Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

March 18, 2013

Visiting Ako (Ako City Museum of History)

Ako is a municipality in the western part of Hyogo Prefecture, bordering the Bizen area of Okayama. It has a certain tourist fame thanks to the fact that Ako was the castle town of Lord Asano Naganori, also called Takumi no Kami, who only being a third-generation daimyo in 1701 lost his life and castle by impulsively assaulting one of his superiors inside the shogun's palace in Edo - a historical incident that gave rise to the famous story of the Forty-Seven Ronin or Chushingura, and the ensuing boom in Joruri, Kabuki and much later, also film and novels. In fiction, however, the character of Lord Asano was changed and from what really was a sort of villain - who attacked a colleague from behind with a sword - he was made into a tragic hero.

Ako was a small but rich fief thanks to salt production on the coast. The castle was built in 1645 by Asano Naganao on the alluvial plain of the Chikusa River. It used to have 12 gates and 10 yagura towers and as it stood immediately at the seaside, one could set sail from docks located in the castle. Salt making took place in salt pans at the seaside and the salt from Ako was sold in the capital Edo and all over Japan.

Tourism in Ako has been built around the Forty-seven Ronin memories, but the problem is that there is not really much to be seen. The castle was dismantled in the early Meiji-period, and although a wall and one gate and one tower have been rebuilt, it doesn't add up to much, especially as - in contrast to for example nearby Tatsuno Castle - the castle grounds have only partly been restored. They just peter out in fields and a large parking lot and have not been made as a whole into a park. There is no unity.

  Banshu Ako - Copy of Castle Tower
[Restored yagura tower of Ako Castle]

The largest space inside the castle grounds is taken up by the Oishi Shrine  dedicated to the leader of the Forty-Seven Ronin, but this was only built in 1900 and is a very commercial-looking affair, not more than a tourist trap. It is second-hand Shinto, and the Forty-seven Ronin statues outside are very ugly - there are more of these in the Treasure Hall if you can stomach the steep fee.

That leaves two things. One is the gate to the house of Oishi Yoshio (Kuranosuke), the Ako chamberlain who led the secret vendetta of the forty-seven. The gate is said to be the original one on which the messenger from Edo knocked, bringing the news of Lord Asano's forced seppuku.

Banshu Ako - Gate House Oishi
[Gate to Oishi Yoshio's mansion]

The other structure of interested in the castle grounds - and for me the largest point of interest in all of Ako - is the Ako City Museum of History, built in traditional style at the site of the former rice storehouses of the castle. Its displays are mainly about salt production (tools, models) and the Forty-seven Ronin (ukiyoe). There is also a model of the type of ship that carried the salt, packed in straw, to Edo. Although there is nothing in English, two nice videos about both these subjects are shown as well.

Bansho Ako - History Museum
[Ako City Museum of History]

Besides the castle and its attractions, Ako also boasts Kagakuji Temple, founded in 1645 as the family temple of the Asano clan - it features grave monuments (the main grave of Lord Asano is however in Sengakuji in Tokyo)  and more Forty-seven Ronin replicas.

Don't forget to taste the local product - salt -, which is best done in the shape of the Shiomi Manju cakes sold in the town - as usual, the inside consists of azuki bean paste, but to the shell some Ako salt has been added.
Ako is easily accessible from the Kansai area. Its station, Banshu Ako, is on a branch line from the main Sanyo line, called Ako line, but there are through trains to Banshu Ako from Kyoto/Osaka/Kobe - otherwise, change trains in Himeji. The Ako castle grounds are 20 min on foot from the station. The Ako City History Museum is open from 9:00-17:00, but closed on Wednesdays and at year end/New Year. Entrance fee is 200 yen.

March 9, 2013

Plum Blossoms in Suma Rikyu Park

Suma Rikyu Park lies in the western part of Kobe, not far from the Suma Temple. The 58 hectare large park, situated on the side of Mt. Tsukimiyama, finds it origin in a villa of Count Otani Kozui (1876-1948), who was the 22nd abbot of the Nishi-Honganji Temple in Kyoto and also sponsored three archaeological expeditions to Central Asia (the findings formed the important Otani Collection, parts of which can still be seen in the National Museum of Tokyo and elsewhere). In 1907, the site was bought by the Imperial Household Agency, and the Suma Rikyu (Suma Detached Palace) was finished in 1914 - the official name, by the way, was Muko Rikyu. Old photos show a big structure like the halls of the Gosho Palace in Kyoto. The garden was designed by Fukuba Itsusen.
[Plum blossoms in Suma Rikyu]

However, this all perished during the heavy bombings of 1945. The buildings were gone, but the garden was as much as possible restored to the original state, and in 1967 was donated by the Imperial House to the City of Kobe, in commemoration of the marriage of the present Emperor (then Crown Prince).
[Plum blossoms in Suma Rikyu]

There is also an eastern part of 24 hectares, connected by a footbridge, that originally formed a residence and garden belonging to the Okazaki Zaibatsu (a local industrial group - mainly shipping and banking). It was in 1973 acquired by the City of Kobe and added to the park, but the residence was destroyed in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.
[Early sakura in Suma Rikyu]

The Rikyu Garden consists mainly of a Western-style garden of the Versailles type, with cascades, a canal and rows of fountains, as well as a square with a large fountain. The park also features a large rose garden, an iris garden and a camellia garden. An old stone lantern still stands as a lonely reminder of the former imperial gardens. A lookout-point provides a view over Suma and the nearby sea. A drive lined with maple trees is gorgeous in autumn.
[The main view - canals and fountains - in Suma Rikyu Park]

The botanical garden built on the former Okazaki premises features a greenhouse, a plum garden, a hydrangea garden, an English garden and a Japanese garden with a tearoom. There are also a few cherry trees. The plum trees come in many varieties and have all been neatly labeled (in Japanese). I found two statues in the garden: one of the god Poseidon, throwing a spear, in front of the restaurant and donated by Greece and a modern statue of Don Quixote on a stumbling and panting Rosinante.

[Fountain in Suma Rikyu Park]

Hours: 9:00-17:00 (enter by 16:30): in spring and autumn, there are sometimes longer opening times in the evening. Closed on Thursdays and from Dec. 29-Jan 3. 
Fee: 400 yen (a year card, also valid for the Shinrin Botanical Garden and Sorakuen Garden is 900 yen) 
Access: 10 min walk from Suma Station on either the JR or Sanyo Dentetsu lines (note that coming from Kobe Sannomiya or Motomachi, the JR ticket is 170 yen, but the combined Hanshin/Hankyu/Sanyo Dentetsu ticket is 320 yen because of the change of operator along the way - one of the rare cases that the JR is cheaper!). After exiting the station  proceed in an eastern direction along Kokudo 2 for about 5 min, then take the Rikyu Road (lined with small pine trees) north all the way to the Main Entrance of the park. There is also an eastern entrance to the a park, about 7 min from Tsukimiyama Station on the Sanyo Dentetsu Line, but this can not be recommended, as the environment with a highway ramp is rather vulgar.

March 1, 2013

Plum Blossoms in Kyoto Gyoen National Garden

"Gyoen" is the name for the part of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto that is always open to the public, the park so to speak that surrounds the Gosho and Sento Gosho Palaces and other buildings. The important point to note is that historically this was not a park, but that the area was filled with the mansions of the noblest families of Japan, aristocrats who served at the Imperial Court and from among whose daughters consorts for the emperors were selected. That were families as the Kujo, the Saionji, etc.

[Kyoto Gyoen]

Their residences were situated inside the palace enclosure, surrounding the palace proper. After the emperor moved to Tokyo in 1868, those families followed him and their residences were dismantled. Of course, these mansions also had great gardens and some of the trees in the Gyoen Park are indeed very old; others were newly planted.

[White plum blossoms in Kyoto Gyoen]

After WWII, Kyoto Gyoen was turned into a public park. With its abundant and beautiful green trees and lawns, Kyoto Gyoen is an easily accessible place to enjoy the changes of the seasons: from plum trees to peach trees, and from cherry blossoms to autumn foliage.

[Plum blossoms in Kyoto Gyoen]

The plum trees stand in the southwestern corner, just north of the Kaninnomiya Mansion Site, where the walls and gate of the old compound have been rebuilt (inside is a hall where often small exhibitions are held). There are about 300 plum trees, intermingled with other, stately old trees. Blossoming time is usually the last week of February and the first week of March. Next to the plum garden is an area where peach trees have been planed; these blossom in mid-March. The beautiful weeping cherries, in their turn, stand in the northwestern corner of the park.

[Wintersweet (Cimonanthus) in Kyoto Gyoen]

Among the normal plums also stand a few low trees of the wintersweet (cimonanthus), a plant which like the plum came to Japan from China. It produces a deliciously, sweet scent and flowers somewhat earlier than the plum tree. In Japan it is called robai (蝋梅), so also written with the character for plum, although it is an entirely different tree.

Admission: free.
For seeing the plum blossoms, the most convenient station is Marutamachi on the Subway Karasuma Line.