One of the many (possibly) historic buildings in Sakura. I kind of like this as an image for the top of this post, as it sort of represents the atmosphere or aesthetic of Sakura – a mix of the age of samurai, and the aesthetic of the early postwar. I don’t know how old this building is – might be only 50-60 years. Today, it houses a hardware store.
I’ve been hanging out in the town of Sakura1, out in Chiba, for more than a week now, and a few days ago, I finally took a day to run around and see the sights. As it turns out, there’s just perfectly enough sights to fill out one day of sightseeing – sure, there were a few things I haven’t seen just yet, but I hit just about everything I planned to, and a few things I hadn’t planned on, and managed to finish it all up right around 5pm, just as anything with a closing time was doing so.
One of the main streets of Sakura, as seen from the fourth floor of the city art museum.
I’m tempted to try to say something about the size or character of the town, especially since this really is my first time spending so long in any town in Japan outside of a major city. Prior to this, I’d only been to Naha, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka, for a day or two or three (each, of course), and I’d only ever spent any more time than that in Yokohama, Tokyo, or Kyoto. Wow, that’s a distressing thought – so many of my peers have spent years in various parts of the country, whether on JET or otherwise, and while I’ve been fortunate to do a bit of traveling, as I type this out I realize my experiences really have been rather severely limited. I haven’t even lived in a provincial city, like Kôchi or Kanazawa or Kagoshima, nor in a sort of historically significant but smaller, off-to-the-side city like Nara or Kamakura, much as I think I’d love to.
In any case, I’m really not sure what to say about Sakura. I’m not sure what I can say, especially given how I’ve been thinking about generalities and essentialization lately. Maybe the best I can do is to say what it’s not. It’s not a big city by any means – less than an hour walk from one end to the other – but neither did I see any fields or rice paddies or anything of the sort within the core of the city. Much of the town is very much the kind of density and nice residential streets (one- or two-family houses, not apartment buildings) I associate with suburbia – reminds me actually of where I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, with of course the various differences in architectural style, and certain other aesthetic elements. The town has pretty much no big-name or chain stores – no Starbucks2, no Mister Donut, no BookOff, no McDs, no Yoshinoya, no Jonathan’s. Not that I like eating at chain stores, but, at least it would make me feel comfortable as to the level of quality, lack of sketchiness, degree of whether or not I (as a non-regular customer, and as a foreigner3) am welcome… There are a couple of 7-11s and Lawson’s, though. But, then, it’s not as if it’s the cutest, quaintest little town either – the JR station is surrounded with parking lots, pachinko parlors, and the like, and not too much else. I’ve seen neighborhoods in the middle of Tokyo much quainter, where a small three-car train stops at a station that consists of basically nothing more than a platform, right in the middle of the neighborhood, directly adjacent to a cute, local, shopping street (shôtengai). Which isn’t to criticize, but merely to attempt to describe.
Models of the three samurai houses, on display inside one of the them.
In any case, let’s move on to talking about the historical sites I visited on my one-day wandering exploration adventure. One thing I read somewhere claimed that Sakura has more intact samurai houses than any other town in Japan. I’m not sure whether or not I believe this, but, over the course of the day, I certainly did see a lot of old-looking buildings, scattered across town, and quite a few of them had little wooden placards identifying them as historical structures. Three of these samurai homes (buke yashiki) are open to the public, as historical homes or whatever you want to call it, and they’re relatively close to where I’m staying, so that’s where I started.
Along Kaburaki-kôji, a nice, quiet, residential street below the castle, these three houses are lined up one after the other. The pamphlets and such say that this street looks much as it did in the Edo period, though given that the road has been asphalted over, and pretty much the only other thing to see is tall hedges lining both sides of the street, obstructing the view of any traditional architecture that may exist, I’m not really sure what it’s worth to make such a statement.
Right: The entrance to one of the three samurai residences open to the public.
In any case, it would seem that quite a number of the houses along this street are extant, surviving, samurai houses from the Edo period, though the majority of them remain privately-owned property, and are therefore off-limits to the likes of myself. As for the ones I did get to visit, frankly, I’m not sure what there is much to say about them. Wooden construction, tatami floors, tiled, thatched, or shingled roofs, like so many others I’ve seen… I hate that I should be so jaded about this. When I first came to Japan, such things would have been amazing to see, and to get to go inside and walk around in.
I’d be curious more precisely the rank, or income in koku, of the samurai families who lived in these homes, because they just seem rather small and sparse for a member of such an elite class as the samurai. That is, of course, we also get a skewed impression because we aren’t seeing much of the material culture that would have been used in these homes – how fancy were their clothes, dishware, and other objects? I’ve seen commoners’ townhouses (machiya), and they definitely don’t seem any smaller, or any worse apportioned, than these samurai homes, and that I think is where it really gets me. From what little we do see of material culture here in these samurai homes – a few chests of drawers, buckets, mirrors, books piled on a desk, the lifestyle does seem pretty simple. Which, if this is the life of an elite family, even if they’re only a very low-ranking elite family, it just makes me wonder how much simpler, how much more “wanting” the lives of the lower classes – the so-called peasants – must have been. I’m not sure I want to know. Then again, I’ve also seen peasants’ houses, and, I don’t know, maybe those were the homes of well-to-do village headmen or something, but they were pretty large, and almost just as well apportioned as these samurai homes, in terms of cushions and desks and buckets and stoves and whatever. Sure, the villager might not have a heirloom suit of samurai armor sitting in the tokonoma, but… all in all, these samurai homes had a lot more in common with peasants’ homes (minka), or commoners’ townhouses (machiya), than with the samurai lord’s mansion I was to see later in the day.
The view straight through from one side of the house to the other. Each house has only a handful of rooms, in wood and tatami – with a minimum of decorative elements, e.g. carvings on the ranma, or any kind of byôbu or fusuma paintings – plus a rather basic-looking kitchen with a dirt floor.
It was certainly a nice wake-up call, to see the scale and style of more typical or average samurai homes. Being more used to seeing samurai residences on the scale of the lord’s mansion – since structures like those stand out a lot more as famous historical sites and tourist destinations, and are more typically preserved because of their association with more prominent figures – one can easily get the mistaken impression, as I did, that that was indicative of a samurai home, even for lower-ranking samurai. So, to see these homes was certainly a valuable experience, a valuable correction to my previous assumptions. We have this image in our minds of the samurai as “elites,” but, then again, if every samurai had a grand palace, where would you have room for all of them? Besides, even though we aren’t told precisely what rank the samurai families of these homes were, they are outside of the castle, indicating them to be of a lower rank than those living within the castle walls; the top-ranking retainers had residences close within the second or third bailey (ni- or san-no-maru) of the castle.
I took tons of pictures of plaques and labels and explanations, and haven’t gotten around to reading them. But, hopefully, eventually, I do hope to read them and write up Wiki articles on the Samurai Archives Wiki based on what I find. So, my apologies that these blog posts may be a little superficial, but, I thought it perhaps better to post something, rather than putting it off indefinitely until I got around to doing a more thorough, detailed job of it (something that, quite frankly, what with school and other projects, and such, might not come around for months and months). But, keep your eyes on the Wiki, and, hopefully before too long I’ll be putting something at least up there. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
This neighborhood also includes a house once occupied by Kodama Gentarô, a general who was involved in basically every major war of the Meiji period (on the side of the Imperial Japanese Army), from the Boshin War through the Russo-Japanese War. So, that’s pretty cool, even though a high wall and hedges and such all but prevented me from seeing the house itself at all.
At the end of the street is a narrow pedestrian-only path called Hiyodori-zaka, flanked by bamboo, which is said to (even moreso than the residential street itself) be pretty much preserved from how it was during the time of the samurai. This, actually, I can believe. Certainly looks plausible – not that I know that much about Edo period roads in precise detail, but certainly nothing stands out and screams anachronism. It’s a simple sloped path, which I can imagine people walking up and down to get in and out of this samurai neighborhood.
Next time, temples! And the cemetery of the Hotta clan, lords of Sakura domain in the second half of the Edo period.
(1)That’s 佐倉, literally something like “assistant warehouse,” not 桜 (“cherry blossoms” or “cherry tree”).
(2) There is reportedly a Starbuck’s attached to one of the big-box stores over on the other side of the train station, but I’m not counting that. I’m talking about things in town, that have a storefront on the street, rather than being in a strip mall or parking lot adjacent to nothing but highway…
(3) Not that I’ve ever come across too many “normal” restaurants that explicitly don’t welcome foreigners, but rather because I feel like the more “local” you get in Japan, the more “snack” and “pub” places there are, that aren’t really meant for anyone at all except for regulars, and/or are involved with or associated with, well, not-so-above-board activities.