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.











10 Responses

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  1. Mustang.Koji said, on January 31, 2014 at 5:28 am

    I’ve wondered about these very “plantation-ish” buildings. They look so out of place in Japan but your background information makes it clear. Bizarre still – at least to me. 🙂


    • tokyobling said, on January 31, 2014 at 5:47 am

      Haha… you mean they look like antebellum architecture of the US? I think Italianate or Victorian is a closer match for the style the Japanese carpenters were looking to create. (^-^)


  2. Buri-chan said, on January 31, 2014 at 6:52 am

    Beautiful pictures! The building is currently undergoing some renovation–besides trying to retain the building’s former glory, there has been talk of adding modern restrooms and such. They haven’t decided what exactly its new function will be, but before renovations started we held a party for a delegation from New Orleans there–which it was a perfect space for! Curiously enough, many of the delegation members also commented that it looked very antebellum.

    I never knew that much about Gyofu buildings, so this was a very interesting read. Thanks!


    • tokyobling said, on January 31, 2014 at 7:24 am

      Haha… yes, I can see the resemblance, since the antebellum and italianate share the same root in renaissance and classicist revivals of the 16th to 19th centuries. I read that the building was closed right now but I couldn’t find any official sources. Thanks for clearing that one out for me! The building was in need of at least exterior maintenance when I was there but as for interiors I think they need to figure out the function before they touch anything. Representation – which was the original function after all – would be a perfect choice but possibly be problematic if it becomes a money sink, especially now that they have that almost spanking new culture museum in town. If it had been Europe it would have been turned into a governor’s residence or a restaurant by now. Dear God please no one give them the idea to turn it into a casino, as happened with many similar buildings in Macao. (^-^;)

      Thank you always for keeping me posted on what is going on in beautiful Shimane Prefecture! (^O^)/


      • Buri-chan said, on February 3, 2014 at 12:04 am

        Don’t worry, I think a lot of people would throw a fit about a casino next to the castle! ^.^ I’d be happy if it could be used as a reception or party venue, as that would stay true to some of the building’s original purpose. I guess it would just be a question who could use it and how often.

        Happy to keep you updated, and thanks for telling more people about the wonderful things to find here! After all, we often joke we’re the 47th most popular prefecture. ^^;


        • tokyobling said, on February 3, 2014 at 2:08 am

          I hope so! haha…. Party venue would be great. The civic society of Matsue could put it to great use for everything from ballroom dancing events to poetry readings and NPO gatherings.

          That is a good joke BTW. I have never heard it before. To me Shimane is one of the most attractive prefectures of them all!


  3. amadl said, on February 2, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Aside from seeing beautifuL pictures of a beautifuL buiLding, I got to Learn something about architecture! Thank you ^^


  4. Shelli@howsitgoingeh? said, on February 3, 2014 at 12:03 am

    Wow, interesting! I’ve never seen Meiji Era architecture in Japan! So fascinating.


    • tokyobling said, on February 3, 2014 at 2:06 am

      Thank you! As much as I love the Edo style architecture, for me the Meiji ear architecture has the most fascinating mixes of east and west. (^-^)


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