Cherry blossoms and warriors-turned-artisans in Japan

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Cherry blossoms and warriors-turned-artisans in Japan

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AKITA, Japan ― When thinking of Japan, sakura (cherry blossom) and samurai cross people’s minds. Both are associated with Kakunodate town in Akita prefecture, and in its history.
Kakunodate was founded in the 17th century, during the Edo period, and is noted for its good city organization ― it is called “little Kyoto” in the region. The town has well-preserved houses of Japanese warriors that are more than 200 years old but nearly in their original states.
Dozens of warriors’ homes line the 350-meter (1,148-foot-long) main street, and more than 1,500 cherry trees that are hundreds of years old are scattered around the village, providing beautiful scenery. The Japanese government designated the entire village as an area whose traditional buildings must be preserved.
It is believed that Kakunodate’s cherry trees are from Kyoto, which is hundreds of kilometers away. People say that about 300 years ago, the lord of the town planted cherry trees in order to relieve the homesickness his Kyoto-born wife suffered after she married him for political reasons. Kyoto was the home of the emperor during the Edo period.
One legend says the lord planted enough trees to cover the whole town, but another says that the wife’s parents gave one tree as a wedding present, and over the years, its offshoots spread through the town. Akita prefecture has “cherry blossom doctors” whose sole job is to take care of the trees.
The vista seen on arriving at Kakunodate bullet train station is not much different to that of a small town in Korea. It’s easy to encounter ordinary people living in simple ways and frequenting barber shops, grocery stores, flower shops and post offices that seem to have been there for decades. But only about 15 minutes walk from the station, a kind of firebreak area separates the residences of the ordinary people from those of the warriors. Further on still is the neighborhood of higher class warriors, including samurai. The difference is obvious from the street the houses are on, which is twice as wide as others in the town.
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Gorgeous cherry blossoms and old fir trees reaching for the sky make a fascinating sight. Fences made of black wood line the street for hundreds of meters. The separation of warriors depending on their class and status was just as rigid as that between the ordinary people and the fighters. A warrior could not build his house any bigger than those of fighters of a higher class.
On entering the yard of a house that once belonged to a samurai, one is greeted by pine and fur trees and a carpet of thick green moss. It is interesting to note that none of the doors of the house are on a straight line with the gate: that was a principal to slow an unexpected invasion by enemies, as there was a saying that there are at least seven enemies when a samurai leaves his house. Not only are the doors unaligned, but none of the rooms line up either. Inside the house is like a maze: you never know which door is the right one or where it might lead.
On entering the house, an altar with ancestral tablets, a kind of a family shrine, can be seen. A war helmet that once belonged to Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), who unified Japan and is known for his invasion of Joseon, is on the altar, indicating that the samurai owner must have been a highly ranked warrior. The samurai might have visited Joseon during the Japanese invasion in 1592.
Many households have handicraft shops, each with its own history. After Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) straightened out the confusion caused by the failure of the invasion of Joseon in 1592, and unified the nation, Japan entered a peaceful period, meaning that warriors were no longer needed. Except for some samurai who had become administrative managers, warriors had to face the grim realities of life. However, warriors who considered dignity and honor the most important elements in life were too proud to work as farmers.
Thus, they secretly cultivated fields behind the black fences, and created handicrafts to sell in the markets.
One of the most popular craft styles in Kakunodate uses the bark of the cherry trees. The craftsmen stripped thin pieces of bark from the trees, joined the pieces together and made spoons, chopsticks and traditional dolls.
In some houses, you can still observe the process, but you need approval to take photographs, as the villagers want to protect the technique that has been handed down for generations. The warriors-turned-artisans may well have been the source of the power of today’s Japan, which is “king of the manufacturing industry.”


by Shin In-seop

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