This is made by glueing thin pieces of cherry bark over other woods, and the craft dates back to the Edo period, when the samurai used it to supplement their income from not-particularly-rich fiefs. The final effect is very attractive, so I bought a couple of coasters, and Yuriko bought me three bookmarks, which are now in use.

And that just about wraps up Kakunodate. A day there was just the right length of time, I think, although we could, perhaps, have made use of another couple of hours. Still, we saw most things, and had a really good time. As you can tell from the photographs, the weather was glorious, and there was a nice breeze, which meant that it didn't get too hot. This is, I think, somewhere that Mum and Ray would like, and the hotel also doe western-style breakfasts if you book in advance (I checked), so I may send them there at some point. Although possibly not right in Golden Week.

Well, this is only the first day of the trip. It's got quite long, though, so I think I'll leave it here, and continue later, probably tomorrow.