Japan’s mysterious samurai town





It was early morning in Kanazawa’s historical Higashi

Chaya district, a row of old latticed teahouses in a town

that’s convoluted in both its layout and history. Steam

wafted up from the stone road. A geisha scurried across

the empty street like an alley cat, only the clicking of her

wooden geta sandals giving her away. Yet I didn’t come

here looking for geisha. I wanted to learn about the world

of another Japanese icon: the samurai.

Located between the Sea of Japan and the Japanese Alps

in western Japan, Kanazawa is considered one of the

country’s best places to learn about samurai history. The

town was spared from destruction during World War II and

remains one of the best-preserved castle towns of the Edo

Period. It’s one of the only cities in Japan to still have a

samurai district. Of course, samurai were abolished in the

late-19th Century as Japan modernised, so you can’t find

samurai here today. But much of their world remains.

Making the 473km trip from Tokyo to Kanazawa used to

take five hours and require changing trains. But the trip

just got much easier. Starting March 14, 2015, the new,

direct Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train) run by West Japan

Railway Company cut the travel time in half. And like the

slower trains, it arrives at Kanazawa Station , often listed as

one of the world’s most beautiful.

I’d always been fascinated by samurai, those warriors who

were almost inhumanly stoic and ever willing to fall on their

sword for their masters or slay anyone showing disrespect.

At least, that was how I’d imagined samurai to be, thanks

to films like The Last Samurai and 13 Assassins . I was

about to learn there was more to their story.

On my first morning in Kanazawa, I made a beeline for the

neighbourhood of Higashi Chaya and met Kiyoe

Nagashima, a 6th-generation resident and Kanazawa

Excursions guide. The pounding of a taiko drum in a

nearby temple filled the air, summoning the feeling I often

have when in a foreign place: of following the city’s beating


“Kanazawa is not a place for theme parks, but a place for

living,” she said, her face beaming with pride. In fact, for

the most part, the city is a modern metropolis dotted with

luxury shops such as Louis Vuitton. Higashi Chaya,

however, is anything but modern.

Following Nagashima into the labyrinth of teahouses,

temples and restored samurai houses, I felt like Alice

slipping into the rabbit hole. We walked along the row of

beautiful latticed buildings and turned down a narrow

street lined with yellowing gingko trees. Then we careened

up a steep path that was so slender and discreet, I thought

we were trespassing in a private driveway. When we

arrived at the top, however, the path branched out into

more narrow, winding roads. Kanazawa’s streets were

partly designed to mislead and disorient outsiders, and I

was learning firsthand, they do so effectively.

From the top of the hill, we walked into the adjacent

neighborhood of Utatsuyama. Samurai once lived in

Buddhist temples here, Nagashima explained, working as

security guards called boukan . The roofs of the stately

wood buildings with detailed carvings sprouted from

clusters of gingko and maple trees.

Nagashima made it clear that the samurai who flourished

in this city during the Edo Period (1603-1868) were almost

nothing like the ferocious warriors I’d imagined them to be.

During this peaceful golden age, the feudal military class

focused most of its energy on scholarly pursuits and

craftsmanship. As the highest social caste during this

time, the samurai built extravagant residences and opulent

gardens behind thick, earthen walls; you can still see

evidence of the walls today. Of course, most samurai in

Japan never lived this luxurious, peaceful lifestyle. The

refined samurai of Kanazawa were an anomaly, made

possible by their ruler’s disinterest in violence and affection

for the arts.

Kanazawa’s largest architectural relic of the samurai age is the stunning white Kanazawa Castle, resting on a hill that

offers 360-degree views of the city. The castle was built in

the 16th Century by the Maeda family, the beloved rulers of

Kanazawa until 1868. During the Maeda’s rule, the castle

was their fortress, surrounded by a moat and stone wall

that still stands today. The castle\’s striking white tile roof

is made of weathered lead. Adjoining the castle, the

Kenroku-en garden is home to plum, cherry, and Japanese

maple trees and is considered one of Japan’s finest


We continued on to the Nagamachi neighborhood, which

was once home to upper- and middle-class samurai. Many

of the original houses were torn down during Japan’s

industrial revolution. Still, the district’s cobblestone streets,

towering mud walls and peaceful canal remain, and a

couple of restored samurai houses are open to the public,

including the Nomura House , which contains artifacts from

its namesake family.

I returned to the Nomura House the following day and

strolled inside, expecting to find swords, armor and

perhaps some paintings immortalising moments of

triumphant battles. Instead, I was greeted by a koi pond

and zen fusuma – or painted rice paper panels – created

by the Maeda family’s personal artist.

Then I recalled something Nagashima had said on the tour:

“To defend Kanazawa, the Maeda clan encouraged the

samurais to focus on arts and craftsmanship instead of

fighting. That way they did not pose a threat to the clan

with the highest power, and so were not invaded. As a

result, there was actually almost no fighting in Kanazawa

for 400 years.”

Maybe that was the real lesson of Kanazawa’s samurai.

Their greatest weapon was not the sword but their focus

on the arts – a sly defense tactic in disguise.

Culled from BBC


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