The Chiba Prefecture city of Sakura, about an hour east of Tokyo, got its start as a castle/garrison town guarding access to Edo (pre-modern day Tokyo). Although the castle itself was torn down in the 1870s (along with most of Japan’s castles) by decree of the Meiji government, the town’s roots as a castle town can still be observed in various locations on the saddleback hill that separates Keisei Sakura Station from JR Sakura Station. It is noteworthy that the Japanese National History Museum is located on the grounds of the former castle.
One of the delightful ways Sakura’s samurai roots is remembered is three mid-nineteenth century samurai residences that have been preserved on a hilltop street known as Bukeyashiki-dori that are open to visitors.
During the Edo Period (1603-1868), Japanese society was strictly divided into four social classes with samurai at the top of the social order, followed by artisans, farmers, and merchants. (Below merchants was a fifth class of “untouchables”, known today as buraku, people who works in unclean occupations such as butcher, executioner or grave digger.) People in each social class were “stuck” where they were, unable to move up or down.
Most of us have been conditioned by movies and television to believe that Edo-period (1603-1868) samurai, those at the top of the social ladder, were either elegant brocade-wearing denizens of dimly-lit castles or dusty, ragged wanderers helping those in need while humbly accepting food and lodging. In actual fact, by the nineteenth century, most samurai were basically bureaucrats who handled various administrative tasks for their feudal lord in exchange for housing and a yearly stipend of rice. In a castle town, especially one occupying such a strategic position as Sakura, samurai bureaucrats were plentiful.
The three preserved samurai houses of Bukeyashiki-dori are said to be prime examples of the housing of “average” samurai cum bureaucrats. They are neither elegant nor opulent, but they provide fascinating insights into lifestyles of two centuries ago (and maybe even insights into the lifestyles of modern-day Japanese bureaucrats).
The houses sit side by side. Although they face the street, each is set back from the street and surrounded by a garden. At the street frontage, entry is via a traditional gate, with tall doors and topped with a small roof. Rather than a fence, the front boundary is delineated with a row of mounded earth atop which a hedge has been cultivated. This prevents even a passerby on horseback from looking in.
Tickets are sold only at the Kawara House, the eastern-most of the three houses, but provides entry to all three houses.
Thatched-roofed Kawara House is believed to be the oldest of the three. It was likely built around 1835 and was apparently occupied until the 1980s. Although entry to the house is restricted to just a few public holidays per year (the next open day will be Culture Day, November 3), the design of the house, with its large doors open to the outside, permits visitors to see most of the rooms just by walking around the outside.
Even when the rest of the house is off limits, it is possible to enter the kitchen area of Kawara House which, like most pre-modern houses of Japan, has a dirt floor. A traditional kama cook stove, topped with iron post and wooden lids as well as various tools and dishes lend an air of authenticity.
The Kawara house is the largest of the three houses and was likely occupied by an upper middle class samurai family.
Next door to the Kawara house (but in fact across a laneway leading down the hill behind the houses) is the Tajima house, slightly smaller and likely the home of a middle class samurai family. It is nearly as old as the Kawara house, dating to around 1837.
Slip off your shoes at the entry and walk in, poking around and peaking into each room. Japanese homes rarely contain much furniture but this is a chance to give the rooms close examination. Sit for a minute next to the samurai suit of armor in the reception room and contemplate the view to the outside; such views are also a distinctive feature of Japanese architecture.
The third house, known as the Takei house, is accessed via a gate in the back garden of the Tajima house. It is the smallest of the three houses, indicating that it was once the home of a lower class samurai family. It is also possible to enter this house after shedding your shoes.
Inside are displays on the construction methods and materials used to make these houses. There is even a cutaway showing how the timber and clay exterior walls are made. It is interesting to observe that the kitchen is open to the thatch high above, while the other rooms of the house have proper ceilings. Of course, one reason for this is to allow smoke from the kama to dissipate into the thatch.
Be sure to take time to visit the gardens in the back of each house. Most samurai kept vegetable gardens and fruit trees to supplement their annual rice stipend and give themselves some level of independence from their feudal master. Local volunteers lovingly tend the gardens of these houses to demonstrate the kind of cultivation that the original occupants would have done. Challenge yourself to try to identify all of the vegetables you see!
If you continue on Bukeyashiki-dori, there is one more house set in what is called the Samurai Forest. Here, however, it is the “forest” and garden, rather than the house, that visitors come to see. Wander the paths to get a good view of the bamboo growing on the hillside behind the houses, planted to prevent landslides. There are various other trees as well as a garden area where various seasonal plants are tended by volunteers.
The three samurai houses are open 9:00 to 17:00 Tuesday through Sunday (open on public holiday Mondays and closed the following day). Admission is JPY250. The Samurai Forest is open daily 9:00 to 17:00; admission is free. All four are closed from December 28 to January 4. They are located approximately 15 minutes on foot from Keisei Sakura station or 10 minutes on foot from JR Sakura station.
Beyond the Samurai Forest, at the end of Bukeyashiki-dori, don’t miss Hiyodori-zaka, a narrow trail between towering bamboo said to have been a path commonly tread by the samurai occupants of this neighborhood. At the bottom of the hill, go right to continue on to the history museum or left to JR Sakura Station.
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