Over a long period of time covering 2013, I stopped posting here, and just put photos up for a smaller contingent of friends and family on Facebook. Eventually, I got tired of the site’s lossy image re-sizing and photo ownership policy, and wanted to share things with more people (I keep my FB profile private).
I saw and photographed some cool stuff in 2013, so it would be a shame not to put it up here.
From reading my posts, you may have gathered Nara Prefecture is a place where a lot has happened, the traditional heartland of Japan.
The city of Kashihara, on the other hand, is a very modern invention. An unremarkable semi-rural suburb of Osaka on the south end of the Nara plains, it was created by merger in the 1950s from older towns. The area, however, has a significance in Japanese history that goes back thousands of years.
For one, this is the place where the Age of Gods ended and Japan was founded.
Well…in the annals of mythology, that is.
The 8th century CE creation myths Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the two earliest known pieces of Japanese writing, tell of a man named Kamu Yamato Iwarebiko no Mikoto (people had very long names in early ancient Japan). He was a mortal man born of the gods in the 8th century BCE, the direct heir to the sun goddess Amaterasu. He sailed with his people from southern Kyushu to find a new home, made landfall in the Kinki area, and conquered it. With this he became Japan’s first emperor. This marked the end of the Age of Gods and dawn of the Age of Men. He was posthumously named Jinmu, the name by which he is known nowadays.
This all was very important to the 19th century Meiji government, who were promulgating a Shintoist nation-state centered around the emperor. They established February 11th, the supposed date of Jinmu’s ascension as a major national holiday celebrating the foundation of Japan, and built Kashihara Shrine to enshrine him in 1890, at the base of Mt. Unebi where Jinmu is said to have died.
With its connection to the mythos of the imperial state, the holiday was abolished after World War II. It was reinstated in 1966 as Foundation Day, only with vastly reduced significance, festivities, and overt political-religious tones. Nowadays, it’s mostly only hard-right nationalist groups who make a big deal about tying Kashihara, Jinmu, and Foundation Day together.
Of course, Jinmu’s very existence is unproven, and the account of his life is pure myth. Even if he actually existed and was a seminal leader of his people, calling him the first emperor would be a bit of a stretch, since the ancient conception of a chief or ruler of the Yamato tribe was undoubtedly very different from even the 8th-century CE concept of an Emperor of Japan, let alone the 19th-century interpretation.
Certain elements of the myth do ring true however, such as the likely migration of the Yamato clan from Kyushu, and the vital significance of the Nara region as the foundational cradle of the imperial state.
This early imperial state was semi-nomadic, with the emperor’s palace and thus the center of power burned down and moved around Yamato every time the emperor died, or omens and signs suggested it was time to change location.
When the Japanese state transitioned to a more Chinese-inspired administrative model in the 7th century, their first attempt at a fixed capital city wasn’t Kyoto or even Nara. It was here in Kashihara. Of course it wasn’t called that yet.
Fujiwara-kyo was the great capital city only briefly, however. A series of fires and illnesses was blamed on a vengeful spirit, and the site was completely abandoned for Heijo-kyo (Nara) in 710. Archaeological excavations still continue at the site, as its largely incomplete history is slowly filled in.
Think about it, though. If it weren’t for one angry ghost, Kashihara might have been the grand city, and Kyoto might have been a big grassy plain.
A thousand years later, Kashihara became significant in a rather different way. It was the site of Imai, a wealthy town of traders and merchants that served as a hub for traffic on the inland highways of Nara.
As foot and horse traffic through Nara lost its importance for the Japanese economy after the Meiji era, Imai faded from the scene. Perhaps because it was no longer significant, it was never developed or razed. Now the entire former town is a cultural property, a rectangle-shaped historic district on the east side of central Kashihara.
A few people still actually live and ply their trades there, though I’m sure there are lots of rules and regulations that come with historic preservation.
Last year, me and my wife traveled to Fukuoka, the island of Kyushu’s biggest metropolis, for our second anniversary. This time around, we found cheap fare to Kumamoto. Coincidentally also in Kyushu, Kumamoto is another of its most populous cities, south from Fukuoka, far less maritime in character and located further inland.
Downtown Kumamoto. If it looks deserted, that’s only because it was early in the morning.
Everyone comes out at night.
This could partially be because Kumamoto is growing and prosperous, with a proportion of young people above the national average. It could also be because Kyushu people just really like to party- Fukuoka had a pretty kickin’ night scene as well.
Kumamoto has lots of distinctive local cuisine too, including horse meat (both roast and raw!), roast chicken (Kyushu locales tend to pride themselves on their chicken), and spicy mustard lotus roots. Kumamoto ramen isn’t nearly as famous as Fukuoka’s Hakata ramen, but it’s a really tasty variation featuring a more Chinese-style blend of spiced oil.
The city has been growing in nationwide stature and popularity, but its sights and historical locations are not necessarily that well known.
There had been smaller forts in the area since 1467, but Kumamoto Castle (and thus to a large extent, the town) in its current iteration was built late in the 16th century by Kato Kiyomasa, a ruthless and renowned general of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The castle design was celebrated for the extent and toughness of its fortifications.
Last year, I was unprepared for how cold Fukuoka was. This year’s winter, however, was (and still is) bizarrely warm. The unseasonable climate caused the autumn leaves to hang on weeks after they usually fall.
The Kato family built the castle, but the Tokugawa Shogunate soon gave the domain to the Hosokawas, a much older and more aristocratic family known as patrons of the arts.
The throne room has been painstakingly rebuilt, using historical texts and drawings to recreate the paintings. Note the classic features of throne room architecture, visible at other sites as well: the offset dais for the lord, the staggered shelves to the side, and the square panels for housing bodyguards.
The tale is a unique part of Kumamoto’s history, and a pivotal chapter in the emergence of modern Japan. The 1868 Meiji Restoration brought about the abdication of the Tokugawa Shoguns, the end of their feudal system, and the installation of a constitutional monarchy. The support of the samurai of Satsuma Domain, further south of Kumamoto in Kagoshima, had been instrumental. However, the end of the feudal system effectively meant the samurai had put themselves out of work. The new Meiji government took a very dim view of Japan’s feudal era, as evidenced by their demolition or intentional neglect of most of the historic old castles, symbols of the old order. The samurai were forbidden from carrying their swords, lost the rice stipend that constituted their salaries, and were replaced with a more European-style police force and standing army.
Thus the 1870s saw the emergence of a community of unemployed warriors, feeling betrayed and abandoned with practically nothing to lose.
Saigo Takamori, a Satsuma samurai who was influential in the Restoration, went on to become a respected core member of the new government. The samurai cause was very close to his heart, and he quickly became disaffected with Meiji policies. One of the major reasons for the rebellion against the Shogunate was its conciliatory treatment of the Western powers, who the dissidents believed were barbarians who needed to be kicked out of Japan. Instead, the new Meiji government not only continued to maintain relationships with foreign powers, but modeled its institutions after European ones, and emphatically promoted the Westernization of Japanese customs like clothing and hairstyles. Saigo was also extremely hawkish and lobbied for an invasion of Korea. The government’s rejection of his proposal was the final straw that caused him to resign and return to Kagoshima.
There he established an academy and private military school to support the former samurai. It quickly became a political institution, whose members filled the regional government. To the Meiji government, it was tantamount to separatism. Then came a wave of samurai revolts throughout western Japan. Tensions were extremely high on all sides. The national government sent a warship to remove the weapons from their Kagoshima arsenal to prevent them from being stolen and used in another uprising. This provoked Saigo’s students to do just that. The Satsuma Rebellion, or Seinan War, had begun. Saigo Takamori wasn’t behind the arsenal raids, but it was too late for him to distance himself, and he was too loyal to his people to repudiate them.
At the beginning of 1877, the Satsuma rebels marched north with the intention of petitioning the emperor. The road passed through Kumamoto, with its massive castle and garrison standing in the way. The castle garrison opened fire from a defensive position, and the rebels besieged it. The fighting was desperate, with the defenders having lost their food supplies in a recent fire, and the attackers trying to press on before imperial reinforcements arrived. The keep was lost, but the new conscript army turned out to be tougher than the elite samurai had thought. They were forced to abandon the siege when reinforcements flooded in.
Saigo’s samurai had to spread themselves thin and lost the initiative against overwhelming numbers. He eventually retreated to Kagoshima, where he and the last of his soldiers were killed. The end of the Seinan War marked the practical end of the samurai, and the Japanese state moved resolutely ahead in its modernization, industrialization, and imperialism.
But let’s go up and take a look at the keep. Interestingly, the museum inside isn’t very impressive. Clearly Kumamoto has been spending its efforts on restoring other buildings instead. But there is a view of the city.
So much more to see…but I better save that for later.
A pleasant autumn day back in Nara, heart of the Japanese polity in the 8th century, when Kyoto was just an open plain!
I always walk through Kofukuji when I’m in Nara. One of the grand original temples of the Heijo Capital, it retains many of its renowned national treasures despite losing some of its ground to the fires of war over the centuries.
But on this particular day, I wanted to seek out some of the fainter traces of history, places where only a little is left.
Gangoji, another of the original city temples, was a truly gigantic compound more at the southeast corner of the old capital. The fires erased almost all of it. One small priests’ dormitory on the east side of the temple survived to become the new main hall of a greatly diminished Gangoji in medieval Nara Town.
As my earlier comments suggested, there was a bit of discontinuity between the ancient capital of Heijo and the medieval town of Nara, even though the area was continuously populated throughout its history. The old town of Nara is still the heart of the city, around the ancient temples and downtown area. But the original capital was actually a bit further west, a little removed from the modern cityscape.
Oddly enough, it was Kofukuji that contributed to the end of the Heijo Capital. Heijo was home to the main “Six Schools” of Buddhism, and Kofukuji was headquarters of the influential Hosso sect. A priest named Dokyo got very close to the reigning empress after healing her, gathering power until he managed to get himself selected to be the new emperor. The court managed to intervene and get him exiled, and it was decided that the imperial capital simply had to move away from the power center of the religious institutions to retain its independence.
It was this that lead to the founding of Heian (Kyoto), and the state approval of the emergence of Mt. Hiei‘s Tendai Buddhism and Mt. Koya’s Shingon Buddhism, as new religious sects that could take power away from the old temples. With these shifts, Japan entered a new era in the 9th century.
Without the imperial court, the town of Nara re-centered around its temples, leaving the capital lands to the grasses and winds.
When my family came to visit me earlier in August, I knew exactly what my top-priority destination was.
The keep of Himeji, Japan’s largest and most elaborate surviving feudal fortress, had just been reopened late spring after five years of restoration work. My family had never visited anywhere between Kobe and Hiroshima, my wife couldn’t remember ever having gone, and the last time I went the tower was still under wraps.
Old feudal Himeji’s city streets were centered and built around the fortifications. With the keep fully armed and operational, it’s abundantly clear how much the castle still dominates the city center.
Himeji was kept under a confusing “revolving door” of various lordly families in feudal days, and now I can guess why. Under a system where fortifications were highly regulated to keep the daimyo in check, perhaps the Tokugawas didn’t want anyone getting too comfortable with such a huge fortress.
A rather unique feature among surviving Japanese castles, the west wall served as the domain ladies’ quarters in addition to being a defensive bulwark. It was open while the keep was under wraps- check out my photos from the last visit.
One of the reasons for Himeji’s gigantic fortifications was because the castle was actually at a disadvantageous and difficult position to defend. With all those forested hills and mountains so close, line of sight was limited and attackers could “sneak up” closer to the walls before initiating combat. Himeji Castle needed withering firepower and a grueling climb to penetrate the keep.
Apparently the lordly family ran out of quality stone for building such huge fortifications, and in their desperation added millstones, stone hand tools…and even pilfered ancient tombs for their sturdy stone coffins. There are a few ghost stories circulating about Himeji Castle, actually…
One last look at the castle on the way out, showing the multiple towers and zigzagging walls. We spent a good five hours on the castle grounds, wearing out our feet and exploring one of Japan’s most unique sites.
The area around Fukuoka has a long and multilayered history I could never do justice to. In fact, it predates written language in Japan to the extent that the early chapters are still hazy and told mainly through archaeology. This may be where the Yamato tribe originally held sway, before sailing to what is now Kansai to gradually develop into the imperial Japanese state. So while Kansai was the heartland of Heian Japan, the Fukuoka area had some very close old ties to the imperial court. As Kansai’s centers of power were Heian (Kyoto) and Heijo (Nara), this region had Hakata (Fukuoka) and Dazaifu. While Hakata was the major city and port of call, Dazaifu was the administrative center, a sort of “secondary capital” with authority over Kyushu and a prestige that lasted even after the fall of the old imperial order in the 12th century.
Slowly fading into obscurity during the Edo Period, it became a small rural village, until the expansion of metropolitan Fukuoka turned it into a burgeoning suburb on the city’s southern edge. The old capital district is now an open field, but the grand shrine Dazaifu Tenmangu remains.
Dazaifu Tenmangu is one of the most significant shrines to Tenjin, originally the 10th-century aristocrat Sugawara no Michizane. Exiled from the court at Kyoto in a power play, he died here in Dazaifu- following which death, fire, and storms reputedly stalked his rivals. It was said he had returned as a god of thunder, and he was enshrined to placate his vengeance. The main shrine is Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto, but Dazaifu is also very important for being Michizane’s gravesite.
Back in Fukuoka, we made our way to the west side of downtown to the old feudal part of the city.
Fukuoka (or Maizuru) Castle was a very large fortification built on the site of a former Heian consular house, a unique layout with rambling, asymmetrical walls and a lagoon on the western edge. Most of the buildings were demolished in the anti-feudal frenzy of the new Meiji government in the 1870s, and the castle grounds are now covered with baseball diamonds and tennis courts. The fortifications themselves are not very well-traveled.
Two historic structures survive, however.
The castle offers a pretty good view of the cityscape.
Then an exhausted walk back to the station to fly home.
An interesting, vibrant city with old history and great food. I’d love to come back for a longer stay, especially when it’s warmer.
Tokyo may be Japan’s most vertical city (the most buildings over 100 meters), and have Japan’s tallest structure (the Sky Tree), but now it has a little competition. Osaka now has the tallest building in Japan, Abeno Harukas. Built on the south side of downtown, I’ve watched this building rise from a hole in the ground to 300 meters during my life here in the city.
It was finally completed earlier this spring, and now I can say I’ve finally visited it.
So enjoy Osaka by night as never known before!
It’s a little pricey, but a nice visit. I should come back on a well-lit evening when I can see more of the landscape and watch the sun set over the horizon.
In the last few centuries, cities have been places where Stuff Happens. This is possibly because cities are places where there is a lot of Stuff, a lot of people to make something Happen, and a few influential people to order something to Happen. This was the case in Edo-period Japan, when each fiefdom and domain had a central castle town in which lords were required to keep all their Stuff. This was also the case of Kyoto, the ancient planned capital where all sorts of people from emperors to priests put their best Stuff in order to make something Happen.
In ancient Japan outside Kyoto, though, things were rather different. Kyoto was known as The City because people generally didn’t live in cities back then, so much as scattered settlements in a landscape imbued with semi-mythical history. In such an environment Stuff could Happen anywhere, especially if someone wanted to circumvent all the Stuff Happening in the capital city.
Enter Mount Yoshino.
A mountain at the end of a little valley in the southeast of Nara Prefecture, far up the river Kinokawa that flows past Hashimoto (gateway to Koya) and eventually empties into the ocean at Wakayama City. An outpost in the vast, very sparsely populated mountain country that refutes Japan’s reputation as one big city. The Stuff that has happened here, in this place considered remote even by our 21st-century cyborg standards, is the Stuff of Legends. And because Yoshino is remote enough to have escaped turmoil and development, but admired enough to remain cared for, it’s all still there.
Like Koya, Mt. Yoshino is a holy mountaintop community unto itself, only much smaller.
This torii gate of bronze has long been considered one of the three great and distinctive torii of Japan, along with the stone gate of Shitennoji, and the wooden gate of Miyajima. Now I have laid eyes on all three.
From roughly the 7th century Mt. Yoshino became an important site for Shugendo, an eclectic and arcane religion associated with Shinto and Buddhism, known to this day for its ascetic mountain men, tests of fortitude, and secretive rituals. Yoshino became (and still is) the first station on the winding pilgrimage to Mt. Omine, the great center of Shugendo.
The main site on Mt. Yoshino is Kinpusenji, a Buddhist temple whose Shugendo significance shows in its dedication not to an aspect of Buddha or a typical bodhisattva like Kannon or Jizo, but to a bodhisattva called Zao- a fierce-looking divinity of obscure and unclear Japanese origin particular to Shugendo.
Then there’s Yoshimizu Shrine. Originally a small Shugendo monastery, this place has seen some serious history.
Now turn the clock back to the year 1185 CE. The House Minamoto had defeated its foes the House Taira in the Genpei Civil War, the legendary struggle that ended the old imperial order and gave rise to the age of shoguns and samurai. Minamoto no Yoshitsune was the celebrated warrior and hero of the war, as recorded in the epic chronicle Heike Monogatari, but his brother Minamoto no Yoritomo was the leader. It would seem Yoritomo turned against his brother in order to rule unchallenged, and Yoshitsune was forced to flee.
He took refuge in Yoshimizu with his comrade Benkei, warrior monk of legendary strength, and his lover Shizuka Gozen. Soon he and Benkei would be forced to flee far north to Mutsu, now known as Tohoku, leaving her behind along with all they could not take.
Yoshitsune and Benkei are certainly figures veiled in a thick haze of myth and embellishment, but they were real people. When Yoshitsune left this place, he left behind his armor.
Fast forward to 1333 CE. The Kamakura Shogunate established by the Minamotos had been slowly weakening, while the imperial throne had long been agitating against them. Emperor Go-Daigo fomented the final rebellion that swept the Minamoto from power, aided by Ashikaga Takauji, a former general of the Shogunate. Go-Daigo’s goal was to restore the old imperial order, but Ashikaga, believing in warrior rule, turned against him, establishing the Muromachi Shogunate and setting up a puppet emperor in Kyoto in 1336. Go-Daigo and his loyalists regrouped, though, and set up their own imperial court here, the so-called Southern Court.
Although the court moved around somewhat, it was so associated with this place it was sometimes just referred to as “Yoshino” in the same way the US federal government gets referred to as “Washington.” The Southern Court remained independent until 1392, when its last emperor simply abdicated in order to peaceably unify the throne again.
200 years later, Yoshino had another eminent visitor. In the interim, the Muromachi Shogunate fell, warring factions struggled in an anarchic power vacuum, Oda Nobunaga defeated them all before being betrayed, and his rags-to-riches loyalist general Toyotomi Hideyoshi avenged and succeeded him and now controlled the country. In 1594, Hideyoshi came to Yoshino in the last years of his life to relax and experience nature. He and his entourage stayed at Yoshimizu, in this building already redolent of history. He had the building renovated and restored for his stay, which contributed to its high standard of preservation.
Mt. Yoshino is the sort of place it will take me multiple visits to “digest.” This place has meant so much to so many people for centuries, tied up in the history of the nation itself. I wonder what sort of ghosts wander here at night.
I spend a lot of time idling around Osaka like a scalawag, and I’ve been taking pictures even when I was neglecting my blog. Today’s theme- pictures of buildings!
Japan doesn’t usually think of cities in terms of “skyline.” It’s a real American term, apropos of the Birthplace of the Skyscraper, and a place where a good city is thought of as needing a couple good monuments to make it stand out on the horizon. Most Japanese cities have only started building above 100 meters’ height in quantity very recently, and most people here don’t think of their cities’ impact from a distance. Pretty much all the pictures of Osaka urbania I’ve seen are taken from “in the soup”, and it is a good way to get a handle on the density of the city, but there are actually a few good angles for getting an “outside” view of the cityscape.
At risk of getting whiplash, we turned around and headed much further west for Hiroshima, a city I’d visited years ago, before I paid too much attention to cities.
Hiroshima, 1.1 million people, Japan’s number eleven. Hiroshima has a history dating back to the end of the 16th century. Like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, Hiroshima has been roughly where it is as a Japanese city since the Tokugawa age- around the lower end of the top ten. That is to say, not one of the country’s titanic cities, but still among its major population centers and definitely the biggest city on the main island west of Kansai, by far.
Unlike Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, though, Hiroshima was not controlled by the ruling house of Tokugawa. It was originally founded by Mori Mitsunari, a powerful ally of Toyotomi Hideyoshi who more or less ran the main island west of Kansai. Toyotomi’s loyalists lost out when Hideyoshi’s general Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to seize the country after his master’s death. The Mori clan was not eliminated, but they lost Hiroshima and their fiefdom was reduced to roughly modern day Yamaguchi Prefecture. Hiroshima, its fortress, and its lands, were parcelled out to other loyal vassals of the shogun.
Incidentally, it would be the the domain of Choshu, ruled by the old Mori clan, that played a prominent role in the abdication of the house Tokugawa. Some might say, a slow-burning grudge come to fruition…
After the end of the feudal era, Hiroshima rapidly modernised as an industrial and maritime city with a certain military connection. It was in the neighboring city of Kure just around the bay, after all, that the Empire’s Yamato class battleships were built. This was one of the pretexts for the nuclear attack on the city. Hiroshima, though, recovered quite fast from such a lingering blow. The city had already surpassed its prewar record population by 1955. Through growth and merger the city expanded and passed a million people for the first time in the early 1980s- making it one of Japan’s newest megacities.
The most famous symbol of the bombing is a 1910s expo center and office building that survived the explosion occurring nearly above it.
There was apparently a good deal of controversy about what to do with the husk of the building in the 1960s, a time when all war-torn Japanese cities were furiously building over again, even at the cost of their own heritage. Some expressed the opinion that the wreck should have been demolished and paved over as a sign of reconstruction, but with time the approach of keeping it as a monument has become much more widely embraced.
So what’s Hiroshima actually like as a city, anyway?
I’ll start by comparing it to other major regional centers I’ve visited. Tokyo, center of Kanto, capital of Japan, and greatest metropolitan center in the world, has great pride in its global power and relevance as a world city. Osaka, largest city of Kansai, Japan’s “Second City”, has perhaps even greater pride in its pure Osaka-ness, its local spirit. Nagoya, largest city of the region in between the two, Japan’s “third city” and “Central Capital,” seems to have none of that. Tokyoites and Osakans (that’s what I’m calling them) tend to be pretty proud of their cities and talk them up at least a little. Nagoyans tend to say they’re from the prefecture of Aichi, rather than specify Nagoya. There’s plenty in Nagoya, and it’s on the rise the same way Tokyo and Osaka are now (though to a lesser degree).
Still, Nagoya carries a rarely-mentioned “uncool” vibe in Japanese circles. My family, upon visiting it, immediately compared it to Milwaukee. Not in a physical way (Nagoya is far more populous, dense, and well-off), but in its atmosphere of aloofness, to an almost “indie” level. Nagoya keeps to itself, saving its secrets for the initiated and the truly curious, and leaving outsiders to wonder what’s so special about it, anyway.
Hiroshima, though, falls into the Osaka category. It’s a regional center with a hell of a lot of local pride, a baseball team beloved no matter their win/loss record, a freewheeling and uninhibited nightlife, and more than Osaka, remnants of the past.
It really makes you think about the strength of people and communities. This was a city that truly endured what some writers might call the “post-apocalypse”, and has not only thrived, but kept more of its heritage than many other places after the world war.
I hadn’t visited Nagoya in almost a year, and it was about time I brought someone along. It’s pretty close to Osaka metro by local express lines, so we booked it. I was excited to travel to another region in the country for the first time in ages with fellow travelers.
So Nagoya. Japan’s Third City. The Middle Capital. 2.2 million people. Not nearly as built up structurally as Tokyo or Osaka, but featuring some major towers.
Which is Nagoya Tower, finished in the mid 1950s when the great Japanese cities were building steel frame towers as symbols of industry. Turns out you can go up. Time to try and get some night photos of the city.
So more on that laser…
It’s an installation in the park that seems to alternate between shining straight up, and…
Talk about strange occult symbolism. Is there a Chukyo Illuminati Chapter?
The laser’s really strange too. The way it propagates through the air at distance gives it a relatively constant thickness in your perspective, no matter how far away the beam is. See the last picture for instance. It’s almost impossible to judge perspective based on the beam alone. I’m not sure who came up with the laser idea, if it’s permanent or a temporary exhibition, if it has symbolism or is just supposed to be neat, but…hey, welcome to Nagoya!