Monday, February 4, 2013

Kakunodate: Time Travel to the Days of Samurai

The third part of our first bus trip completely made up for the slightly gloomy second stop. The last area we journeyed to is considered to be the “little Kyoto of Akita.” It's a beautiful neighborhood called Kakunodate, which was formerly a samurai town. It still retains much of the traditional architecture and style of pre-war Japan, and walking around there feels like stepping into another time. Many of the samurai houses—expansive buildings with large gardens—are open to the public as museums. One of these houses was the first place we went to. Since it was still early spring, the gardens were not that green, but it was still a beautiful house.

The first section inside the house was a collection of samurai suits of armor, swords, and other assorted weapons. This place was like a dream come true for Justin, who is a sword fanatic. This was the one time he insisted on operating my camera, taking as many pictures as possible. He admired the designs in the blades, caused by carefully controlling temperature differences in the final stages of forging. As a student of iaido, or the art of drawing one's sword, his respect for the katana is considerable, but I think he might have left some drool on the cases surrounding them. We were also impressed by the full sets of armor, in bright red and blue colors, with fierce helmets used to intimidate the opponent.

(A couple sword blades. You can see the color variation in the center of the blade. It's almost like the signature of a craftsman.)

(A set of red samurai armor. It looks like he has the face a demon on his helmet. Rawr!)

After the swords was a treat for me: two beautiful kimono as well as sleeping kimono. The normal kimono were gorgeous and intricately detailed. The sleeping kimono were fascinating; they were pretty much like Japanese Snuggies, where they covered the whole body but you slept in them like sleeping bags. They were thick and looked pretty comfy. After that we perused Japanese furniture, artwork, and pottery. There was a beautiful collection of old cameras, as well as a collection of old music players like gramophones and a Thomas Edison phonograph.

(Two beautiful kimono on display.)

(The toasty sleeping kimono.)

(My favorite of the old cameras.)

(Edison phonograph, surrounded by the music cylinders.)

One of my favorite parts of the museum was the doll collection. They had these beautiful flat dolls made out of cloth, as well as an assortment of extremely tiny figurines. I was especially excited to see antique versions of the hina matsuri dolls I mentioned in a previous post. In the picture below, you can see that even after years of weathering, and although her colors have faded, the old Empress doll is still as beautiful as the bright new one.

(One of the flat dolls made of cloth.)

(The antique hina matsuri empress doll. Isn't her headdress just gorgeous?)

After the first museum, we wandered into the streets. With only the pavement to mark their place in the modern day, I felt like I was walking through the Edo period down pathways of cherry blossoms. Across the way, a vender was selling soft-serve cherry blossom flavored ice cream. Trying our best to smile while the Japanese visitors stared at us, Justin and I each ordered a cone topped with ice cream the color of ballet slippers. Sakura ice cream has a very interesting taste. There is definitely the taste of cherry, but it is quite floral, with a slight tang to it. It was delicious, but at the same time each bite made me go “hmm” just because it tasted so unusual.

We visited a second museum, where we saw a complicated instrument called a shou, made of 17 bamboo pipes that is said to imitate the sound and shape of a phoenix ( It sounds sort of like a mini organ.

(The Japanese instrument called the shou).

(The first couple minutes of this video show you how the shou is played, and what it sounds like.)

I also saw tools made in the mokume gane fashion, which is a style of melding different kinds of metal together to look like wood. This style was invented by Denbei Shoami in the 17th century, and it usually includes soft metals such as gold, silver, copper, and various alloys ( Below is a beautiful jewelry box, but there were also bowls, vases, and even a matcha tea container and scoop. Incidentally, my mom and step-dad's wedding rings are also made in the mokume gane fashion.

(A mokume gane jewelry box. It looks like gold laminated wood.)

After the second museum, Justin and I wandered over the the sakura lined river that runs through Kakunodate. Although it was still cloudy, the white blossoms stretching over the water was breathtaking and tranquil. I think we were there during a cherry blossom festival, because next to the river was an array of stands. Justin and I bought some delicious meat kabobs, and watched school-age children dance in a nihon buyo performance. If you have read my post about Japanese traditional dancing, then you have seen these videos, but I'll post them again at the bottom.

(The sakura lined pathways above the river bed.)

(The sakura trees along the bank of the river.)

(Looking through blossoms.)

(Am I the kami of this beautiful tree? No just a delighted tourist!)

Kakunodate was beautiful and full of wonderful things to see. There were many shops I never got to visit, because before long we were all ushered back onto the bus to go home. I wish I could have stayed many hours more. Like Lake Tazawa, I hope to return to this lovely little town, untouched by time, and experience all its charms.

Have you ever been to Kakunodate or another town designed to preserve traditional culture? What did you think of it? Would you ever get a wedding ring made from woven metals? Do you think the shou sounds like a phoenix?

(Me by the pinkest cherry tree I saw my whole trip!)

(The young nihon buyo performers at the cherry blossom festival near the river.)

(Even younger performers. So cute!)

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