Kakunodate is at its most glorious (and crowded) in late April, when its hundreds of cherry trees are in full bloom. The most popular viewing spot is along the Hinokinai River, where two rows of some 400 cherry trees form a shimmering tunnel of blossoms for 2km (1 1/4 miles). They were planted in 1933 to commemorate the birth of the present emperor, Akihito.
The Samurai District (Bukeyashiki) -- Of Kakunodate's 80-some samurai mansions built during the Edo Period, only seven remain. Still, the district retains its feudal atmosphere to an amazing degree, thanks to its wide streets flanked by weeping cherry trees and dark wooden fences. These fences and traditional entry gates are employed even today to conceal more-modern homes, giving a clean, crisp line of vision throughout the district. It's a strong contrast to the jumble of most Japanese cities, and even to the merchant district that's just a short walk away.
If you're walking from the station, you'll pass several samurai houses on Bukeyashiki Dori that are open free to the public (though admittance inside is restricted), including the Odano Samurai House to the right, the Kawarada Samurai House next door, the Matsumoto Samurai House across the street (where you can usually see craftsmen at work), and the city-owned Iwahashi Samurai House on the right, which has appeared in movies.
But the first major place of interest will be the Aoyagi Samurai Manor (Kakunodate Rekishi-mura Aoyagi), 26 Higashi Katuraku-cho (tel. 0187/54-3257), to the right through an impressive entry gate that serves as testimony to the Aoyagi family's high samurai status. This is more than a mere manor, however, as it's actually a compound of several traditional buildings spread throughout an unkempt garden, each filled with a wealth of eclectic treasures from the 17th to 20th centuries, collected through the ages by the Aoyagi family and well documented in English. As you wander through the buildings, you'll see samurai armor, rifles, swords, dolls, kimono, sake cups, ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), scrolls and screens, Meiji-Era uniforms and medals, farm tools, antique phonographs, and cameras. Other buildings hold shops, a teahouse, and a restaurant. You'll want to spend at least an hour exploring here. Open daily 9am to 5pm (to 4pm in winter). Admission is ¥500 for adults, ¥300 for junior-high and high-school students, and ¥200 for children.
Next door is the Ishiguro Samurai House, Omotemachi (tel. 0187/55-1496). In contrast to the Aoyagi Samurai Manor, this thatched-roof home remains almost exactly as it might have looked when it was constructed 200 years ago by the Ishiguro samurai family. After the Meiji Restoration, the family became landlords and collected rice as rent. Today, English-speaking, 12th-generation Ishiguro Naotsugi continues to live here; he has opened five simple but elegant rooms to the public in the main house. Family heirlooms, including samurai gear, winter geta (fur-lined and with spikes), scales for weighing rice, and old maps of Kakunodate are on display in a former warehouse. The medical illustrations (copies), by the way, are from Japan's first book on anatomy, copied from a Dutch book in 1774 by Kakunodate samurai Odano Naotake. You can see everything in less than 30 minutes, though if Ishiguro-san is on hand to answer questions, you might linger longer. Open daily 9am to 5pm. Admission is ¥300 for adults and ¥150 for children.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.