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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Kyushu: Kumamoto + Aso boy!

Golden Week has come and gone without my having gone anywhere or done anything in particular (too many crowds and too little money), but it’s taken me a while to put my photographs in order from my Spring vacation trip. Christabel, a friend of mine from college, was moving to Korea at the beginning of April and happily, we were able to organise a trip together in Japan at the end of March. I persuaded her to come visit Kyushu with me, as I wanted to have another experience like my Shikoku trip from last year. I had wanted to travel all around the island and take a ferry out to Yakushima, a small island with really old trees that I’ve heard influenced the forest in Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke. Some of my friends went hiking there last year and it sounded amazing. But our time was a little tight at 6 days, so I decided to stick with northern Kyushu this time.

I was originally going to fly down, but the flights from my nearest airport were ridiculously expensive for an hour’s journey, and as I researched flights from Osaka to Fukuoka, I found that the cost of getting the train was about equal in terms of cost, and more direct – two trains from Kanazawa to Kumamoto, instead of two trains, an aeroplane, a subway and another train. It cost just over ¥20,000 (approx. €150) one way, and took 6 hours, about the same about of time it would have taken me with all those other forms of transport. Even though it was a long journey I quite enjoyed it, as one of the trains was a shinkansen, and I don’t often have the opportunity to take it (it’s coming to my region next year though).

We were to be going on a lot of trains over the next few days, so Christabel got a JR North Kyushu 3-day rail pass for ¥7,000, which was a really good deal. Unfortunately I couldn’t get it because it’s only available to non-residents of Japan. Unlike the All-Japan rail pass that my family had to buy online before they came to Japan, this ticket is available for purchase inside Japan. Christabel said they were quite strict about checking her passport and visa status when she bought it, though at the other stations and trains we went to, they never asked to see her passport.

Christabel flew in to Fukuoka at the north of the island and got the train down to meet me in Kumamoto, about half-way down. We didn’t have much time in Kumamoto, just a night and a morning, and I’m ashamed to say we didn’t see Kumamoto castle, one of the best castles in Japan. We did see the most famous resident of Kumamoto though, this guy, Kumamon:

Japanese cities have their own mascots that they put on souvenirs to sell to tourists, and that they have people dress up as for events. Every year, Japan has a competition for the best mascot in Japan and Kumamon won in 2011, having been only recently created in 2010 to celebrate the opening of the Kyushu shinkansen. Since then he has become hugely popular all over Japan, and even famous on the internet for this meme.

He was everywhere in Kumamoto. You couldn’t look up without seeing him giving you directions or about to jump from a window.

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Kumamon window

Even though we didn’t get to the castle, that’s not to say that we didn’t have a busy morning. We went to Suizenji-koen, a garden that recreates the 53 stations of the Tokaido (the road that connected Tokyo with Kyoto in the Edo period). It was pouring rain when we got there, but we fortified ourselves with ikinari dango (Japanese sweets made of sweet potato and red bean jam) and tea at a souvenir shop outside the garden. We walked around the mini Tokaido in the rain like these travelers who got caught in a rain shower at the 45th station (Hiroshige).

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Although I can imagine it being more beautiful in sunny weather, the rain added an extra sense of mystery to the Alice in Wonderland-like garden that had patchwork grass, gardeners pruning trees on three-legged ladders, and a mini Mount Fuji.

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Suizenji koen gardeners

Mini Mt Fuji

Mini Inari shrine

Suizenji koen blossoms

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The other place we visited was Lafcadio Hearn’s house. In the future I would like to do a post about him because he had a very interesting life. Lafcadio Hearn (known as Koizumi Yakumo in Japan) had an Irish father, a Greek mother and lived in Ireland and England when he was growing up. He worked as a journalist and writer in Cinncinati, New Orleans and Martinique before moving to Japan, where he wrote and taught English for the rest of his life. He lived in Kumamoto for three years and his house has been preserved. Christabel and I were the only visitors to the house that day and when we told the man working at the reception that we were Irish, he was delighted and gave us a tour around the rooms in a mix of Japanese and English, which was surprisingly informative.

Lafcadio Hearn's house

After lunch, we left Kumamoto on a special sightseeing train – the Aso Boy! (actually pronounced aso-bo-ii). Only two run per day each way between Kumamoto and Mount Aso, a volcano in the middle of Kyushu.

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It caters for families with children, because as well as the regular reserved seats, there are carriages with special adult-and-child seats, a play area and even a little children’s library. Although we were unfortunately too big for any of the kids facilities, we enjoyed looking at how the train was designed and decorated, as it was very unique. We got off at Mount Aso station (still in the pouring rain) and got two more trains to Yufuin, where we explored the next day, and which will be the subject of my next post.

Asoboy library

Aso Kuroemon