The best way to enjoy a visit to a temple or a shrine in my opinion is to go for the details. Just like older western Churches, temples and shrines in Japan (and indeed in the rest of Asia as well) are absolutely loaded with details all of which carries tons of symbolism and meaning. Most Japanese can’t actually “read” these details either (it is not a lost skill, as these details have long been the domain of specialists and professionals). I have always thought it interesting in Japanese that there is one word for “leg” that covers everything from the hipjoint to the big toe, but there is also a very specific name for each part of the spire on top of a pagoda, with incredible detail. Every time I visit a temple in Japan I learn something new about the symbolism or naming of the different parts of it. Sometimes I take a lot of photos of details to remember them, like with this temple that I visited in Matsue City in Shimane Prefecture, the Senjuin (千手院). This temple is on the slopes of a hill neatly placed to overlook the city and the castle that makes the city famous. The temple belongs to the oldest and largest of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. I was too late in the season to experience the famous weeping cherry blossom tree (shidare sakura) which is over 200 years old. The temple itself is very old but it was moved here in the 19th century after a large fire burned down the original buildings in 1678. If you visit Matsue City and have a bit of free time and the weather is good I recommend visiting this temple if nothing else than for the news.
A few of the interesting details on this temple was the elaborate (even more than usual) bright vermilion ceramic roof finials, complete with the famous kamon (heraldic sign) Gosannokiri which is extremely similar to the official heraldic sign of the prime minister and can be found in all Japanese passports for example (to be honest there are 129 official kamon based on this simple design and it could be anyone of them). I also enjoyed seeing the printed prayer slips pasted on one of the walls which I have never seen in Tokyo (I am sure there must be some). Another one I liked was the little votive painting of the Senjukannon, the buddhist patron saint of people born in the year of the rat and often prayed to by people with poor eyes.
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.
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.
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.