Tokyobling's Blog

Kounkaku 1903 – Shimane Prefecture

Posted in Places by tokyobling on January 31, 2014

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.

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Ueno Ghost Station – Hakubutsukan-Dobutsuen Station

Posted in Places by tokyobling on January 29, 2014

Tokyo is really the urban explorer’s dream city. It is such a layered city, starting with the tiny agricultural villages before the 17th century, then growing, adding, fixing, layering new things, all the while keeping some of the old, replacing a lot and creating new systems to interact with the old. One of the most visible aspects of this is the transportation network inside the city, and especially the old abandoned or disused train stations, ghost stations. I have blogged about ghost stations before, but here is one that I have always wanted to write about.

The Hakubutsukan-Dobutsuen station (博物館動物園駅) in Ueno was in daily use as late as 1997, and closed permanently on the first of April that year. I am betting there are readers of this blog that remembers using this station. It opened in 1933 as the second stop on the Keisei Honsen-line, operating between Ueno station and Narita airport in neighboring Chiba Prefecture. The station is named after its proximity to the museums and the zoos in the Ueno park area. The station was the last station in central Tokyo to still use wooden turnstiles right up to the last day of operation, giving the station a very old time feeling even when it was in operation. The bare soot stained concrete walls of the underground platform contributed to the run down look, even when it was fairly new. Students from the nearby Tokyo University of the Arts tried to liven it up a little by two murals of en elephant and penguins, that still survived in the old station. The station was never refurbished during its use.

There are several reasons why the station was closed. Firstly the station platform only allowed the very shorts of the trains running the line to stop there, the four car trains. As more and more trains grew longer there were serious safety and scheduling concerns over the operation of the station. The relative closeness to the starting station, only 900m away also played a role, as did economics. The station was manned by only one person and had limited opening hours.

Today the main exit of the station remains just like it did while in operation. The secondary exit is unmarked and completely shut up but still used as a storage facility for the nearby university. The building itself was designed by the architect Shunji Nakagawa in the same style as the parliament building, in a greek-roman revival style. Closed up like it is today, the worn concrete makes it look more like a mausoleum. It is fronted by two plain un-fluted tuscan columns, with a prominent parapet decorated sparingly by a hunted balustrade screening. The parapet is lined with antefixes of acroteria, giving it a strangely greco-buddhist look.

If you travel from Ueno you can spot the station platform as you run through it not even a minute after start. It is almost pitch black though, so you’ll have concentrate to spot it in the tunnel. The only remaining function of the station today is as an emergency exit for the tunnel, but I have been told it looks like it was abandoned only yesterday. I would love to go inside someday! Please let me know in the comments if you ever used it back in the good old days!

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Taisha Station Interiors – Shimane Prefecture

Posted in Opinion, Places by tokyobling on December 27, 2013

This is the interior of the wonderful but now disused Taisha Station in Shimane Prefecture on the northern coast of Japan. The constructions is a combination of western post and beam and Japanese finishing details and exterior roofing, giving it a strangely familiar feel. It does not feel like a typical countryside station but more like a proper waiting hall. It is easy to imagine groups of people and families gathering here to pick up relatives coming to visit over the holidays or to see of young people leaving for university or work in the big city! Take a look at the destinations list and you will see that this station was unusually well connected, there are fares to most places in western Japan and all the way to Tokyo on local train routes. It must have been an interesting journey in the time of steam powered locomotives.

Economists might also find the fare table quite interesting, as it shows us a little bit about how much inflation Japan has had in these 24 years since the table was last updated. Practically zero. This corresponds to one of the stupidest foreign language media hoaxes about Japan, the myth of “the lost decades”. I am old enough to remember back in the day when inflation was something universally detested and governments won elections on their “promises” to fight inflation. These days it is the complete opposite and governments fight to establish some sort of inflation, and they often point to the example of “the Japanese lost decades”. Here is an interesting article debunking the story. Or as my Dutch friend mentioned upon visiting Japan for the first time: “for a country two and a half decades into a recession, there sure seems to be a lot of construction going on”. Indeed.

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Taisha Station Building – Shimane

Posted in Places by tokyobling on December 21, 2013

In the sleepy little town of Izumo, in western Shimane Prefecture on the north coast of Japan you’ll find one the most beautiful examples of train station architecture in Japan. The Taisha station was inaugurated in 1912 as the first stop of the JR Taisha Line. The original station was much humbler and in 1924 the present station building was completed to better reflect the important national status of the town of Izumo and the grand Izumotaisha shrine. It is said that the station was designed by a young man, Mr. Sota who was only 25 years old. The station has three tracks and two platforms that are unusually long for such a minor station, the reason being that the station had to accommodate special long distance trains all the way from Tokyo and even chartered private trains. There was a direct line to Tokyo running regularly in the 1950s, and special direct trains well into the 1980s. It must have been a very interesting, and slow, journey! In the peak of its use, 1960, the station saw about 2000 passengers a day, but it was gradually superseded by other train lines and on the last of March in 1990 the last train pulled into the station. Townspeople and visitors to the shrine shifted over to the 1930 Izumo Taishamae station about a 10 minute walk from the Taisha station (which I blogged about last year).

The station is designed in the style of a shrine and as such does not fit into any contemporary style of architecture, which makes it look absolutely timeless, coming as it did between the Japanese Neoclassical style of the Meiji Period and the Imperial Style of the 1930s. It is no wonder it was declared a national building treasure in 2004 and 2009. The building is ecologically designed using local materials of wood, clay infill, lime, glass and stone, a far cry from the energy intensive modern concrete buildings.

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