One of the main reasons that Dirk, Nichole and I visited Kumamoto was to see Kumamoto-jo, one of the more famous castles in Japan. Kumamoto-jo dates back to 1520, but in 1877 Kumamoto-jo was burned to the ground three days before the beginning of the Seinan Civil War (also known as the Satsuma Rebellion). The present castle may be a reconstruction that dates from 1960, but it’s a magnificent reconstruction and really worth seeing. The castle’s main keep (the donjon) is an imposing structure with two large towers, the larger of which rises to six stories high (about 20 meters above the stone fence at its base). Here’s from the July 2007 Kansai Time Out:
The main structure was positioned upon a hill with two nearby rivers, serving as an encircling moat. To ensure the castle’s durability through the region’s vagarious climate changes, local timber stained with persimmon tannin and pine soot was employed. The dark concoction helped to repel both weathering elements and wood-burrowing insects. The castle’s distinctive black façade, along with its complex labyrinth of ramparts, baileys, and watchtowers, also made it difficult to invade, especially at night, when defensive features such as missile apertures were difficult to determine.
One of the reasons the castle was so hard to attack are its impressive stone walls (which, naturally, survived the fire). One of these — the Naga-Bei — is, at 242 meters long, the longest surviving castle wall in Japan. The wall in the picture above is the wall of the Higashi-Juhachiken Turret, one of several turrets that you have to pass underneath as you walk up towards the main castle tower.
Even though the castle is a concrete reconstruction, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to see inside. Not only do you get an important sense of what the inner spaces of the castle might have been like, you also get to tour through the castle museum, which is full of interesting historical artifacts (some of them quite beautiful). One of my favorite sights was the elaborate model of the original structure of the castle’s wood framing. Huge and meticulous in detail, this is by far the most impressive building model I’ve seen in a long time. I’m not sure why, but large and famous structures in Japan almost always seem to have a model of the structure that you’re currently standing in somewhere on the premises (this is true of Himeji-jo and the Daibutsuden at Todaiji, for example). There’s something that I absolutely love about this — the weird feeling that you’re both inside the thing, and at the same time floating above it.
One of the most interesting areas to visit at Kumamoto-jo is the Iida-Maru Gokai Turret. This turret is a reconstruction, but unlike the main castle it has been reconstructed using traditional methods. There is a series of explanatory panels inside that show you the techniques and methods used in the reconstruction of the turret. The woodwork inside the turret was entirely produced by hand using traditional Japanese hand-tool techniques. You can see the marks of the chisels on all the beams, which gives the beams a distinctive character and texture that is compounded by the already beautiful tones of the wood used.
However, even with all of the traditional techniques that went into building the Iida-Maru Gokai Turret, they still decided to employ electric lights to illuminate the (very dark) interior. This might not make the purists happy, but I thought it was a wise choice — you get to see the woodwork better, and the washi-covered lamps are incredibly beautiful.
Near Kumamoto Castle there is a very nice craft museum featuring traditional and contemporary crafts made by local artisans (the map lists this as the “Kumamoto Prefectural Crafts Center”). Here you can find brightly colored Higo tops, and Higo handballs, Shoudai-yaki (the local pottery), and the red-faced Kinta the Ghost (おばけの金太), a mechanical head that rolls its eyes back and sticks its tongue out when you pull the string in back (apparently the spring inside is crafted from bamboo). If you’re in Kumamoto, you should also sample the local foods — takano pickles, ikinari dango, karashi-rencon (spicy lotus root — my favorite!), and basashi (raw horse) — all of which are delicious.
Filed under: architecture, culture, eating, history, Japan, travel | 5 Comments
Tags: おばけの金太, castle architecture, 熊本城, 熊本市, Kinta the Ghost, Kumamoto, Kumamoto Castle, Kumamoto crafts, Kumamoto Prefectural Crafts Center, Kumamoto-jo, local foods, reconstruction, Satsuma Rebellion, Seinan Civil War, stone walls, traditional woodwork technique, turret, woodwork