Culture & History

Culture Exploration

Unique Traditional Culture in Kakunodate

There certainly exists evidence showing that people have lived there for a long time. A climate is different in a different area, nature is different in a different climate, and foods are different in different nature. Of course, a root of people is also different.

In a long history people create original culture and continue to pray for the productiveness of grain and state of perfect health so that all the neighbors in the same area get happy. As its evidence there frequently remain some tangible and intangible cultural assets.

What is magnetism in a local area? Does a new one attract people as in a big city? The answer is usually no, and probably it is something already existing although it may not be so attractive for some local people. After all, the magnetism might be “local culture” which consists of their history. So it is helpful to know the local history beforehand, and we recommend to read the information below once before visiting.

Old Samurai Residence

Kakunodate is sometimes known as “Little Kyoto in Michinoku.” Currently its origin is not sure but there exists the historical paper written by Tozawa to record their family history in the beginning of the Edo Period. They built Kakunodate-jo Castle in Hills Furushiro-yama, which was called Komatsu-yama at that time. The height of the hills was 168 meter, and the front of the castle was located to the north so that the retainers could build their residences in the base of the hills. Although the ruler of Japan was changed from Toyotomi to Tokugawa at that time, there was no trouble in Kakunodate, and Tozawa could stably develop the foundations and build their castletown.

In 1602, the domain of Tozawa was moved to Matsuoka in Hitachi, which is now Takahagi-shi in Ibaraki Prefecture. Instead, Satake was relegated to the north of Japan, and they ruled much larger area including Kakunodate than Tozawa. Ashina, who is a vassal of Satake, was assigned to rule Kakunodate but there were a lot of troubles such as the narrow space of the castletown, and the flood and fire damage. These troubles were resolved by building the new castletown in the southern area of Hills Furushiro-yama in 1620.

The castletown built by Ashina had the three streets from north to south. These streets were bended at right angle twice at 350 meters, and then expanded to the south by another 350 meters in preparation for defense. Samurai built their residences and lived in this area, which was called Uchimachi. On the other hand, the southern area from Uchimachi was called Tomachi, and merchants and townspeople lived there. Between Uchimachi and Tomachi there was the 21 meter width separating band where the firebreak mound was built.

For the purpose of defense, there were only two straight roads from east to west. One was in this band and the other was in the commercial area which was next to this band.

In addition, the main street had 11 meters width, and the chief retainers and upper class samurai lived along it. On the other hand, along the eastern street the middle class samurai lived, and along the western street the lower class samurai such as a foot soldier lived.

There exists a difference in their residences by their class and incomes.

The old samurai residence had a gate regardless of its size, and its entrance and reception were located in the next apart from the street. A room assignment and convenience for water were graded by their class and position. Although about 380 years has passed since then, the basic assignment of the streets and residences have been conserved. In particular there still remain the stone for riding and connecting a horse before the gate of the residence, and the hidden window for women to watch a march of the samurai troop.

As shown in the above, Ashina made a lot of efforts to develop the castletown but unfortunately their family were all died after a little. After the extinction of Ashina, Satake-Kita family, which was a branch family of Satake, was assigned to the ruler of Kakunodate. In the early years the agricultural development was rapidly progressed as the first step. In the next, the forest and handicraft industries were encouraged and conserved, and the commercial activities were increased by the improvement of the industrial foundations. As a result Kakunodate became the center of Senboku county in politics, economy and culture.

Culture Flowering

In culture, Kakunodate was particularly admired as an academic district of Kubota domain, and the cultural tradition had been fostered.

The first head of Satake-Kita family in Kakunodate was Yoshichika Satake, who had been a court noble in Kyoto, and the wife of the second head Yoshiaki was a daughter of Sanjo-Nish family in Kyoto. Many heads of Satake-Kita family loved the literary arts, and some vassals and their retainers showed their talents in the artistic and academic activity. Among them, the most famous artist was Naotake Odano, who was the leading authority of “Akita western style painting” and drew the illustration in “Anatomische Tabellen” translated into Japanese.

They were greatly influenced by the culture in Kyoto-style which was firstly fostered by the interaction with Kyoto when the first two heads had the strong connection.

In addition, along the street of the old samurai residences there are a hundred and tens of the weeping cherry trees called “Shidare-zakura.” The nursery stock of these trees were carried from Kyoto by Yoshiaki, and they beautifully bloom every spring even now.

The reason why Kakunodate is admired as Little Kyoto in Michinoku is not only fineness of the streetscape but also the landscape and traditional culture similar to Kyoto.

Ishiguro Family

The residence of Ishiguro is the oldest in existence, and located at the north end of the old samurai residence street. After going through the gate, the main entrance, which has a decorative wooden board supporting its rising gable roof, greets a visitor, and the side entrance exists for private use. In the garden a weeping cherry tree, fir tree and so on are planted. This garden is observable from the Japanese style parlor with the guide. The Japanese storehouse, which was renovated in the Meiji and Taisho Era (1868–1926), is used for exhibition, and the valuable materials are shown for visitors.

Ishiguro had been in charge of finance, and stood out in academic ability. With their knowledge they made a great contribution to the life in Kakunodate. For example they privately opened a school, and firstly introduced the treatment method for smallpox in Kakunodate.

Aoyanagi Family

The residence of Aoyanagi currently has the most expansive grounds in Kakunodate, and its size is about 10,000 square meters. The main house, three storehouses and garden can be seen fully for a fee. In particular the garden is designed with a great attention to detail. Since   the selected seasonable flowers are planted in the garden, there always exist some flowers blooming brilliantly in every season throughout the year. Inside the storehouses, the historical records are exhibited with the explanations.

The main house is a hipped thatched roof, and its Japanese-style parlor is the most luxurious room in the old samurai residences existing in Kakunodate. Consequently it is plausible that Aoyanagi was an upper class samurai and had been a chief of assistants to the ruler in Kakunodate. In the residence there is the cafe “Haikara-kan,” and visitors can take a break while seeing the antique clock and phonograph.

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Iwahashi Family

Iwahashi had been good at military arts, and sometimes played Shinten school art of spearmanship in front of the feudal lord. The residence is much older than others currently existing although there were fires several times in Kakunodate. In 1900 the biggest fire broke out and burned almost all buildings in this area except the residences of Iwahashi and Kawarada because the roofs had been changed to a shingle wooden roof in 1897. In the garden of Iwahashi residence, an oak, chestnut and weeping cherry tree are planted. In particular the oak tree is about 250 years old, and one of the largest trees in Akita.

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Kawarada Family

The residence of Kawarada was built in the traditional Japanese style, and the main entrance and Japanese-style parlor are impressive in the old cultural style. In a different point of view, a visitor can also enjoy the art works in the residence. For example, the spectacle painting on the sliding door, the clip in a butterfly shape and the rain dripping stone in the garden are popular. For each art work, there is an interesting episode relating to their owners. These stories can be told by the guide in the residence.

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Odano Family

The residence of Odano is the nearest old samurai residence from Kakunodate station. In fall, the leaves of Japanese enkianthus are changed into red, and they create harmonized contrast to green of the arrow bamboos at the front garden. Moreover the trees around the residence were ingeniously planted to block light of the sun in summer and cold wind in winter. Although it is not recognizable without explanation, visitors feel admiration for ancient wisdom in life.

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  Speaking of Odano, the most famous artist is Naotake Odano, who drew the cover illustration of “Anatomische Tabellen” translated in Japanese. Not only he but also many heads of Odano family were brilliant in Chinese herbal medicine, military arts and so on. While enjoying the traditional atmosphere in the residence, it is interesting to imagine how they lived and studied there with heart and soul.


Parade of Festival Float in Kakunodate

 Speaking of Kakunodate, it cannot be avoidable that the festival is held from seventh to ninth in September. The name of the festival is “Parade of Festival Float in Kakunodate,” which is usually called “Collision of Festival Float” by the local people. It is registered to the national important intangible cultural asset in 1991, and UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2016. The festival has been continued from a middle of the Edo Period to pray for prosperity of the community and state of perfect health. Many natives of Kakunodate return and join this festival even though some of them live outside Akita Prefecture.

  In every year craftspeople and volunteers make a festival float, and it is grand and impressive at rest, and in addition it overwhelms audiences during the festival. To be blessed the festival floats are carried to Kakunodate-Shinmeisha on the first day and Jojuin-Yakushido on the next day. In the evening of the last day, all the floats are carried around the whole town and the festival reaches a climax. If the two floats encounter, the carriers fight over the right to go first. When men on the float call out for keeping in step, the two floats are struck each other. Sometimes the tip of one float gets on the other, and the tilted float also has a big impact. When the floats go around the town, the dance with a festival music is also beautiful, and the audience are fascinated it very much.

 It is strongly recommended to visit and feel the hot atmosphere in the whole town.

written by Sugawara, Akita University

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