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TRAVEL | Where to Go


Article | Dayna Hannah

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No one seems to embody Japanese history more than the samurai. From the 9th to the early 17th century, Japan was in a fluctuating state of regime changes, power struggles, and war. The military elite class came to be known as “samurai” sometime in the 12th century. Originally, the imperial family and the nobility employed these warriors as foot soldiers. They were often associated with a clan and followed a strict code of honor influenced by Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, and Shintoism.

Eventually, the samurai amassed enough political backing and numbers to usurp the emperor’s power. Rival clans fought for control over territories condemning the country into over a century of war and bloodshed. In the 16th-century, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu dedicated their lives to unify the warring states. Upon their eventual victory, the samurai weren’t needed as often for battle but continued to exist as bureaucrats and scholars.

In 1873, Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai in favor of a Western-style army during the modernization of Japan. Yet, years after their decline the loyal samurai of the past continue to fascinate Japanese people and foreign travelers.


One of the most fascinating idiosyncrasies of Japan is the distinct blend of traditional and modern culture. Millenia-old buildings and streets have been carefully preserved over the years including the following neighborhoods. Several homes are open to the public. Inside, visitors can see real samurai swords and learn more about the typical lives of these fierce warriors.

Matsue Samurai District

This 500-meter road offers a glimpse into the lifestyles of middle-class Edo Period samurai. With Matsue Castle behind you, the traditional architecture transports you to the 1700s. While you’re here, don’t pass up on seeing Buke Yashiki—a well-preserved samurai residence. Inside, you’ll see furniture and the daily necessities of a mid-rank samurai’s domestic life and a garden.

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Kakunodate Samurai District

During its heyday, this district housed 80 samurai families. Among the different buildings, it’s easy to spot the samurai houses as their perimeters are surrounded by black fences. Some aren’t open to the public because many of the descendants of the samurai still reside in these homes! In late April and early May, the weeping cherry blossoms that line the streets give this area an ethereal charm.

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Kitsuki Samurai District

Kitsuki City doesn’t have just one samurai district, but two! The northern and southern regions have been preserved to reflect the peak of their ancient beauty. Along the slope that connects the two areas, you won’t see any power lines or large commercial signs. This is thanks to the great efforts of Kitsuki City to keep these regions for all generations to enjoy.

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Hagi Former Castle Town

Hagi City stood as the political power-center of the Mori Clan for 250 years. Hagi Castle stands in the middle of the town. Most of the castle was lost over the years, but you can still see the original foundation and stone walls. The rest is a reconstruction. In town, head to the Hagi Museum or Kuyama Art Museum where you can see authentic samurai swords, artifacts, and armor.

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You can learn more about the samurai lifestyle and training at these museums and theme parks related to samurai. These aren’t your average amusement parks in Japan. At these places, you can learn all about the different types of samurai swords, and even get samurai training in Tokyo.

Tochigi Prefecture (3 hours from Tokyo Station): Nikko Edomura

Nikko Edomura (aka Edo Wonderland) is more like a village than a theme park. The buildings and grounds take from the Genroku Era, which is considered the golden age of the Edo Period. You can rent costumes as you walk with samurai, ninja, and even oiran (high-class courtesans). In the Experience Zones, you can explore attractions like the Ninja Trick Maze, the Haunted Temple, and the House of Illusion.

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Kyoto City: Toei Uzumasa Eigamura (aka Kyoto Studio Park or Movie Land)

Toei Uzumasa Eigamura is a perfect replica of a small town in the Edo Period. The streets depict towns and replicas of famous landmarks like Nihonbashi Bridge. The architecture is so perfect, this place is often used to film period pieces. In addition to actors performing for guests along the road, you can watch tapings of new movies and TV shows.

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Hokkaido: Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura

This park is named for the descendants of Katakura Kojuro who served the famous samurai Date Masamune. In 1869, Katakura’s family was invited to trade in their samurai blades for hoes and help cultivate Hokkaido. The park offers seasonal attractions including a comedy show in the summer and a samurai show in the winter. Year-round, you can watch a ninja battle that takes place inside a house.

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Tokyo: Shinjuku Samurai Museum

If you’re looking for a samurai experience in Tokyo, look no further than the Shinjuku Samurai Museum in Kabukicho. The museum includes a tour of authentic samurai katana, armor, and other weaponry followed by a choreographed swordsmanship display. After the tour, you can try on a samurai helmet and armor or take a samurai sword training class.

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1. Live by the Code; Die by the Code
Samurai observed strict manners collectively known as Bushido, “the way of the warrior.” Although this custom has ancient origins, the Bushido code wasn’t unified until sometime between the 16th and the 20th century. Nitobe Inazo is credited for finally summing up the code in his book Bushido: The Soul of Japan. The Bushido covers everything from ritual suicide for disgraced warriors (seppuku) to how one should care for a horse.

2. The Pen is Mightier
Part of the Bushido code dictates that all samurai must be master fighters and highly educated. Every samurai studied reading, writing, mathematics, science, and even arts like tea ceremony and flower arrangement. During peacetime, the samurai were the scholars of Japan. They even studied in foreign countries and opened schools upon their returns from abroad. After the disbandment of samurai during the Meiji Restoration, some became high ranking officers in the newly formed army. However, many more became journalists, entrepreneurs (like the Mitsubishi family), and politicians.

3. The Not So Elite Few
Popular culture makes it seem as though the honor of becoming a samurai belonged to only a select few. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Different reports estimate that at their peak samurai made up between 6 to 10% of the population of Japan. There were so many that it’s thought every living Japanese person has a samurai in their family tree!

4. Category is: Warrior Extravaganza Realness
You may already be aware that samurai armor was anything but simple. The several pieces were made from ornately decorated leather, silk, and iron. The helmets for high-ranking samurai often included masks with beards and larger than life horns and headpieces. The lavish accessories served two purposes. First, so you could differentiate between friend and foe in battle, and second to intimidate your enemies.

5. Practical and Fashionable
Speaking of those helmets, it’s thought that the samurai wore their hair in top-knots for practical purposes. The style kept your hair out of your eyes, and by shaving just the scalp your helmet stayed on easier. However, the samurai were fierce trend-setters, and soon even non-samurai styled their hair the same way.

6. Different types of swords
Most people can easily recognize the katana samurai sword, but they actually used three types in total. The first samurai often carried chokuto, which was smaller and lighter than the European longsword. Chokuto evolved into the katana sword, but most samurai carried a short companion sword known as a wakizashi.

7. Weapons other than swords
The image of a samurai blocking a barrage of bullets with his blade might look cool, but it’s completely inaccurate. As warfare technology advanced, so did the weaponry at a samurai’s disposal. Group fighting tactics made spears more practical than swords, and gunpowder led them to abandon bows for rifles and cannons.

8. Sisters are Doing it for Themselves
The term “samurai” strictly refers to men, but there were female counterparts within this social class. The women warriors of Japan were known as the onna-bugeisha, and they fought right alongside the men in combat. The history books mention them disproportionately less which led to the thought that there was only a handful of them. However, archeological digs of ancient battlefields have found that women made up to about 30% of the average army.

9. The Samurai Might Not Have Exactly Been Japanese
Samurai and the descendants of samurai often didn’t look like the rest of the Japanese population. They were known to be much hairier, some sporting great mustaches, and their facial features were noticeably different. This has led many historians to believe that the original samurai were actually the indigenous Ainu people from northern Japan. The Ainu suffered a great deal of discrimination, but they might have been the most instrumental in Japan’s creation.

10. In Fact, Some Samurai Weren’t from Japan at all!
Although Japanese nobles made up most of the samurai population, it wasn’t necessarily a requirement to be noble or Japanese. The shogunate reserved the right to dub anyone a samurai, and some non-Japanese people enjoyed the honor. Famous foreign samurai include Yasuke (likely Mozambique), Kim Yeocheol (Korea), William Adams (England), and Jan Joosten van Lodensteyn (Holland).

Find out how you can experience samurai culture for yourself by clicking the link below!

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