2014
06.02

SYNOPSIS:  Another reconstructed castle.  Another rich man’s home.  A beautiful train ride into the mountains which goes to show Japanese engineering ingenuity and a few cult-rituals.

Without my photos I would sooner or later jumble all these gardens, homes and castles up in my mind — no question about it.  And I have just started.  There are dozens more of ahead of me each, if that is enough…  A daunting thought.

I remember feeling this like on a Gothic cathedral tour through France which I did in a rented car many years ago.  Like a whirlwind I went from one town to the next “doing” about two cathedrals a day or more if possible.  You would think that “seen one, seen them all” sets in fast and to a degree it does.  Certainly, to the casual onlooker.  But it also has the opposite effect.  The more you see, the more you begin to appreciate little details, notice quality differences, the development over time, etc.  At least that’s what happened to me with the cathedrals.  I hope it will happen with the gardens, homes and castles here, too.  But rest assured, I won’t bore you with the details.

At the Castle in Kumamoto I gained a new appreciation for the work restorers do.  I watched a short documentary on the rebuilding of this castle which had been erased to the foundation walls; this one however, not during WWII, but during a rebellion in 1877, likely through arson.  Everything was rebuilt in just the last 40 years.  These restoration workers mean business.  They used authentic materials and techniques down to mixing mud and straw and then stomping around in the mix rather than using modern mixers.  I have to admire that.  The result is a beautiful and impressive castle — completely authentic if brand-new on the outside.  The interior is a museum filling in the history of the various clans who once owned this castle.  I am not even trying to dig into that with the limited amount of time I have.

The most impressive restoration project was completed most recently, in 2008, at the Hon-Maru Goten Palace inside the castle.  This castle, as all the others I have seen, did not only function as a defence structure but also as living quarters.  In this multi-year restoration project, mud walls were built over a wooden grid system, gold-leaf murals were painted, metal finials were created in the old repousse technique, and fusuma doors were covered with glue and finished with rice paper by hand.  The result is the expected Disney glitz, but at least it gives a very real impression of the wealth of these Daimyos, or lords, and it was done the “right way”.  To me, that counts for something.  In fact, it reminds me of the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche in Dresden following the old architectural drawings left by Geoge Baehr and using techniques authentic to the 18th century.

Not far from the castle, one of the old Samurai residences survives.  It once belonged to a member of the Hosokawa Gyobu clan and is named after him:  Kyu-Hosokawa GyobuteiIt makes for a nice comparison between the two styles of living.  In Kyu’s house, everything was scaled down a bit and more based on that farm-house aesthetic which I encountered in the Old House in Okinawa.  No gold leaf here.  Nonetheless, the guy had a villa with over 20 rooms, an impressive gate indicating his status, a separate tea house, and a Zen garden encircling the entire estate, which in turn was surrounded by a massive wall — not bad at all!

That was all the sightseeing I could fit in before I had to pick up my luggage and move on to the train station.  This time I boarded not one of the fast Shinkansen trains, but one of the famous side lines.

Trains in Japan actually have names and logos, color-coded cars and engines, and in some cases, even special designs.  The Trans-Kyushu Limited Express was just one of those.  It’s almost a bit like a cult.  At one point the train attendant came around with a big round logo on cardboard for people to have their picture taken with it and she brought a collector’s stamp for anyone who wanted to have one.  In fact, there is a whole industry surrounding the idea of collecting stamps from the sites you have been to and the trains you have been on.  If I would work in the good old journal style, I could have a colorful assortment collected by the end of this trip.  But I don’t even know where to put these stamps as I don’t have paper.  So, I am missing out altogether on this Japanese tradition.

I am still in the process of collecting “data” on the trains in Japan — I am just starting out, after all.  Some day, I will dedicate a whole blog to the subject.  For now just a bit about this particular one.  We had to cross Kyushu, the most Southern of the four main islands that make up Japan, from West to East across a tall mountain range.  There is an area of five active calderas, the tallest of which is Mt. Aso; and so the region is referred to as the Aso Tableland.  The train, instead of tunnelling itself through the mountain is actually pretty much riding on the tableland.  But how to get up there?

It’s hard enough for cars to climb a steep mountain and you have to build roads that serpentine upwards. But I had never been on a train which uses this principle.  At a particular point we were actually going back and forth a few times, each time climbing up higher, changing tracks and directions, and then up again — literally in a zickzack pattern.  It got the train up there quickly!

Photography is nearly impossible as the train goes pretty roughly and the gorgeous scenery is always just over when you grab the camera.  And then you have just one more blurry image of trees… I gave up after a while.  But the landscape was awe inspiring.  Steep mountains, lush forests, rocks, streams, plateaus, villages.  There are rice fields up there!  For anyone not on a UNESCO mission, this would be the place to stop, hike and relax for a few days.  And I hear you can even peek over the edge of active volcano craters there!  What fun.

It had gotten late, so I did not complete my journey to Usuki, but stopped the trip in Oita. If you look at a map of the area, you will see that I am at about midpoint of Kyushu now on the Eastern side.  And for today, that’s enough.  Good night.