Most people who visit the beautiful city of Matsue in Shimane Prefecture on the north coast of Japan make sure to check out the famous Matsue Castle. The castle is one of the more beautiful wood and stone castles in Japan and the black building contrasts beautifully with the green of the garden and the blue sky. It also contrasts beautifully with another of Matsue’s famous buildings, the splendid white Kounkaku (興雲閣), also knowns by the locals as the Russian Palace when it was built in 1903. Local business worked together to raise money for the building, which in those days cost 13 489 yen, or 10 million yen in today’s value which must be exceptionally good value. The hope was to have a building grand enough to welcome the Emperor during his visit to Matsue but unfortunately his visit was stopped due to the outbreak of the war with Russia in 1905. However the locals got nearly the same honor in 1907 when the then Crown Prince Yoshihito visited (the soon to be Emperor Taisho).
The building itself is an important example of the uniquely Japanese style of architecture called Gyofu Architecture, that was common in Japan between 1869 and 1905. It is in essence buildings made by Japanese carpenters to imitate the style of western buildings they had only seen in drawings, plans and photographs. Many of the layouts, details and all the construction techniques are made in pure Japanese style, but in a way that looks foreign. The term Gyofu is today considered very negative and many architects prefer to call it Early Meiji Period Style, not as descriptive but more neutral. For a long time these buildings were considered naive and embarrassing even though they were usually very popular with locals who saw them as a sign of modernity and prosperity. Many government offices, police stations, hospitals and schools were built in this style until the early 20th century when western and western trained architects and engineers started constructing properly western buildings in the western manner. Personally though I love this style of architecture, it is informed, it is local, it is vernacular and a very attractive combination between east and west. Although proper western architecture also has some shining examples in Japan (like the Mitsubishi Ichigokan in Tokyo), these Gyofu buildings have so much more heart. And above all, they are in every case deeply loved by the people who live near them, and that is one of the pillars of an ethical and ecological society. Here is another example of perhaps the most famous Gyoufu building in Japan, the Kaichi Gakkou in Nagano Prefecture’s Matsumoto City.
Inside the building there are a few modern pieces of artwork reflecting the history of Matsue City, for example the grand portrait of the Daimyo (lord of a province) Horio Yoshiharu (堀尾吉晴 1542–1611) who was one of the most famous Samurai in Japanese history. You can’t tell from the portrait but he had quite a life! As a young man he caught a wild boar with his bare hands and this brought him to the attention of the most powerful lord in Japan who was interested in what the young warrior would become. In battle after battle he proved his strength and cunning both as a warrior and as a leader. In 1599, at just the perfect moment, he switches sides in the great civil war that was raging in Japan at that time, to the side of the eventual winner, Tokuhawa Ieayasu (the first Shogun ruler of Japan). As a reward he was appointed the first head of the noble family that would rule modern day Shimane prefecture.
Japan takes it’s cartoon culture seriously! Most of the famous manga and anime characters can be found as bronze statues around Japan, mostly at the home town of the creator or where the manga takes place. Some of the most famous manga statues would be the Gundam statue in Odaiba or the Kochikame statue in Kameari, or the Godzilla statue in Tokyo’s Hibiya district. These two statues are of the 1965 comic Hajime Ningen Gyatoruzu, but everybody just knows it after the name of the main character, seven year old caveman boy Gon (hajime ningen means “first man”). This one is in front of the Matsue JR Station in Shimane prefecture, the hometown of Shunji Sonoyama (1935-1992). Caveman Gon was on Japanese TVs regularly from 1974 and I think most Japanese over the age of 40 knows some of the catch phrases of this character by heart!
If there’s one kind of blogging I don’t do well it is food blogging, as has been proved time and again. But I’m no quitter and I will give it a go again with this seafood plate that I ordered in a small izakaya (restaurant) in Matsue City, Shimane prefecture, last year. How many ingredients, fish, vegetable, garnishes, etc., can you identify? I think I know half of these myself. For this seafood set course I think I paid about 1480 yen, which is not much, not dirt cheap but very very reasonable. I think I had to order more rice though! I think I picked it because it was Today’s Special. Always a safe bet! Oh, and maybe I should offer a prize to celebrate the fact that this blog post is the 1300th published post on this blog!
Matsue Castle, which last year celebrated its 400 year anniversary is one of the very few remaining original wooden castles of Japan. After earthquakes, fires, wars and political strife, most of the hundreds of original castles have been destroyed and even the vast majority of castles still standing are concrete or modern reconstructions rather than the original building, but in this Matsue Castle is different. It is nicknamed “the Black castle” due to the color of the lower levels. It’s a tricky build, as from the outside you can count 5 stories but from the inside there’s actually 6 stories in the castle. At one point in 1875 it was scheduled for destruction but at the last minute the castle keep and and some parts of the walls were saved, but most of the vast original buildings are gone. It must have been impressive to see the original castle with all the defenses and gates still remaining. Today, like all other castles in Japan, the defenses have been replaced with a park. Another interesting fact is that the castle was only finished after the last major civil war in Japan ended, so the castle has never seen actual combat. If you ever visit Matsue city or Shimane prefecture, you’re very likely to see this castle I think! Matsue has excellent service for foreign tourists, so good in fact that some of the Japanese tourists grumbled a little bit about the unfairness. Well, sometimes it’s good to come out on top!