A Day In Kakunodate, A Beautiful Old Samurai Town
Breakfast at Yamanoyada in the Nyuto Onsen mountain area, is a festive affair.
When we arrived, the fire was already glowing in the central open Pit of the private dining room that was assigned to us.
On the floor next to our cushions, stood two small lacquered trays on low feet.
On each tray was an array of small yummy dishes.
There were the house-made pickles, a seaweed dish, a baked egg omelet dish, and a few other dishes.
Dinner at this mountain retreat, is served in the same festive “Irori” way.
“Irori” is a traditional Japanese way of eating grilled food by a campfire, only it is done nowadays in a most sophisticated way…
Each dining area has an Irori open square fire pit, which is filled with sand.
In the middle of it there is a small fire, and a small grill is placed on it.
Above the fire, they hang a cast iron pot bubbling with soup that is self-served with a large wooden spoon.
The food is grilled over oak wood coals and it is called Akita Sumibiyaki (foods grilled over Japanese oak).
We were served an Irori salt-grilled Iwana (local river and lake trout), and many combinations of delicious Sansai dishes (also spelled SanZai, meaning Mountain Vegetables).
Some local dishes like Yamanoimo Nabe, (Japanese Mountain yam) are an acquired taste…. And one that I am still working on loving… While Jules has fully admitted that this form of grated mountain yam, is not to his liking…. Although he did eat and love the mountain potato fried in a small cake.
After our special and unhurried breakfast, we took the shuttle bus to the local station, hoping to catch a train to Kakunodate, where we planned to spend the day.
I stood in line to purchase the bus tickets.
Everyone around us was dressed for a day of hiking, with hiking equipment, boots and hats.
I heard the many Japanese people ahead of me, asking to buy a ticket to “Eki Made” (Going to the station).
Since I knew that there was only one train station in town, I also purchased a ticket to the Station.
The price was exactly the same as the price we paid to get from the Train station to the Onsen Area, so I was not suspicious that it might be the wrong bus….
The minute the bus turned up into the mountains, we recognized that we had taken the wrong bus.
It was filled with nothing but day hikers, going to the Eightth Station on the mountain, from which they will start their hike to the summit.
It was still a lovely bus ride up a beautiful mountain, and after we explained to the bus driver that we made a mistake, he did not ask us pay, and we were able to use the tickets we had bought to go to the actual JR station.
We took the train to Kakunodate which was only one stop away.
Kakunodate is a Samurai town that is more than four hundred years old.
It is a small town filled with small workshops that produce local pickles, local miso, local soy sauce, local beer, local soba noodles, local craft made from cherry tree bark and many local sweets.
At the center of town there is an old historic district with large Samurai homes, each with its own beautiful entrance gate and each surrounded with beautiful old gardens.
Many of those old homes have been converted into tea houses or places to dine, souvenir shops or small museums.
A few of the houses are not open to the public, and a few charge a modest entrance fee.
The gates to those houses are open, and you are welcome to wander into the gardens and have a peek into the beautiful tatami mat interiors, but you are asked not to walk into the rooms and not to walk on the old tatami mats.
The interiors of these Samurai homes, are simple yet very appealing.
The rooms are open and empty, and if there is any decoration hanging, it is usually a beautiful watercolor painting either painted directly on the rice paper covering a door, a closet or a wall.
The historic streets are lined with tall majestic trees and most of the gardens have an air of mystery and harmony to them.
At the local craft museum, we were able to learn a little bit about the cherry tree bark craft that has been done in this area for hundreds of years.
It is done by carefully stripping the bark of a cherry tree, without cutting down the tree.
They strip down the bark in small sections, making sure to leave an equal section of the bark untouched.
This make a branch look like a zebra, in which twenty centimeter sections are alternately removed or are left untouched.
This is done so the tree will be able to renew its bark and not get diseased.
From the peeled bark, they make small personal items that look like a cherry veneer, and are polished with a fine sand paper and lacquered for protection.
One of the famous small items that was made in that same traditional way for hundreds of years, is a container to hold loose tea leaves.
I bought one of those loose tea containers to take home with me, since we are tea lovers.
Each one is handmade in this small workshop, and people recognize their beauty and they are loved, so they were not inexpensive.
After the Samurai historic district, we walked along the river, in what is affectionately called the “Cherry Tunnel.”
It is considered to be one of the 100 most scenic spots in Japan.
Two rows of old cherry trees were planted on the banks of the Hinokinai river, for a length of a two kilometers’ stroll.
People from all over Japan, come here when the Sakura cherry trees are in bloom, to walk in the shade of these majestic trees.
By now, these old cherry trees are very large and gnarly, and their branches hook together to form this “cherry tunnel” walk by the river.
Even in the summer, I enjoyed very much this shaded walk and I could see how nice it feels to appreciate the changing of the seasons, as reflected by these beautiful cherry trees.
We saw a few lovely restaurants in Kakunodate, but because we had the meal plan at our Onsen Mountain resort, we knew that dinner will be another feast fit for kings…. So instead of lunch we bought some unbelievably tasty cookies in a bakery that was arranged like a jewelry store….each cookie had a shape and a design and was individually wrapped.
We munched on them as we walked the elegant streets of Kakunodate, a beautiful old Samurai town.
It occurred to me that we are in the midst of old Samurai country.
We are staying in a Hot Springs that was built for the Samurai.
Every day we are eating traditional mountain food that was invented over a thousand years ago, that was favored by the Samurai, and it tastes SOOOOO Yummy and wholesome….
We are soaking in the same sulfurous hot springs in which old Samurai, fair skinned Japanese beauties and lords soaked in…
And today we saw how the Samurai lived, walked into their homes admired their gardens, offered our blessings at their shrines…
One of the highest codes of behavior that the Samurai lived by, was that of ABSOLUTE INTEGRITY.
The level of integrity achieved in Japan during the reign of the Samurai was unparalleled.
The code of the Samurai required absolute integrity and morality.
The Samurai did not fear death.
They believed with outmost conviction that life was continual, which led them to develop a high level of integrity in their choice of behavior.
Cowardliness was seen as lack of Spiritual understanding… What is there to fear, when there is NO DEATH….? And only a chance to reincarnate again and again and again…
The Samurai trained in sword wielding, but the majority of their training included MIND-training, in which they worked to train the mind to achieve a non-thinking, non-mind state.
A trained and clear mind, is not clouded by thinking, by hesitating, and is not paralyzed by fear.
They believed that One must become one with the sword and one with the moment….
The Samurai believed that loyalty,
Attention to details, and Absolute INTEGRITY, were necessary to achieve success in life, as well as to win battles and to develop a strong Spirit and to advance forward towards Enlightenment.