I escaped busy Tokyo and headed north to see some traditional towns in Akita Province. My JR East Pass allowed me to see more places than I hoped for. Definitely my favourite was Kakunodate. This small town is enclosed on three sides by mountains and the Hinokinai-gawa River that runs to the South. At first it might look modest, but do not be deceived, because Kakunodate is one of the most traditional and charming towns in Akita Prefecture. Many samurai houses still remain as a part of Kakunodate architecture, making it one of the best examples of a Japanese castle town. While Kakunodate Castle, otherwise known as Asakura or Ryugasaki Castle no longer exists, many of the hangovers from that period remain.
The most beautiful thing about Kakunodate is its fantastic smell. Delicate scent from pine trees and fresh mountain air hit your nostrils as soon as you leave the train station. It becomes sweeter and more floral in the Samurai Houses' gardens and intensifies when you get closer to the pine woods of Kakunodate.
If you want to experience the real atmosphere of this charming town, turn off your GPS and walk off the main tourist path. There is plenty to see in small side streets. You will find many traditional Japanese residences and stunning gardens. There are small Shinto shrines around every corner. Tiny barber shops, tailors and florists are hiding in quiet alleys. Unique old cafes and small restaurants can be found, if you wander off the beaten track. Finish your walk in the samurai houses area and see how history comes to life. You can enter some of the buildings, sometimes an entrance fee is required.
If you are interested in seeing traditional crafts of Kakunodate, visit the Heritage Centre. At the end of Samurai Houses Street, there is a Samurai Manor Museum. For ¥500 you can learn about Samurai armory, folklore of Akita, traditional maple art work and cherry barks craft. When you stroll through the samurai district, be sure not to miss local sweets shops. I recommend trying sesame flavour ice cream, one of the most delicious I have ever tasted!
The easiest way to get to Kakunodate is surely by Shinkansen. I used my JR East Pass to travel there from Tokyo, and it took just three hours on the extra comfortable bullet train. Right next to the station, there is a tourist office. They provide tourist information in English, free Wi-Fi, free use of a computer and a town map with the most important tourist attractions. Their office is open every day from 9am to 6pm.
Kakunodate is one of those magical small towns reminding us about beautiful Japanese history, so make sure not to miss it!