Shinryoku season: Unbelievable greenery of Kakunodate and the Akita Nairiku Line
Known as the Little Kyoto (小京都 Shо̄-Kyо̄to) of Tohoku, Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street (角館武家屋敷通り Kakunodate Bukeyashiki Dо̄ri) was once home to many samurai. Although you can no longer see sword-wielding samurai on the streets, you can still see many well-preserved samurai houses.
Located in Semboku City (仙北市 Senboku-shi) in Akita Prefecture (秋田県), Kakunodate is most known for its enchanting scenery during spring, when hundreds of dramatic shidarezakura (しだれ桜 weeping cherry blossoms) bloom, turning the sides of the street pink. However, did you know that during the shinryoku (新緑 fresh greens) season, the cherry blossom trees sprout bright and beautiful green leaves, bringing liveliness to the street? This green is very different from the typical green leaves you see in Singapore and Southeast Asia; it's an unbelievably bright green, brimming with life and vitality.
Excited to explore Kakunodate in the shinryoku season. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Although I've been to Kakunodate a few times, I had never visited during the shinryoku season. Last month, I finally got to check it out, so in this article, let us take a look at Kakunodate during the green and great shinryoku season!
Akita Nairiku Line
Riding the Akita Nairiku Line. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The easiest way to get to Kakunodate is by shinkansen (新幹線 bullet train) from Akita or Morioka, but you can also travel along the Akita Nairiku Line (秋田内陸線 Akita Nairiku-sen) operated by Akita Nairiku Railway (秋田内陸縦貫鉄道 Akita Nairiku Jūkan Tetsudо̄), which as its name suggests—"nairiku" means "inland"—runs through the inland region of Akita, providing many fantastic views of Akita’s inland scenery.
Akita Inu motifs inside a train on the Akita Nairiku Line. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Akita is also famous for Akita Inu (秋田犬), a large and loyal breed of dog, and I was so excited and delighted to see that the inside of the train had dog motifs on the seat cover fabric, as well as photos of Akita Inu on the train walls and ceiling.
Greenery along the Akita Nairiku Line. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Not a cloud in the sky, the weather was picture-perfect, with blue skies throughout our ride. All along the line, there were many opportunities to catch glimpses of shinryoku along the route.
View from the Omatagawa Bridge. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
One section to keep your eyes peeled for is when the train crosses the Omatagawa Bridge (大又川橋梁 О̄matagawa Kyо̄ryо̄). As the train crossed the bridge, I was treated to the sight of two vehicle bridges, the emerald waters of the Omata River below, and the lush surrounding greenery. The views from the Omatagawa Bridge are some of the most scenic along the entire Akita Nairiku Line, and trains will slow down along the bridge to let passengers enjoy the view.
Tanbo Art in progress at Jōmon-Ogata Station (top) and Kamihinokinai Station (bottom). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
One thing that the Akita Nairiku Line is famous for is the sight of tanbo art (田んぼアート rice paddy art) that passengers can see while riding the train. Tanbo art is where different-coloured rice are planted to create images on the field. The best time to see the images is in September, but shinryoku season is when the rice is planted.
At Jōmon-Ogata Station (縄文小ケ田駅), I saw tanbo art of cute Akita Inu and other characters, while at Kamihinokinai Station (上桧木内駅), I saw volunteers planting the rice, who cheerfully waved at us when they saw us taking photos.
Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street
Exterior of Kakunodate Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Finally, we arrived at Kakunodate Station (角館駅). As Kakunodate is best known for its sakura, even the exterior of the train station features sakura designs. The black colour is done in the style of the samurai residences, which were mostly painted black.
Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street is about a 20-minute walk from Kakunodate Station, and there are signs marking the way. Along the streets, you will find a large number of cherry blossom trees, some originating from Kyoto. The atmosphere here remarkably resembles that of Kyoto, hence the nickname “Little Kyoto of Tohoku”.
Different types of trees along the Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The well-preserved houses add to the historical atmosphere of the street, and it felt like I was transported partly to a bygone era of samurai , and partly to a magical forest. There were no other words to describe the enchanting colour, other than "So green!".
Looking stunning against a backdrop of old samurai residences, the plethora of trees erupt in vivid shades of green during the shinryoku season. Other than shidarezakura with branches that fall downward, there were also a handful of pine trees, maple trees, ginkgo trees, and more.
Sakura tree during shinryoku season (left) and sakura season (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Kakunodate is best known for its sakura, and while I was walking along the street, I came across this lone sakura tree, and remembered seeing it a few times during the sakura season. This was my first time seeing it covered with green leaves, and the sight was very different!
Each season brings a different atmosphere to the views along the street, so I highly recommend visiting in different times of the year to check out delightful sights like the lovely pink cherry blossoms, verdant greenery, warm autumn foliage, and fluffy white snow.
Ishiguro Samurai House
Entrance to the Ishiguro Samurai House. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Of the many samurai residences along the Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street, some are shops, while some are residential homes—housing descendants of samurai—of which six are open to visitors. We checked out the Ishiguro Samurai House (石黒家 Ishiguro-ke), which is the home of the Ishiguro family.
Inside the Ishiguro Samurai House. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Inside, we could explore certain sections freely, while the guides explained how samurai of the past used the rooms and spaces. There were also displays of old samurai items, such as armour and helmets. It was really interesting to take a look at, especially if you are a history fan like me!
Ishiguro Samurai House (石黒家)
Address: 1 Omoteshimocho, Kakunodatemachi, Senboku-shi, Akita 014-0331
Access: 25-minute walk from Kakunodate Station (角館駅)
Opening hours: 9:00–17:00
Admission fee: ¥400/adult
Afternoon snack: anmitsu
Enjoying anmitsu. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
After walking around for a while, we were tired and craving a snack, so we had a sweet treat: delicious anmitsu (あんみつ). Anmitsu is a cooling traditional dessert consisting mainly of jelly, red bean paste, and topped with mitsu, a dark, sweet syrup. We were feeling extra indulgent, so we had ours topped with ice cream: black sesame and green tea. It was perfect for a mid-walk snack.
The store had a view facing the street, and even from inside we could enjoy the fresh greenery of the trees outside. The trees were such a vivid green that they even reflected off the wood of the tables! The anmitsu was really tasty, and a great way to gain back some energy.
Sakura trees along the banks of the Hinokinai River during shinryoku season (top) and sakura season (bottom). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
After recharging with dessert, it was time to continue walking. About 10 minutes from the Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street is the Hinokinai River bank, which is lined with hundreds of sakura trees. During the shinryoku season, these trees are covered with lush and vibrant green leaves, creating a very different atmosphere from spring.
Bright greenery along the Hinokinai River.(Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Although there were no sakura flowers during this period, there were other white, pink, and yellow flowers in bloom, and with the bright blue sky above, the riverside scenery was both relaxing and gorgeous.
Dinner: Inaniwa udon in hinaijidori broth
Inaniwa udon cooked in hinaijidori broth. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
We walked around the banks of the Hinokinai River for about half an hour, then headed back towards Kakunodate Station. As we still had some time before our shinkansen to Morioka, we searched for a place to have an early dinner.
Akita is famous for inaniwa udon (稲庭うどん), a silky smooth, thin udon noodle, and hinaijidori (比内地鶏), locally bred chicken from the Hinai region, and we were able to find a place that served inaniwa udon cooked in hinai jidori broth. It was a warm and yummy meal, and a great way to end off our day exploring the unbelievable greenery of the Akita Nairiku Line and Kakunodate.
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are visiting Kakunodate, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥30,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Akita (~¥34,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.
The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.
Japan's Green & Great Shinryoku Show @#StayAtHome
If you want to find out more about our trip to the various shinryoku spots in Eastern Japan, join my colleagues and I for a virtual tour at Japan’s Green and Great Shinryoku Show @#StayAtホーム. You can watch the recorded event in the video above, or on Facebook as well as YouTube. See you at the Shinryoku Show!
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh