Want to get a feel for Japan’s feudal past? Wander any one of the samurai quarters scattered about the country to get a taste of how the warrior class lived. While much of Japan’s medieval architecture is gone, several cities and towns still manage to preserve their historic neighborhoods. Below are some of my top five recommendations for bringing a bit of Japan’s history to life.
1. Kakunodate (Akita Prefecture)
This small city in the center of northern Japan boasts a beautifully-preserved bukeyashiki (samurai house or neighborhood), consisting of several blocks of residences that once housed about 80 families. The gates to the various estates, being one of the ways a samurai expressed his wealth, are one of the town’s most impressive features. You can pop into a few of the old residences, the most noted being the Aoyagi house, which comprises the house as well as several museums and craft shops in the outlying buildings.. In the spring, expect busloads of visitors when the area’s cherry blossoms burst into color.
2. Matsue (Shimane Prefecture)
The samurai quarter in this castle town only comprises one long street but it’s a beautiful one. Large gates give way to views of perfectly-tended interior gardens, while the life and times of famous foreign-born writer and Matsue resident Lafcadio Hearn are housed in two of the older properties (one being his home when he lived in the city). The best sight is the house known literally as the Matsue Buke Yashiki, with its immaculately-kept rooms (which are viewed by walking around the perimeter of the house instead of the inside) and its attractive garden.
3. Hagi (Yamaguchi Prefecture)
Hagi’s castle might be gone but its samurai quarter still sprawls just outside the original fortress grounds. One of the largest samurai districts on this list, this neighborhood is filled with pottery studios, museums and tiny cafes. A few of the old homes are also open to the public; however, due to the size of the district, we somehow never stumbled upon these. You could devote an entire morning or afternoon to the area before you feel like you’ve covered it all.
4. Chiran (Kagoshima Prefecture)
Chiran might get most of its press for its museum on kamikaze pilots but its 250-year-old samurai quarter is absolutely worth a stop while you’re in town. A single ticket gains you entry to six of the old residences and gardens, the latter being the more impressive feature at most of the locations. But the district itself makes for an enjoyable wander – the scenery is not marred my any modernity as all telephone poles and wires have been diverted elsewhere and parking inside the district’s limits is forbidden.
5. Shimabara (Nagasaki Prefecture)
Shimabara’s samurai district pales a bit in comparison to the rest of the choices on this list but the one thing it definitely can claim is a lack of crowds. Sitting just northwest of the impressively-restored Shimabara Castle, the Teppo-machi (named for the gun-toting foot soldiers who were once stationed here) boasts a stream running through the middle of its one long street and at least three former warriors’ homes – with gardens – open to the public (for free, if I recall correctly). Only a 5-minute walk from Shimabara Castle, I find it’s worth detouring out of your way if you’re already in town.
Of course, my hands-down favorite samurai district of all time is the Nagamachi in Kanazawa … but you can read about that here in its own special entry. 🙂