Kashihara- History in Layers

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, founded 694 CE.  You are now looking at one of Japan’s Lost Cities.


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.


This copse of trees is all that remains of the imperial palace…


…and this is the view from the “throne”, south across the proud city of ages past.


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.




Even the visitors’ center is a gorgeous old building.



Kumamoto Part 2- Real Estate

I dedicated my entire last post to the vast, sprawling grounds of Kumamoto Castle.  I mentioned that though it was established by the Kato family, it became the seat of the Hosokawas for the vast majority of the Edo period.  I also mentioned that a lot of historic structures have survived.  The daimyo and his kin lived in the castle palace, which was lost in the 19th century.  However, to the northwest of the castle was a separate residence for another branch of the family.  Now called Hosokawa Gyobu-Tei, it is a surviving example of the more simple, rambling, almost rustic Shoin Style of high architecture, inspired by that ancient hall at Yoshino.  Wow, everything just comes together, doesn’t it?

The outer estate wall is low and unassuming.

The outer estate wall is low and unassuming.

In the outer yards, the leaves were brilliant.



Sunset to the west

The Kumamoto cityscape doesn’t extend very far beyond the castle.  Instead, it stretches south past the city center, as it slowly becomes more rural.


When the Hosokawas ran the city, the south of downtown was all open fields.  In this neighborhood survives another of their properties, a tea villa and country retreat called Jojuen built as an annex to a temple called Suizenji.


The garden is among Japan’s most famous.  With a much higher focus on countours, slopes, and landscaping, Suizenji Jojuen makes a fantastic contrast to some of the other Edo gardens that focus more on stones and water features.  It resembles a miniature landscape of the rolling mountains around Kumamoto, plus a miniature Mt. Fuji.


Also surviving- the old teahouse, where I sat down and enjoyed some proper matcha!

The pond of Jojuen flows into a river.



…which in turn feeds a small lake, Lake Ezu, right on the south end of town!



Who would ever guess this was December?


Some sort of rare-seeming bird that was attracting a lot of attention. Anyone know what it is?


But remember, no matter how great you think you are, the Toilet Man will always be pointing and laughing at you.

Kumamoto Part 1- That Gigantic Castle

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.


The city has an extremely vibrant nightlife relative to its population, which is sizeable but nowhere near the Top Ten.


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.


Most famous is the castle on the north end of downtown.



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.


Very surprisingly, lots of original buildings have survived.



Other parts, like this tower, have been recently rebuilt.  Impressive, but still dwarfed by that ancient tree.


Inside.  The reconstructions all use traditional carpentry rather than the usual concrete.


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.


Does this look like mid-December to you?



The main keep, behind layers of fortifications.



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.


This heavy rampart by the keep also served as the Hosokawas’ tea hall, and still hosts major cultural events.




One of the unique features of Kumamoto’s heavy fortifications: visitors to the central keep and palace have to travel through this tunnel inside the walls first.


Unlike many Japanese castles, Kumamoto has actually rebuilt part of the lordly palace too.  The building is of modern construction, but certain rooms are traditionally restored.  Crazy carpentry- and it’s only the palace kitchen!


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.


…and in keeping with the Hosokawa enthusiasm for tea, a tea room right behind the throne. Note the entirely different style, meant to bring the participants “down to Earth” so to speak.


The keep is an older postwar concrete reconstruction- but the original wasn’t demolished after the Meiji Restoration, or lost in American air attacks.

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.



Impressively, this major western tower is original…and big enough to be a small castle on its own.



The Three Towers


Even the smaller infantry cover walls have survived.


Quite a lot of them, in fact.


The castle’s double main western gate


Leaving out the west side

So much more to see…but I better save that for later.


Nara- Lost to History

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.


Despite its quieter, less-traveled nature, the humbler Gangoji is still a national treasure.






October’s flowers.

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.


Now it’s mostly returned to farmland.


Recreation of the old imperial hall



Looking south from the hall, at the plot where was once Japan’s great city.


Sunset over a former throne

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.

Return to Himeji- The Keep Unveiled

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.


Et voila!

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.


Even the “castle box” of the renovation period failed to perfectly convey how titanic the keep is.

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.


The walls of Himeji are intricate, layered, and confusing, winding back and forth as the gates get progressively smaller up to the keep. Defense in depth, as they say.

The walls of Himeji are intricate, layered, and confusing, winding back and forth as the gates get progressively smaller up to the keep.  Defense in depth.

Up on the keep, looking to the west wall.

Up on the keep, looking to the extensive west wall.

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.

The main floor of the keep, which goes up six floors and down one. Truly titanic.

The first floor of the keep, which goes up six floors and down one.  It utterly dwarfs Hikone, Kansai’s other famous surviving castle.  All those studs are racks for hanging arms- this place was packing heat.

A more open section of the first floor.

A more open section of the first floor, with the entrances to the armories.

Up on a higher floor (third or fourth), the keep is still spacious enough to have raised sentry platforms.

Up a few higher floors, the keep is still voluminous enough to have raised sentry platforms.

Vast and spacious, featuring more sentry platforms and interesting grillwork.

Vast and spacious, featuring more “half-floor” raised platforms and interesting grillwork.

View from the top westwards.

View from the top westwards.

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.

Southwards to the city center, still clearly built around the castle.

Southwards to the city center, still clearly built around the castle.


Even up on the inner fortifications, that keep foundation is titanic.

Even up on the inner fortifications, that keep foundation is titanic.

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…

There's something very iconic and decorative about the smaller castle walls, with their varied portholes for defensive weaponry.

There’s something very iconic and decorative about the smaller castle walls, with their varied portholes for defensive weaponry.


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.

Fukuoka City! Part 2- Dazaifu and the Castle

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.

Not much remains from the old days, but…

...there is the castle.

…there is the castle.


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.


Only the walls remain, intricate and layered.


The high foundation of the keep.

The high foundation of the keep.

Two historic structures survive, however.

This small, humble guard tower survives on the upper fortifications, having been moved off-site to a temple in Kitakyushu for most of the 20th century.

This small, humble guard tower survives on the upper fortifications, having been moved off-site to a temple in Kitakyushu for most of the 20th century.


And an entire section of the ramparts remains on the back side of the castle!

And an entire section of the ramparts remains on the back side of the castle, though few people seem to notice!





The castle offers a pretty good view of the cityscape.

To the west, developments along the beach are the closest thing to a Fukuoka skyline.

To the west, developments along the beach are the closest thing to a Fukuoka skyline.


To the east, back to downtown and old Hakata.

To the east, downtown and old Hakata.


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.

Fukuoka City! Part 1- First Impressions

Occasionally, some great deals crop up in Japanese air fare and lodging.  My wife is pretty savvy to deals and discounts, so we seized the initiative to travel to Fukuoka City for our second anniversary.

This was my first ever visit to Kyushu, the southwestern of Japan’s main core islands.  Fukuoka, on the northern coast of Kyushu, is its most populous city and one of Japan’s major urban areas.  It’s also one of its fastest-growing major cities.


Arriving after dark, the first thing that impressed me about Fukuoka is its nightlife.

People were just out on the streets in numbers after dark, even on a weeknight.  Even small, alleyway restaurants looked nearly full.  The crowds had a very different feel from other major Japanese cities I’ve been to- a lot more young working men, rather than older office workers or fashion-conscious youth.  There’s another thing that’s famous about Fukuoka nightlife, though…

The vendors!



Yatai are essentially temporary little restaurants set up along the river, able to accommodate a handful of people.  They’re a Fukuoka institution, specializing in local cuisine like pork ramen, charcoal roast chicken and pork, and mentaiko (spicy cod eggs).  After sampling as much as I could, it was time to rest before a day of history.


Fukuoka is a very ancient history, but after centuries of change, the anti-feudal demolitions of the Meiji Reformation, American bombing of the city, and madcap postwar construction, not a lot remains in the city itself.  Fukuoka does boast one of the three Hachiman shrines celebrated as Japan’s greatest since the Edo era, though.  Funny thing, I had just visited one of the other two earlier.
As an aside, it’s interesting that the Edo Japanese were really fond of making lists of stuff they liked.  Rather a lot like the internet these days…




Hakozaki Shrine

The Hakozaki area was on the outskirts of Fukuoka during the war, and so avoided damage.

Thus, the shrine buildings have survived all the way from the 16th century, predating the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The shrine buildings have survived all the way from the 16th century, predating the Tokugawa Shogunate.


Hakozaki shows a more austere and imposing style of architecture than Iwashimizu, the other of the great three Hachiman shrines I've visited.

Hakozaki shows a more austere and imposing style of architecture than Iwashimizu, the other of the great three Hachiman shrines I’ve visited.





Hakozaki Shrine was also a beachhead in the 13th century Mongol invasion of Japan.

Before the current structures were built, Hakozaki Shrine was a beachhead in the 13th century Mongol invasions of Japan.


The Mongols may even have charged right past this very tree, given that it's roughly a thousand years old...

The Mongols may even have charged right past this very tree, given that it’s roughly eight hundred years old…


There’s a lot more to see, but I don’t want to make this post too long.  Soon enough, soon enough.

Treasures Off the Beaten Path- Yawata

I live relatively close to Kyoto, the unofficial capital of Japanese heritage.  I’ve always cherished the city for its accessible nature and ancient sites- but I’ve discovered lately that even smaller and more obscure locales boast their own, more underrated treasures.

Enter Yawata, a small city right on the border between Osaka and Kyoto prefectures.  Developed in the 1970s as a suburb of Osaka and Kyoto, Yawata is actually a lot older as a town, if not necessarily well-known.  The old town wraps around a lone hill called Otokoyama- and that is where I came on a hunch.




Otokoyama is the site of Iwashimizu Hachimangu, a sprawling shrine to Hachiman dating back to at least the 9th century.  Hachiman is an interesting and complex figure in Shinto/Buddhism, an ancient Japanese god of war who became reinterpreted as a more peaceful bodhisattva, a guiding and tutelary figure in Buddhism whom several emperors were said to be avatars for.
Though not famous by any means, Iwashimizu is considered an important national historical site as almost all the structures in the complex, even small wooden shrines, date back to the 17th century.

The lower enclosure at the base of Otokoyama

The lower enclosure at the base of Otokoyama


Otokoyama may be small at just over 100 meters, but it's actually pretty steep.

Otokoyama may be small at just over 100 meters, but it’s actually pretty steep.


A striking sub-shrine in a steep clearing on the side of the hill.

A striking sub-shrine in a steep clearing on the side of the hill.


The approach to the main enclosure at the top of the hill

The approach to the main enclosure at the top of the hill




Small shrines in the main enclosure, all at least 300 years old

Small shrines in the main enclosure, all at least 300 years old





The north side of Otokoyama offers a good view north into Kyoto. Here is Atago, a far more daunting holy mountain I used to live closer to.


Here is Hiei, the most famous of Kyoto's moutains and a seminal site in the history of Japanese Buddhism.

Here is Hiei, the most famous of Kyoto’s moutains and a seminal site in the history of Japanese Buddhism.


...and here is downtown Kyoto, not very architecturally striking but no less densely urban.  Note Kyoto Tower slightly right of center.

…and here is downtown Kyoto, not very architecturally striking but no less densely urban.  Note Kyoto Tower slightly right of center.


Now that I know what underrated sights wait just off the beaten path, I ought to make a point of visiting more of Kansai’s “boring” suburbs in search of old treasure.

Mapping Japanese City Spaces: Sendai

Tohoku, the chilly region on the northeast end of Honshu, is not known for its urbania.  In the last few centuries, there has been one city that can be called a Tohoku metropolis- Sendai.  In the feudal age it was one of the largest castle towns not under direct Shogunate control, at times the third largest after Kanazawa and Hiroshima.  It lost some population after the fall of the feudal order, but remained in or around the lower Top 10 afterwards, even growing right through the 1940s.



You can click on any map to enlarge it.

Sendai Metro Area, 1960-2010 Time Elapse

Sendai Metro Area, 1960-2010 Time Elapse



Sendai Metro Area, 1960

Sendai Metro Area, 1960

Sendai had already grown far beyond the confines of the old castle city by 1960, with a few far-flung satellite towns to the south all the way to Shibata.

Sendai Metro Area     357,559     10th
Shiogama Micro Area     45,417     96th

Sendai City     335,979     12th
94.0% of metro area



Sendai Metro Area, 1970

Sendai Metro Area, 1970

Urban Sendai expanded significantly in the 1960s.  The port city of Shiogama joined the employment area, and the broad new suburb of Tagajo emerged to its south.  Sendai City’s drop in rank, despite its expansion, reflected the massive nationwide growth of major Japanese cities at the time.

Sendai Metro Area     564,637     10th     + 57.9%
Taiwa     5,589     [new DID]

Sendai City     439,290     15th     + 30.7%     – 3 ranks
77.8% of metro area     – 16.2% of metro area



Sendai Metro Area, 1980

Sendai Metro Area, 1980

Rapid growth continued through the 1970s.  Sendai City and the area around Shiogama grew towards each other, and the city of Izumi, on Sendai’s north side, emerged as a major suburb.  More growth happened to the south in this period, with Natori and Iwanuma spreading out and developing.

Sendai Metro Area     821,975     10th     + 45.6%

Sendai City     584,140     14th     + 33.0%     + 1 rank
71.1% of metro area     – 6.7% of metro area



Sendai Metro Area, 1990

Sendai Metro Area, 1990

In the 1980s it was the city proper that developed the most, expanding mostly north and east, connecting to the Shiogama area, annexing Izumi City and dividing into wards.

Sendai Metro Area     980,798     10th     + 19.3%

Sendai City     774,143     13th     + 32.5%     + 1 rank
78.9% of metro area     + 7.8% of metro area



Sendai Metro Area, 2000

Sendai Metro Area, 2000

Sendai sustained major growth even during the “slowdown period” of the 1990s, resulting in the urban area finally shifting rank and passing Kitakyushu.  This growth mostly took the form of large numbers of small suburban developments to the north and west of the city center, in the hilly inlands.  Izumi Ward also filled in significantly on the north end of town.

Sendai Metro Area     1,149,274     9th     + 17.2%     + 1 rank

Sendai City     892,252     12th     + 15.3%     + 1 rank
77.6% of metro area     – 1.3% of metro area



Sendai Metro Area, 2010

Sendai Metro Area, 2010

Sendai’s urban growth has slowed down markedly since 2000, with only small developments still emerging to the north and west.  The area has gained another rank and passed Hiroshima, but this is less due to Greater Sendai’s growth than the fragmentation of Hiroshima’s outer suburbs caused by shifting borders after the recent wave of municipal mergers.

Sendai Metro Area     1,206,718     8th     + 5.0%     + 1 rank

Sendai City     931,677     12th     + 4.4%
77.2% of metro area     – 0.4% of metro area


The epicenter of the March 11th, 2011 earthquake was offshore from the Sendai area, and coastal suburbs like Shiogama and Natori were among the most damaged by the tsunami.  Urban Sendai City was largely unscathed though, being more securely inland.  As a result the city has actually fared rather well, with not only the city proper but its inland suburbs growing significantly.  Even Natori’s coastal flats have been recovering pretty well.  The more traditional port area around Shiogama still shows diminished population though, as do many of the port cities on the east cost of Tohoku.


If there’s any city or region of Japan you’d like to see, just ask me in the comments!  Really, I do requests!


National land numerical information (densely inhabited district data)
Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism
1960: A16-60_04_DID.shp
1965: A16-65_04_DID.shp
1975: A16-75_04_DID.shp
1980: A16-80_04_DID.shp
1985: A16-85_04_DID.shp
1990: A16-90_04_DID.shp
1995: A16-95_04_DID.shp
2000: A16-00_04_DID.shp
2005: A16-05_04_DID.shp
2010: A16-10_04_DID.shp
Processed and edited in ArcGIS Explorer
Microsoft Bing Maps used as basemap

Mapping Japanese City Spaces: Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni

Hiroshima!  Metropole of the region called Chugoku, biggest urban area west of Kobe on the main island!  Hiroshima has long occupied its position among Japan’s Top Ten.  It was a castle town in the 16th century even before the Tokugawa regime, the second most populous city not controlled by the Shogunate (after Kanazawa) in the Edo period, and a major industrial city in the 20th century.  It endured a nuclear bombing, one of the most infamous destructions of a city in human history, but by the late 1950s the population had already recovered.

Along the bay to the east and west are two other cities not part of Greater Hiroshima, but which are very close and have had some interplay with Hiroshima.
To the east is Kure.  Historically, there was no such place and the area was very sparsely populated, with the small village of Washo existing where the city center is now.  Washo began to grow explosively in the 1890s as a seaport with a very military character, as the rapidly modernizing Imperial Navy sought bases from which to operate.  This development culminated in the 1901 merger of Washo and surrounding towns to create the new city of Kure.  Kure very quickly became a major national city, by 1940 almost as populous as Hiroshima itself.  It was a great arsenal city of the Empire, where the infamous battleship Yamato was built in secret.  With the greatly diminished role of the navy postwar, it never recovered its significance, but remained a major city into the 60s.
To the west in Yamaguchi Prefecture is Iwakuni, a minor castle town that took off in the 1930s as a local industrial city.



You can click on any map to enlarge it.

Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 1960-2010 Time Elapse

Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 1960-2010 Time Elapse



Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 1960

Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 1960

In 1960, urban Hiroshima was still shaped around the Ota river delta, with a very low density for a major city at the time.
Kure, still a major urban area despite the diminished role of the navy, had a distinct scattered form with multiple harbors.  Iwakuni was one of the lowest-density urban places in Japan, dominated by big raft of artificial land for a military airbase.

Hiroshima Metro Area     455,598     9th
Kure Metro Area     186,017     21st
Iwakuni Metro Area     50,150     90th
Takehara Micro Area     16,057
Otake Micro Area     12,725
Toyohama     5,595
Yutaka     5,380

Hiroshima City     406,991     10th
89.3% of metro area



Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 1970

Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 1970

Through the 1960s, Hiroshima City increased in density as it expanded, something very atypical for cities in the 60s.  New suburbs quickly emerged north of the city, especially upriver.
Kure also grew without sprawl, increasing in density as separate urban districts merged together.  North of Iwakuni, the town of Otake underwent explosive urban growth and the expansion of artificial coastline, turning into a continuous industrial zone with Iwakuni.

Hiroshima Metro Area     690,377     9th     + 51.5%
Kure Metro Area     216,178     24th     + 16.2%     – 3 ranks
Iwakuni Metro Area     59,902     90th     + 19.4%
Otake Micro Area     33,479     + 163.1%
Takehara Micro Area     14,001     – 12.8%

Hiroshima City     503,539     13th     + 23.7%     – 3 ranks
72.9% of metro area     – 16.4% of metro area



Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 1980

Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 1980

Urban Hiroshima underwent major changes in the 1970s.  The suburbs upriver from the city grew dramatically, before being annexed into the city proper, which then divided into wards in 1980.  Greater Hiroshima still retained a sort of “delta” shape, only far larger now.
Kure was now in outright decline, with some new inland suburban development but loss in the city center and a rapid loss of rank.  Iwakuni also stalled and dropped in rank.

Hiroshima Metro Area     935,304     9th     + 35.5%
Kure Metro Area     204,759     40th     – 5.3%     – 16 ranks
Iwakuni Metro Area     60,950     101st     + 1.7%     – 11 ranks
Otake Micro Area     36,257     + 8.3%
Takehara Micro Area     16,700     + 19.3%

Hiroshima City     740,899     12th     + 47.1%     + 1 rank
79.2% of metro area     + 6.3% of metro area



Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 1990

Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 1990

Hiroshima’s inland suburban wards continued to expand markedly, as the city center lowered in density slightly.  The suburbs also expanded significantly to the west, with an elongated coastal belt emerging and the city of Otake joining the employment area.
Kure continued its precipitous decline, but Iwakuni recovered a strong growth rate.

Hiroshima Metro Area     1,143,983     8th     + 22.3%     + 1 rank
Kure Metro Area     196,342     56th     – 4.1%     – 16 ranks
Iwakuni Metro Area     70,709     98th     + 16.0%     + 3 ranks
Takehara     9,631     – 42.3%

Hiroshima City     948,634     10th     + 28.0%     + 2 ranks
82.9% of metro area     + 3.7% of metro area



Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 2000

Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 2000

Greater Hiroshima’s growth slowed down significantly in the 1990s, though smaller suburban developments continued to emerge inland.
Urban Kure’s population decline accelerated, but its rank decline actually slowed down since by now many regional cities were stagnating as well.  Iwakuni continued its gradual growth.

Hiroshima Metro Area     1,216,547     8th     + 6.3%
Kure Metro Area     181,202     61st     – 7.7%     – 5 ranks
Iwakuni Metro Area     73,803     96th     + 4.4%     + 2 ranks
Takehara     8,395     – 12.8%

Hiroshima City     987,542     10th     + 4.1%
81.2% of metro area     – 1.7% of metro area



Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 2010

Hiroshima, Kure, and Iwakuni Metro Areas, 2010

In the early 2000s, a nationwide series of mergers changed the boundaries of many local municipalities.  As a result, Hiroshima City has been losing its suburbs!  The quickly growing inland city of Higashihiroshima has become independent and taken small Takehara with it.  Meanwhile, Hiroshima’s westernmost suburb of Otake has been “stolen” by Iwakuni.  At the same time, this is not actual population decline.  The city continues to slowly grow and increase in density, and may very well “retake” its fractious suburbs as it continues to grow in influence.
Though still a major shipbuilding city, Kure continues to decline in urban population even faster- greatly diminished in status and even down in population from the 1960 figures.

Hiroshima Metro Area     1,177,199     9th     – 3.2%     – 1 rank
Kure Metro Area     163,680     65th     – 9.7%     – 4 ranks
Iwakuni Metro Area     94,937     89th     + 28.6%     + 7 ranks
Higashihiroshima Micro Area     53,791     [split from Hiroshima]

Hiroshima City     1,012,198     11th     + 2.5%     – 1 rank
86.0% of metro area     + 4.8% of metro area


If there’s any city or region of Japan you’d like to see, just ask me in the comments!  Really, I do requests!


National land numerical information (densely inhabited district data)
Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism
1960: A16-60_34_DID.shp, A16-60_35_DID.shp
1965: A16-65_34_DID.shp, A16-65_35_DID.shp
A16-70_34_DID.shp, A16-70_35_DID.shp
1975: A16-75_34_DID.shp, A16-75_35_DID.shp
1980: A16-80_34_DID.shp, A16-80_35_DID.shp
1985: A16-85_34_DID.shp, A16-85_35_DID.shp
1990: A16-90_34_DID.shp, A16-90_35_DID.shp
1995: A16-95_34_DID.shp, A16-95_35_DID.shp
2000: A16-00_34_DID.shp, A16-00_35_DID.shp
2005: A16-05_34_DID.shp, A16-05_35_DID.shp
2010: A16-10_34_DID.shp, A16-10_35_DID.shp
Processed and edited in ArcGIS Explorer
Microsoft Bing Maps used as basemap