See what life was like for noble samurai and their families with a trip to these former samurai districts around Japan.
Guide to Former Samurai Districts in Japan
When visiting Japan, there are so many places you can go to explore the country’s fascinating and complex history. Historical destinations across the country range from merchant districts and geisha districts to post towns, but one of the most popular among tourists are the samurai districts of Japan. These areas were once home to the warriors and many in towns and cities around Japan have fortunately been preserved.
Here are some of the best samurai districts in Japan for international visitors to see as they travel the country with their Japan Rail Pass.
History of Samurai Districts
Before we get into where to go to experience these enchanting historical areas, it helps to understand the samurai a little better to appreciate why these places are so interesting.
Samurai were the noble military caste of Japan from the Middle Ages until their abolishment at the end of the Edo Period. Because of their status and military roles, the samurai usually lived close to castles in large and stately homes. As such, you’ll often find samurai districts close to the site of castles, that is if the castle is still standing today.
Much like other historical districts and landmarks in Japan, many samurai districts no longer exist. Natural disasters, war, and modern development have led to the loss or damage of many great historical sites around Japan.
Thankfully, there are still enough standing today for visitors curious about this aspect of Japanese history to experience them firsthand. In them you’ll find old-fashioned samurai houses that are open to the public, along with museums that provide more insight into samurai culture and everyday life.
One of the best preserved samurai districts in Japan is the Nagamachi district of Kanazawa. You’ll find many traditional attractions around Kanazawa and the former samurai district of Nagamachi with its distinct earthen walls is home to many of them.
The district supported Kanazawa Castle as one of the most important feudal capitals during the Edo Period, but sadly Kanazawa Castle is mostly a modern reconstruction now. Not so for many of the residences found in Nagamachi like Nomura-ke which is a preserved and restored samurai residence at the heart of the district. Another popular attraction in the district is the Shinise Kinenkan Museum, one of many local museums, that is set inside an old pharmacy and showcases crafts from the city.
Kakunodate is a town in the Akita Prefecture of northern Honshu and in fact is perhaps best known for its wonderfully preserved samurai district full of weeping cherry trees. In its heyday, around 80 samurai families lived in the district and the homes here were relatively generous in size with large courtyards.
While many samurai homes in Kakunodate have been preserved, only six are open to the public to visit, Aoyagi, Ishiguro, Odano, Kawarada, Iwahashi, and Matsumoto. The Aoyagi House is one of the best to visit due to its scale and displays full of family heirlooms. Over in the Ishiguro House you can see a collection of samurai armor and clothing, but not as much of the house, as much of it is still used as a residence today.
Found on the east coast of Ōita Prefecture, the small city of Usuki is home to an equally small, but pretty, samurai district. The area is known as the Nioza Historical Road, as there are many samurai residences along this paved street. Everything about this traditional area feels completely unchanged, making it perfect if you want to feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Two of the most popular stops for visitors in the Usuki samurai district are the Inaba Residence and the Marumo Residence. The Inaba Residence is probably more noteworthy though due to its traditional interior layout and garden. Elsewhere in Usuki you’ll also find its merchant district along the Haccho Oji Shopping Street.
Many samurai districts outlive the castles they once supported, as is the case in the town of Hagi where little of its signature castle remains. Situated on the coast of Yamaguchi Prefecture, Hagi may be small, but it’s a fantastic place to visit if you like historical settings.
Because many of its local samurai transitioned to merchants, the town almost has a blended samurai/merchant district, and just as many samurai residences as old merchant homes. You can see this at the Kikuya Residence, which once belonged to a samurai turned merchant family, and is now a major local historical landmark.
There are other residences to visit as well like the Kubota House and Kido Takayoshi House, but if you’re interested in the local history then head to the insightful Hagi Museum.
Last but not least we have the two samurai districts within the city of Kitsuki in Ōita Prefecture. Either side of the city’s merchant district you’ll find two distinct samurai districts that have been carefully preserved and left free of modern touches like power lines. As such, walking through both of these areas is a real treat thanks to their air of authenticity.
The northern samurai district is best known for two impressive residences, the Ohara Residence and the Nomi Residence, which offer charmingly traditional interiors and gardens. As for the southern samurai district, there you can visit the Kitsuki Castle Town Historical Museum, which features artifacts from the city’s feudal past.
Visiting Samurai Districts with the JR Pass
Samurai districts aren’t necessarily the easiest places to visit in Japan as they’re most found in remote places away from more common destinations like Tokyo, Osaka, and Hiroshima. Even the few we’ve mentioned are scattered among towns and cities from Honshu to Kyushu, so fitting all five destinations in your itinerary may be a challenge.
The good news is that they each have train stations on JR train lines, meaning you can get to each of these places using your Japan Rail Pass. It may just be more a matter of picking the ones that best work with your existing travel plans.