Meiji Mura, Nagoya

In November I went the Meiji Mura Museum, located in Inuyama, about an hour outside of Nagoya. It’s an open-air museum with a theme park-like atmosphere.  It was founded in the 1960s by Yoshiro Taniguchi, an architect, and Moto Tsuchikawa, vice-president of Nagoya Railroad, in order to preserve Meiji-era buildings around Japan, many of which had already been destroyed during the war, or were being demolished in the post-war boom.

The Meiji Era (1868-1912) was the period in Japan after the country had been opened up to the world by Commodore Perry, when the Emperor replaced the Shogun as the head of state, and Western ideas began to be integrated into Japanese society at an incredible rate. The Ministry of Education was set up to provide public education based on American and French models, and schools such as the Mie Prefectural Normal School (which had also previously been relocated to another town to become Kuramochi Primary School), shown below, were built in a mixture of Western and Japanese styles (notice the ornamentation on the pediment). Only the main entrance and two classrooms in the right wing were reconstructed in the park.

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Inside the school they had exhibits of materials that would have been displayed or used in the classrooms during that time. I loved the educational scrolls that continued the Edo period tradition of illustrated categories, such as flowers, or vegetables as we can see below. Western artistic techniques can be seen in the use of shade and tone in the pictures. The other scroll shows images still very much in the traditional woodblock style, but with the addition of some figures dressed in Western attire.

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Although the sky was overcast and grey, the maple leaves were gorgeous shades of red. There was a light-up for the season and little electric candles had been placed around the grounds, as well as bigger installations at the main buildings. The building below, originally from Bunkyo-ku in Tokyo, is a typical house of the era, still very much in the Japanese style, but it is famous for having been home to two literary greats – Ogai Mori and Soseki Natsume. Natsume’s most well-known work is I am a cat, and they put a cute little figurine at the window of the study, which spoke to you as you approached.

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Western styles were for show, while Japanese styles were for comfort, as can be seen in the division of function at the Gakushuin (Peer’s School) Principal’s Residence, where the public rooms in the front – conference room, drawing room and study – had wooden floors and Western furnishings, but at the back were private tatami rooms.IMG_8813 (800x592)IMG_8811 (590x800)

At the Mie Prefectural Office there were some galleries of new technologies and styles. Below are some blue and white glazed ceramic toilets, and below that is a collection of clocks. Clocks also became a motif in the genre of bijin-ga, or pictures of beautiful women.

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Meiji Mura isn’t just a collection of old buildings though, there are many activities you can do to feel the ‘sense’ of the era. The weekend I visited, there was some kind of mystery treasure hunt going on, but unfortunately I couldn’t understand what you were supposed to do! I contented myself with a stamp rally and collected stamps from some of the major buildings in a little booklet. You could also get dressed up in Meiji era clothes – either Victorian-style suits and dresses, or kimono and hakama (the over-skirt that is nowadays associated with university and teachers). I had already tried to dress appropriately.

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The building I’m standing in front of is Tomatsu House from Nagoya. The house was originally built in the Edo era, when the owners oil were oil merchants. At the end of the 19th century they ran a bank, and extensions and renovations were carried out until 1901. It is three stories high, with the entrance corridor extending upward to the roof, allowing light from that side of the house to filter through the three floors and used to great effect in the half moon-shaped paper screen in the waiting room beside the second floor tea ceremony room.

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I saw some buildings from Kanazawa as well – the pink building below has the Physics and Chemistry theatres that some doctors I know remember studying in. I also saw the main gate, guard station and ward from Kanazawa prison, which used to be located in the area where I live now!

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A number of houses combined Western and Japanese styles in interesting (or peculiar) ways. Dr Shimizu’s Office from Nagano Prefecture was built in the 1900s with a Western exterior of arched glass windows and one of the consulting rooms with a wooden floor and Western furnishings, while the other rooms in the house are of tatami.

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If the doctor’s house-clinic is a simple combination of styles, the Villa of Mataemon Shibakawa from Hyogo is an intense mixture of wildly varying styles. It was built in 1911 as a weekend retreat for Shibakawa and designed by the architect Goichi Takeda, who studied in Europe, had a friendship with Frank Lloyd Wright and founded the department of architecture at Kyoto University.


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The front of the house looks vaguely Western, with its Spanish-style tile roof, chimney and stone basement level. From the other side however, you can see the tea ceremony room and its balcony jutting out over the incline. The hallway had a large staircase, a stained-glass window and gold plaster walls with whorls in relief.

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The first floor Japanese-style room was traditional in most aspects except for the hidden fireplace (the exterior of which we could see from the front). It was an odd collection of rooms, you were never sure where you were going to find yourself in next.

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The park itself was lovely, situated by a lake and with lots of trees and gardens. Even if you’re not enamoured with old buildings, it’s really pleasant to walk around, or take the train!

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There were old-timey buses, a tram and a steam train to get around the park. It’s ¥1000 for unlimited rides, on top of the ¥1700 admission price, so it’s not as cheap as regular museums, but you can spend a full day here, walking around, checking out the buildings, doing activities or workshops, eating and shopping. It’s cheaper than Disneyland!

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The Uji-Yamada Post Office from Ise is still in operation, and while I just sent a postcard, there was also a campaign where you could send yourself a letter that would arrive in 10 years time, which is a nice time-capsule idea, though unfortunately they didn’t send them abroad.

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St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral from Kyoto was being prepared for projection mapping later as I was leaving.

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I visited my old friend Lafcadio Hearn whose summering house from Shizuoka was in operation as a sweet shop, which brought nostalgic cries of delight from the visitors.

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The main reason I was visiting Meiji Mura, though, was to see the lobby of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel. Not all the buildings in the park are specifically from the Meiji era, some have their origins back in the Edo era, other were built or renovated later in the Taisho (1912-1926) and Showa (1926-1989) eras. Wright’s was the second Imperial Hotel, and built between 1919-1923. Built in the Mayan Revival Style, the guest room wings formed a letter ‘H’, while the public areas formed an ‘I’ down the middle.

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The hotel famously survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 with minimal damage. It was saved from demolition for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics because of the outbreak of World War II, and only the South wing was destroyed during the war. The hotel was repaired and new annexes built in the postwar era. Throughout its history it hosted many politicians, ambassadors and celebrities – including Charlie Chaplin who visited in 1932 and narrowly escaped an assassination attempt known as the May 15 incident which caused the death of the then-Prime Minister, and Marilyn Monroe who stayed there in 1954 with Joe DiMaggio on their honeymoon. However in 1967 it was decided to demolish the building and replace it with the current high-rise. The foundations had settled unevenly since construction, parts of the building still showed the effects of war damage, and it had simply slipped into decay. Luckily, Meiji Mura had been opened since 1965, so the central lobby and pond were reconstructed there using the original Oya stone finishings.

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As it was growing dark, lanterns were lit up outside the Kureha-za Kabuki Theatre, built in 1868 in Osaka – traditional architecture and drama carried into an era of rapid change. The lights for the illumination were gradually being turned on as I got the Village bus back to the present.

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I spent a few days in Bangkok on the way back from Myanmar to Japan. I could have flown direct, but it wasn’t much more expensive to stop off at Bangkok, and as well as knowing a few people there, I thought it would be an interesting contrast to the previous two weeks.  I had spent all my time preparing myself for Myanmar, so that when I arrived in Bangkok I didn’t know what to expect.  The city was so modern with highrises everywhere (interspersed with lovely little pockets of green) and the new Sky Train rivalled Tokyo’s transportation system.

IMG_5322 (600x800)It was coming up to the Queen’s 83rd birthday, so there was a lot of publicity celebrating it. I was aware that it’s a crime to criticise the monarchy in Thailand, but I didn’t know quite how serious it was.  People, both Thais and foreigners can face up to 15 years in prison for defaming, insulting or threatening the King, Queen or the Heir.  Even not showing due respect can result in a fine or jail time. I never went to the cinema while I was there, but if I had gone, I would have had to stand up with the rest of the cinema-goers while the royal anthem was played, because not doing so can potentially land you in trouble. Of course I wasn’t going to be talking about the royal family with anyone, and I didn’t know enough to criticize, but it was quite scary how serious a crime it is, especially when that lèse majesté law has been used by various Thai governments to stifle free speech. The monarchy has a really interesting history (and future), and I visited the Grand Palace that dates from 1782 when it was built for King Rama I.

IMG_8534 (599x800)I took the boat to the palace and it was a good way to experience a bit of the old Venice of the East.  Our boat was passed out by colourful motorized gondolas, and there were some nice views of temples on the river, but there were also some shanty-like houses that reminded me of Myanmar, because of course there are many sides to any real city.  The Grand Palace was crowded with tourists, but I was glad I was there by myself so I could take my time and wait for the occasional lull.  The Pavilion of Regalia, Royal Decorations & Coins had an incredible trove of royal treasures. Although there were similarities in design with the treasures I saw in the National Museum in Yangon, the way they were displayed here, with photographs and videos of them being worn or used by members of the monarchy, left no doubt that these were the heritage of a living royal family.

IMG_8538 (800x593)IMG_8542 (800x600)The Grand Palace was really stunning with all its glittering gold and glass mosaics. Unfortunately the Temple of the Emerald Buddha was closed when I was there because the emerald (jade) Buddha statue was being prepared to change into his rainy season regalia. The Museum of the Emerald Buddha Temple was really interesting, because the ground floor contained a lot of architectural elements of different buildings in the Grand Palace complex that had been replaced at various times. There was an exhibit, though without much English explanation about how the buildings were restored. Upstairs there were many objets d’art that had been given as offerings to the Buddha, and the gold seasonal attire for the Emerald Buddha.

IMG_8546 (600x800)IMG_8543 (600x800)IMG_8558 (600x800)IMG_8560 (800x599) Somerset Maugham stayed in Bangkok during his travels from Burma to Vietnam in 1923, and although he didn’t visit the Grand Palace, here is his description of the exterior:

For some reason that I forget I had not been able to see the palace, but I did not regret it since it thus retained for me the faint air of mystery which of all the emotions is that which you can least find in Bangkok. It is surrounded by a great white wall, strangely crenellated, and the crenellations have the effect of a row of lotus buds. […] Towards evening the white wall becomes pink and translucent and then above it, the dusk shrouding their garishness with its own soft glamour, you see, higgledy-piggledy, the gay, fantastic and multicoloured roofs of the palace and the wats and the bright-hued tapering of the pagodas. You divine wide courtyards, with lovely gateways intricately decorated, in which officials of the court, in their sober but distinguished dress, are intent upon secret affairs; and you imagine walks lined with trim, clipped trees and temples sombre and magnificent, throne-halls rich with gold and precious stones and apartments, vaguely scented, dark and cool, in which lie in careless profusion the storied treasures of the East.

Somerset Maugham The Gentleman in the Parlour

IMG_8566 (800x600)IMG_8564 (800x600)IMG_8555 (800x591)After the Grand Palace I went to the nearby Wat Pho that has the famous reclining Buddha. Both the Grand Palace and Wat Pho had really beautiful murals on the walls.  Along the wall behind the reclining Buddha are 108 bronze bowls where you are encouraged to drop a coin into each to bring your good luck. Unfortuately this had the opposite effect for one man, who was so intent on his coin-dropping that he stepped barefoot onto a wasp that was on the floor – a punishment I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Wat Pho is also famous for its traditional Thai massage school and it was wonderful to have the mild tension of sight-seeing stretched out of me.

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IMG_8584 (800x600)Possibly my favourite place in Bangkok was the Jim Thompson House & Museum. Jim Thompson the person is fascinating. He was an architect before he joined the U.S. army and went to North Africa, Europe, Sri Lanka and Thailand. After leaving the army in 1946 he returned to Bangkok where he founded the Thai Silk Company and revitalized the silk industry, especially by bringing it to international prominence through commissions from the musical The King and I in 1951. He lived in Bangkok until his mysterious disappearance in 1967 in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. In 1976 the James H.W. Thompson Foundation was established to administer the house and museum.

In 1958 he began work on his house which combines six teak buildings from Bangkok and the old capital of Ayutthaya.  These traditional Thai buildings are combined in a manner that also reflects Western sensibilities. The buildings are elevated one story above the ground in the traditional manner, the roof tiles were fired using a centuries-old design and the red paint on the exterior is a traditional preservative. Thompson built an entrance foyer with cool Italian black and white marble tiles from a 19th century Bangkok palace, placed the stairs inside the structure and connected the buildings with covered hallways. Other unique changes he made were to turn the interior window openings into niches for his art collection and use two Chinese mahjong tables as the dining table. He ammassed a sizeable collection of southeast-asian antiques which are on display in the house. The jungle-like garden hides and separates the house from the bustling cosmopolitan city just a few meters away.

IMG_8506 (1280x943)IMG_8514 (800x600)IMG_8515 (800x600)As a museum it’s quite well run, though because it’s such a popular tourist attraction that I’m sure it gets very busy in the high season. You purchase a ticket at the entrance and then join a tour of the house – no shoes and no photos. The tour was really interesting, given by knowledgeble guides wearing Thompson Thai silk, who were happy to answer any extra questions. They also had tours available in french. At the front were some girls who demonstrated how silk was made, dyed and spun, and they performed traditional dances every hour. The cafe is really nice and faces the house, across a pond of carp.

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