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Japan 2011

Short trip to Japan

We’re here in Japan for just a short trip to attend our niece’s wedding. We’re presently staying with Daughter in Tokyo.

We had nothing planned today, so wife Mariko and I decided to have a look around Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, a massive national garden in Shinjuku. It covers nearly 60ha (144 acres) and is magnificently manicured. Full details can be found on the official Shinjuku Gyoen website

The garden itself is absolutely beautiful. It’s very peaceful and serene, and includes not just a traditional Japanese garden, but French and English gardens as well.

There’s a lot of concrete in Tokyo, but it’s certainly not a concrete jungle. Shinjuku Gyoen is just one of many gardens, parks and open spaces available to people in Tokyo, and during the week there are large numbers of elderly couples, housewives, and young mothers with their children taking advantage of these open green spaces to escape their less-than-spacious apartments.

Shinjuku Gyoen 1
One of the many manicured open spaces.

Shinjuku Gyoen 2
The Taiwan Pavilion. It was built with the support of Japanese in Taiwan in 1928 to mark the wedding of the Showa Emperor.

Shinjuku Gyoen 4
There was an interesting decorative pattern around the Pavilion just below the roof line. It’s very Chinese, and made with metal, but I think it can be quite attractive done in kumiko, with a few minor adjustments. There is a similar kumiko pattern that’s often used as an outer border, but this one could be an interesting challenge, especially making sure there’s sufficient tension in all the mitre joints.

Shinjuku Gyoen 3
Just a small part of the French Garden.

A very good day today.

Gee, I love this city.


Lafcadio Hearn and Samurai Residence

From Matsue Castle we walked a short distance to Lafcadio Hearn’s old residence. Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was a well-known writer of things Japanese from the late 1800s to the very early 1900s. He is probably best known by his Japanese name of Koizumi Yakumo (Koizumi is his family name), which he adopted when he took up Japanese citizenship. Among his better known works are perhaps Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, and several books on Japanese legends and ghost stories, including In Ghostly Japan, and Kwaidan. He spent his first year and a half in Japan living in Matsue, and he is perhaps most identified with the city.

His old residence has been preserved by its owners over the years, and is a fine example of Meiji era residential and
tategu style in a fairly average house of an average size.

Sign at the entrance. Matsue is very proud of its connection with Koizumi, and this, and the Hearn museum in the building next door are important tourist attractions.

The front of the house. While it’s a very ordinary house, it is a good example of housing styles at the turn of the century.

The garden view from the room where Koizumi wrote his very early works in Japan. The relationship between the interior living space and the external garden is crucial in Japanese architecture; this is also the case in average homes, such as Koizumi’s, and not just the magnificent and large homes of the wealthy that always seem to feature in glossy books on Japanese style and design. The low perspective gained when viewing the garden from the tatami floor through the two sets of sliding doors accentuates the natural flow from interior to exterior. The view of the garden and the sounds of the frogs and insects from the small pond further to the right would have been both calming and inspiring.

A small alcove in the study. The shoji and tategu work throughout the house was quite simple without great flair, but this simplicity suited the style of the house, and enhanced its natural feel. A good example of where less is more.

From here it was a short walk to the
Buke Yashiki — an ancient samurai residence. It was built in 1730, and was home to a middle-ranking samurai family and one of the chief retainers of the Matsudaira daimyo.

The entrance to the samurai residence.

An example of the simple shoin-zukuri style of construction in that era. Behind the senior samurai is a phone, and, no, they didn’t have mobile phones back in those days. The residence was undergoing some extensive reconstruction work, and we unfortunately had to dodge around the shokunin to get some photos.

A combination of earthquakes, natural ground movement and wear obviously necessitated some repair work on the shoji over the years. This was one approach used to keep the shoji running securely in its grooves. It had worked, but only just. It was now only just hanging on; one more bit of ground movement and the door would easily slide out of its grooves. This was one area where slightly more extensive repair work was required.

One of the back rooms of the residence used for storing various utensils. The tsuitate (screen) in the middle of the photo would have been used to block off the view from the surrounding rooms. It has seen better days, but considering its age, it is in remarkable condition, and a tribute to the tategu shokunin who made it. The shoji in the background are examples of koshitsuke shoji.

From here it was a longish walk back through the castle grounds and to the hotel. The following day was a trip to Izumo, the land of mythology.

Matsue Castle

After being fully inspired by the tategu display and the historic areas around Takayama, we took a 1.5-hour train trip to Toyama, then a bus ride to Shokugei Gakuin. I had very fruitful talks with my old tategu instructor and a couple of the academic staff, and received encouraging support for my medium-terms plans to write a couple of instructional books on tatgeu, kumiko patterns, the use and maintenance of Japanese tools, and how Western tools can be adapted for use in shoji work.

From Toyama, we headed to Matsue, the capital of Shimane Prefecture. Shimane is on the Sea of Japan side of Honshu, located next to Hiroshima Prefecture. The region abounds with natural beauty and charm, and has a wonderfully rich history.

The next morning we headed straight to Matsue Castle. This is one of only 12 remaining castles in Japan, and is the second largest (the largest being the magnificent Himeji Castle). It was completed in 1611. In 1638 rule over the region was transferred to Matsudaira Naomasa, the 14-year-old grandson of the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns, Tokugawa Ieyasu, beginning a reign by the Matsudaira clan that lasted ten generations over a period of nearly 234 years to 1871.

All of the buildings in the grounds were destroyed in 1875, following the Meiji Restoration, except for the castle tower, which was preserved, but only after intense pressure from various groups. Although the building underwent restoration work in the 1950s, essentially, it is the same as it was when it was constructed four centuries ago, and gives a tremendous insight into the architecture and carpentry skills of the
shokunin at that time. In 2001, three of the demolished turrets were rebuilt.

Inside the grounds of Matsue Castle.
Matsue Castle

The stones are all laid as they were quarried; there was no subsequent cutting to fit. It may look quite random, but they are assembled in a way that forms a very solid foundation structure. This stone structural style is known as
From the outside, there appears to be five storeys, but in fact there are six levels. The internal staircases are all very narrow, to make it difficult for attacking enemies to secure the upper levels, and are made of paulownia, a very light and fire-resistant timber so they could be raised quickly before an enemy could use them. Other aspects of the internal structural joinery, especially the beams, pillars, and the use of wedges were also quite fascinating. The castle itself never came under attack.

Southern turret of Matsue Castle looking back to the Chidori-bashi Bridge.
The castle moat and one of the rebuilt turrets.

Turtles in Matsue Castle moat.
Some of the moat wildlife.

Matsue Shrine
Matsue shrine

Deified in the Shrine are Matsudaira Naomasa, the first of the Matsudaira clan to rule the region; Horio Yoshiharu, the "father" of Tokugawa Shogunate rule in the region; Matsudaira Harusato (Fumai), the 7th ruler of the Matsudaira clan, who saved the region from bankruptcy in the mid-1700s; and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Matsu Castle 400th anniversary celebrations.
Celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the Castle.

2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the castle’s completion and the solidifying of Tokugawa rule over the area, and we were fortunate enough to catch the very end of one of the many events held to celebrate this important historical event.

Pruning matsu pine tree in the grounds of Matsue Castle.
Matsu trees.

Japanese matsu pine trees are particularly beautiful when they are shaped, but this is the kind of attention that’s needed. These are still only very young trees in the Castle grounds, and the time spent on manicuring them will only increase. A very Japanese sense of aesthetics.

From Matsue Castle, we took a short walk to the former home of Lafcadio Hearn, and the Matsue
Buke-yashiki (samurai residence)…

Sapling at the time of first Viking invasion

Takayama is a fascinating city. Like Iwase and Yatsuo in Toyama, Takayama has set aside an area (Sanmachi) that has been restored to its historical glory. Walking down the streets, you can almost feel that you’ve taken a step back in time to the days of the Edo Bakufu (Tokugawa Shogunate) before the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

I was fortunate enough during my time at the College to have worked on a couple of the old restored buildings in Iwase, so what probably stood out more for me was the subject of the photo below.


This is the ginkgo tree (
大イチョウ - ooichou) in the grounds of the Hida-Kokubunji Temple. It is 37 metres tall, and roughly ten metres in circumference at eye level, but what I found really humbling as I stood next to it was that this tree is over 1,200 years old. It was a sapling during the time of the first Viking invasion of England, and it was already a few hundred years old during the Norman invasion and victory by William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The stories that this tree could tell… It certainly puts things into a true perspective.

Kokubunji Temple itself is the oldest structure in Takayama, dating back to the late 8th century, although it has been rebuilt and restored a number of times over the centuries. While the temple itself is only quite small and well hidden, the main hall is a wonderful example of temple architecture of that era.



45th National Tategu Exhibition

Well, the annual tategu fair is over for this year. This year it was held in Hida-Takayama, a city of about 100,000, located in Gifu Prefecture.

To say it was amazing is a massive understatement. There were fewer exhibits than there were at Akita last year, probably because of a combination of the disaster in March and the smaller venue, but what it lacked in size, it certainly made up in quality, and the “wow” factor.

The main prize is the Prime Minister’s Prize, and this year it was won by a second-generation tategu/kumiko shokunin from Aichi Prefecture. His father won the Prime Minister’s Prize in 1988, and this is the first time that the main prize has been won by both a father and son. It was well deserved. The price for the work is ¥12,000,000, or about $140,000.

I couldn’t get back far enough for a single photo, so I had to split it up. The skill necessary to produce something like this is incredible. The kumiko in the
jigumi (the base) are 1.0 mm thick, and the smaller kumiko forming the internal patterns are 0.8 mm thick.


Next year the exhibition will be held in Fukuoka City, Kyushu.


We’re currently staying with daughter at her apartment in Tokyo. We’re heading off to the tategu display in Gifu later on in the week. In our travels around Tokyo today in preparation for our Gifu trip, we decided to head off to Shibuya to buy a few things. This also meant, of course, dropping in to see the statue of Hachi, the faithful dog who waited outside Shibuya Station for something like nine years for his deceased master to return.


The detailed story can be found
here. Dogs seem to be among the first things that come into mind when talking about loyalty.

In Australia we have our own version of Hachi. Ours is the
Dog on the Tuckerbox, located just outside of Gundagai in New South Wales along the Hume Highway. Although the story is more legend than real, and is based on a mid-19th century poem, I’ve no doubts that the poem itself would have been based on a real story of intense loyalty a dog felt for it owner.

A couple of work-related visits over the next couple of days, then off to Gifu. As an aside, this is the piece that won the Prime Minister’s Prize at the competition last year. It shows a scene from a well-known festival in Akita.


It was absolutely stunning. Those are full-sized doors.