How to visit the secret samurai towns of Japan

Japan CNN  — 

Courage. Virtue. Loyalty. Physical prowess.

Few legends of lore conjure images as vivid and remarkable as that of Japan’s samurai warriors.

The Age of the Samurai is generally considered to have run from 1185 to 1868, though arguably the last major samurai conflict came in 1877. And explicit samurai influences were prevalent throughout Japanese society well into the 20th century.

According to some news sources, Japan’s so-called “last samurai” – a World War II lieutenant named Hiroo Onoda, who hid out on an island in the Philippines and refused to surrender for nearly three decades after the conclusion of the war – died in 2014.

Academic dates and debates aside, the samurai legend continues to inspire fascination across the globe.

Southwest of Japan’s main island of Honshu, a remote area on the island of Kyushu is the best place to get an authentic sense of what day-to-day samurai life was like. Here, the visitor finds exquisitely preserved samurai districts, homes and battlefields in what are now quiet towns and suburbs.

With few shops, people or powerlines in sight, travel back in time is possible in these three little-known (outside of Japan) samurai towns that have maintained their charm since Edo times (1603-1868).

Izumi-Fumoto Old Samurai Residences

Visiting residences in Izumi-Fumoto feels like being invited into the homes of friends. If your “friends” were samurai.

Once an important samurai town, Izumi-Fumoto now spans an area of 44 hectares packed with well-preserved old residences. More than 400 years ago, a 30-year project was carried out to level a hill and alter a river in the area to build the samurai district.

Stonewalls guarding the houses were built from mud reclaimed from the project. The area has changed little since. Though most of the houses have become private residences, three samurai residences (Takezoe, Saisho, Takemiya) remain open for public viewing.

Rooms are filled with historic artifacts and furniture that re-creates the living environment of the old time.

Built during the late Edo period in 19th century, the Saisho Residence is the oldest of the three – the clan itself has roots in the Izumi area going back to 1599. The residence consists of an indoor archery quarter and a secret meeting room hidden beneath one of the floorboards.

Next to the Saisho Residence stands the Takezoe Residence, a massive complex with multiple structures, including main living quarters, separate bathing house, a barn, warehouse and nodachi sword training grounds.

Touring each house takes about 20-30 minutes.

A team of volunteer docents made up of proud locals stationed in each of the residences are eager to provide free Japanese-language tours for visitors. During a visit, one guide lifts a floorboard and jumps into the secret underground passage to show how deep it is.

The Takezoe Residence is a filming location featured in “Atsuhime,” a hugely popular historical drama produced by NHK.

Admission and opening hours: The residences are free to enter and open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. On weekends, visitors can opt for a guided tour (in Japanese) on an ox-cart that takes about 30 minutes. Typical visits on foot takes just less than two hours.

How to get there: The Izumi-Fumoto Old Samurai Residences is a 20-minute walk or five-minute taxi ride from Izumi JR station. From Kagoshima JR station, it takes approximately 25 minutes on the Sakura Shinkansen.

Chiran Samurai Residence Complex

Known as Little Kyoto of Satsuma (Kagoshima today), Chiran was home to more than 500 samurai residences during the late Edo period in the 19th century.

Compared with Izumi-Fumoto, streets, houses and gardens are more elegant and strategically planned.

According to local knowledge, landscape gardeners from Kyoto were hired to design the gardens of Chiran’s samurai district. The semi-fortified district, built by the Sata family circa 1760, has unusual designs to enhance security.

The samurai residences and gardens run along a 700-meter path surrounded by stonewalls and hedges meticulously pruned so that residents have clear views outside, but passersby are unable to see inside.

The path’s many bends also allowed Chiran’s samurai to attack invaders without exposing their positions. Today, the gardens of seven samurai residences are open to public, though entry to the buildings is prohibited.

The Mori Shigemitsu Garden is the only one to include a pond.

The Hirayama Ryoichi Garden is unique for its lack of stone arrangement, instead employing trimmed shrubs shaped like a mountain range with three peaks.

The other five gardens are of the minimalist karesansui (dry rock landscape) variety, incorporating pruned trees and bushes with southern Kyushu’s shirasu pumice and volcanic ash to portray a water surface.

Because Chiran was a major port city for trade with Ryukyu (Okinawa today), buildings consist of features commonly seen in Okinawa, such as stone tablets (sekkanto) to ward off evil spirits, and screens (byobu-iwa, or hinpun in Okinawa) at the entrance to ensure privacy.

In 1981, the Japanese government designated the Chiran Samurai Residence Complex as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings and named the seven gardens as Places of Scenic Beauty.

To see the interiors of the samurai houses, you can visit one of a few cafes and restaurants renovated from the old architecture in the district.

Admission and opening hours: The complex is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is 500 yen ($4).

How to get there: The Chiran Samurai Residence Complex can be reached by hourly buses from Kagoshima Chuo Station, Yamagataya Bus Center and Hirakawa Station. From Kagoshima Chuo Station, it takes approximate 80 minutes. Get off at Bukeyashiki-iriguchi bus stop.

Kitsuki castle town

The charm of Kitsuki Castle town lies in its topography, with two hillside samurai districts in the north and south sandwiching a merchant town – and a main road – in the middle of a valley. Reputedly the smallest castle in Japan, Kitsuki Castle faces the Seto Inland Sea.

One nice thing about visiting a small castle – the shorter distance you need to climb in order to get panoramic views of the town and sea from the top of the castle.

In the north, the Ohara Residence, home to the chief retainers of the Matsudaira clan, is the most impressive. It’s characterized by its straw-thatched roof and circuit-style garden that runs around the house.

Not far from the residence you’ll find the home of the Sanos, a family of medical practitioners.

Built in the 1700s, it’s believed to be the oldest existing wooden townhouse in Kitsuki, with antique medical equipment on display, such as a German-made microscope from the Meiji period. Fewer residences are open to the public in the southern samurai district.

Most notable is the residence of Hitotsumatsu Sadayoshi, a onetime member of Japan’s national parliament and Kitsuki city’s first honorary citizen. Built relatively recently, in 1929, the politician’s home incorporates both Showa and Edo-period architectural elements, and enjoys views of Kitsuki Castle and Morie Bay.

The samurai districts on both sides and the merchant town are linked by graceful sloping paths – the broad steps and gentle inclines were designed for horses and palanquin bearers.

With clear, dramatic views of the castle, the paths known as Suya-no-saka and Shioya-no-saka are regularly featured in Japanese period films and television dramas.

Historic shops that sell everything from tofu to clothes can still be found in the merchant town. A kimono rental shop at Warakuan, opposite Kitsuki City Hall, allows you to walk around town in traditional Japanese wear.

Admission and opening hours: The historic sites of Kitsuki Castle town are open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; last entry at 4:30 p.m.

Visitors can purchase a combination ticket for 800 yen ($7) to visit all sites, or opt to enter individual sites for entrance fees of 100 to 300 yen each ($1-2).

How to get there: Kitsuki is located between Beppu and Oita Airport.

From JR Beppu station, ride the Limited Express Sonic train to Kitsuki station. Take the Oita Kotsu, Kunisaki Kanko bus and get off at Kitsuki bus terminal.

A former CNN producer, Virginia Lau is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.