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The port of Mitarai, as seen in a c. 1904 photograph, on display at the Wakaebisu-ya in Mitarai.

After a bit of a drive from Shimo-Kamagari, past sea shores and mountains of lemon & mikan, we arrived in the old port town of Mitarai. Even more so than Kamagari, Mitarai is fitted out as a tourist town – with a welcome center, tourist walking maps posted here and there, traditional-style inns, and so forth.

Walking through narrow streets of traditional homes, we made our way to the Buddhist temple Manshû-ji. Surrounded by high stone walls, it seems like a fairly major site, but once you get inside, there’s actually not much there. Looks abandoned, even. But, hanging over one small secondary worship hall we found what we were looking for – a wooden plaque, reading simply the name of the temple, Manshû-ji, but written in the handwriting of a Ryukyuan ambassador, Tôma peechin Ryô Kôchi, from 1806. The Japanese poet Kurita Chodô, who arranged for the plaque to be made, is buried at Manshûji, but we weren’t able to go looking for his grave – the graveyard areas of the temple were blocked off-limits, and very little was well-maintained at all (high grasses, no path).

A wooden plaque hanging at the Buddhist temple Manshû-ji, copying the calligraphy of Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrat Tôma peechin Ryô Kôchi.

The small hall at Manshû-ji over which the plaque hangs. I thought it kind of incredible that the plaque is still kept there, in this place of honor, rather than having made its way to some storehouse or museum. While I worry about the conservation issues, it’s also wonderful to see it in context, in its “correct” historical place.

We then took a set of steps down back into town, into what I suppose is the main touristy/historical stretch. A renovated 100-year-old building converted into a hip youth hostel, a former inn for Ryukyuans and others associated with the Shimazu now operating as an art gallery, and so forth. The Shiomachi (“Waiting for Tides”) Visitors’ Center doubles as a café, specializing in shave ice, and similarly has this sort of young, youth hip travelers’ sort of vibe.

One of the old buildings in the area, the Waka-ebisu-ya, was once an Edo period brothel. Many of these ports presumably had their share of “courtesans,” or “women of pleasure,” to cater to the various elites + merchants who came through, but we saw no mention or evidence of this in the other towns. By contrast, Mitarai is somewhat famous for having that history, and indeed Amy Stanley devotes a chapter to Mitarai in her excellent book on Edo period prostitution, Selling Women. I find it a little hard to believe, but according to some things I read, it seems like as much as 1/5 of the town’s population at times were courtesans. The building is maintained today seemingly as just an open space, presumably used by the community for various community events and activities – I noticed several mikoshi (portable shrines, for use in local festivals) and other such things stored atop a small stage, or in the backstage area. The space is otherwise just open and bare, albeit with a number of photographs and framed copies of documents or the like hung on the walls, explaining the history of the brothel and of the town.

I’m glad Prof. Stanley suggested taking only one day to visit Mitarai – there’s not that much to see. But it’s definitely a cute, fun town. A nice place for a day trip, just to walk along the streets sided with traditional architecture…

The Shiomachi-kan Visitors’ Center / Shave Ice Cafe.

That night, we went into Hiroshima City proper, for the Lantern Floating Ceremony, the last of the major memorial events of the day. I’m not even sure what to say about this. It was quite a change of mood, and mode, to go from thinking about early modern port towns, and inns and merchants and traditional architecture, to this site of modern, international, war remembrance. I don’t know how many thousands and thousands and thousands of people were gathered in the Hiroshima Peace Park that night. We waited on a line that snaked around and around and around, far longer than we’d imagined possible, to wait for our turn to lay our paper lanterns in the river, sending messages of peace and of memory, to speak to the spirits of the dead.

A small group of Okinawan high school students were there, interviewing people – Japanese and foreigners alike – as to their thoughts and feelings about “peace,” and teaching them about the Battle of Okinawa. This was my second time in Hiroshima – my second time being there on Aug 6 – and my first time experiencing or taking part in any of the memorial events. I am glad, as a Japan specialist, and as an American, and just as a human being, to take part, to witness it, and to be able to say that I’ve done so.

A 1/10th size scale model of the battleship Yamato, at the Yamato Museum in Kure.

The next day, a typhoon hit (though it was actually not nearly as bad as expected), and so we stayed close to “home,” and spent the day in Kure City proper. In the Edo period, Kure was just a grouping of small villages – obviously, every place has its history, I won’t say those villages have no history, but, insofar as looking around for any notable historical sites or anything, as far as that sort of thing goes, Kure’s history begins, basically, in the Meiji period, the late 19th century, when it became a major center for the Imperial Japanese Navy.

We visited the Yamato Museuma museum dedicated to the naval history of Kure, and especially to the story of the Battleship Yamato, one of the heaviest battleships ever built, which was built here, in Kure. The berths where it was built are visible just outside the museum.

I’ve never been that much of a military buff, and I don’t know quite that much about military history… the museum was an interesting combination of military buff sort of history, and a sad story about the lives lost when the Yamato was sunk – and the impacts upon families, and the city, back home. I didn’t read things closely enough to be able to really comment on precisely how the museum addresses the issues of militarism and imperialism; there’s certainly an interesting conversation to be had about how we memorialize those killed in battle – who did die, and who did have families, and who were the core of the community of this city – who deserve, arguably, to be remembered sympathetically, but then again, who died in service to imperialism and ultra-nationalism and so forth. I’m not expert at such things, but a friend who is, says this is one of the best museums in that respect – sometime I’ll have to maybe ask him for more detail on what he means there.

A sailor’s notes, recording his thoughts regarding the Yamato’s Okinawa mission.

What I thought most interesting in the museum was a section discussing the Yamato’s dispatch out to its final mission. As Allied troops began to shell the island of Okinawa, and to make landings, the Yamato was sent to contribute to fending the Allies off – and the plan was going to involve an extensive use of kamikaze tactics, both in planes and in “human torpedoes.” The Yamato, ultimately, was sunk on its way to Okinawa, never arriving and never taking part in that battle. But what would be really interesting would be to read through the letters and diaries of people aboard the Yamato, talking about their thoughts as they head to Okinawa. How do they talk about going there to “defend Okinawa” or “defend the Okinawan people”? It would certainly be interesting as texture for the broader narrative within Okinawan history that the Japanese government and Imperial Japanese military “sacrificed” Okinawa to protect the mainland, and didn’t actually care about protecting the Okinawan people – trying to convince them to sacrifice themselves nobly and gloriously in the name of the Emperor, rather than making proper efforts to save anyone’s lives…

The Naval Shipyards at Kure. I believe that much of what we’re seeing here is civilian/commercial use today, but the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces uses a considerable portion of land and harbor just to the right of that.

After the Yamato Museum, we went up to a hill overlooking the harbor, and could see all the naval construction & repair facilities, and a bit of the Maritime Self-Defense Forces base… A lot of the prewar brick architecture – warehouses, and the main command headquarters – still survive today. Definitely lends to the flavor of the city, given that in so many Japanese cities the prewar buildings generally don’t survive.

I’m definitely glad for the opportunity to visit Kure, a city I can’t imagine I would ever have visited otherwise, and to see this other corner of Japanese history. A city so centered around the navy, and with so many prewar red brick buildings surviving, reflecting the feel and atmosphere of that particular period…

Red brick warehouses in Kure.

All photos my own.

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The view from the Kanchôrô (“Tide Viewing Tower”) in Kamagari.

After much delay, I finally in my second-to-last week in Japan took a bus down to Hiroshima and visited some of the small Inland Sea port towns that envoys from the Ryukyu Kingdom passed through on their way to and from Edo (the seat of the Tokugawa shogun).

This was my second time in Hiroshima, having visited very briefly once way back in 2003. At that time, I spent just one day seeing all the most major sights – the Peace Park, the Peace Memorial Museum, the castle – and another day on Miyajima. This time, I would skip Hiroshima City almost entirely, and spend several days in Kure City, and in some small island port towns today administered as part of Kure and Fukuyama cities.

It was really something to get out and visit these towns after reading about them, and thinking about visiting, for so long. It was really something just to get out of Tokyo – I hadn’t realized it, but actually the entire year, while I did get around Okinawa a fair bit, actually I hadn’t gone anywhere at all the entire year outside of Okinawa and Tokyo (and just a very little bit of Yokohama and Chiba, which don’t really count). This whole notion of having “a whole year” and that I might visit Kyoto and Osaka, and Kagoshima and Fukuoka, and Sendai, and Toyohashi, none of that came to pass. But I did at least make it out to Hiroshima.

When embassies from the Korean court arrived at Kamagari, they were received quite warmly, with red carpets laid down along the harbor’s main walking paths, allowing the Koreans to travel all the way to their lodgings without setting foot on the dirt roads. Model on display at the Gochisô Ichibankan museum.

In the Edo period (1600-1868), diplomatic missions from the Ryukyu Kingdom, passing through the Inland Sea on their way to Edo, stopped at Inland Sea port towns such as Tsuwaji, Kamagari, Mitarai, Tomonoura, and Onomochi, as did missions from Korea and the Dutch East India Company, and other traveling elites – such as Imperial envoys and provincial lords (daimyo). These towns are super small and provincial today, subsisting as far as I can imagine on just tourism, fishing, and I guess some very small-scale workshop/factory sort of operations. Back in the Edo period, too, these weren’t very large towns. But they were significant, notable, and in a number of these towns, historic buildings or entire historic sections, have been maintained or restored.

It’s always wonderful to get out and see another part of Japan. I really wish I had done more of this. See a different side of things. Driving around Hiroshima prefecture, we saw roadside highway rest stops – something you don’t see if you’re always just flying or taking the train – and what sort of local goods and products they have. Hiroshima Carp (baseball) merchandise. Setouchi lemon flavored everything. Andersen – a Danish-themed, Hiroshima-based, bakery chain. Not to mention the souvenirs (omiyage). Momiji manju (little red bean cakes in the shape of maple leaves) are a major Hiroshima thing, apparently.

The gangi stone steps at Kamagari.

But, returning to the port towns. I arrived on August 6, the second time I’ve gone to Hiroshima and it accidentally turned out to be the anniversary of the bombing. We had planned to spend the day in Hiroshima City, therefore, and see some of the memorial/anniversary events. But, as there was a typhoon expected the following day, we instead headed out straight-ahead, to Shimo-Kamagari.

Strangely, Kamagari didn’t come up as much in my reading as much as some of the other towns – in fact, it wasn’t on my radar at all. But I am so glad we went. At what I suppose we could call the center of town, a set of stone steps (gangi 雁木) extend up out of the water – this, in place of wooden docks. And immediately across the street, the former honjin (special inn for visiting elites), today operating as a small art museum. A man was standing in the parking lot, working on a brightly-colored traditional-looking wooden rowboat, and when we asked him about the boat, it turned out he’s a volunteer tour guide in the town, and he kindly took of his time to really show us around. As he explained, the town would prepare for welcoming Korean missions by erecting temporary wooden piers extending out over the water, and red carpets would be laid down all along the main walking paths, so that when the Koreans came, they could walk on these red carpets – never touching the dirt – all the way from the boats to the lodgings. The gentleman, whose name was Funada-san, then took us down a short walking path running past the honjin, and then a left and a right, and up a short set of stairs, to where the ue-no-chaya, or “upper teahouse,” used to stand. Along with the honjin and the “lower teahouse”, this was one of the chief lodgings for Korean, Ryukyuan, and other visiting elites. Today, a stone marker stands on the spot, saying simply “former site of the lodgings for the Korean missions,” as if Ryukyuans and others never stayed there? He then also showed us a nearby Buddhist temple, and Shinto shrine.

I could have read this in a book – that the Koreans were welcomed in such a fashion. And maybe the book might have even had maps or diagrams. But actually seeing it in person, and being shown around, was really another level. This was the only time during the week that we really got such a tour, but still it was really great to have my friend there to initiate conversation with people, ask things, and get such a response – I wonder whether I would have asked, or not, and what sort of response I might have gotten; whether he would have given me a tour had I been alone.

One of the main museum buildings at the Shôtôen, which used to serve as lodgings for foreign embassies.

The two of us then made our way to the Shôtôen and Gochisô Ichibankan (Shôtô Gardens and Reception Number One Hall), another set of reception halls, located just a short ways down the shore, which are today maintained as museums. Sadly, we ran out of time and didn’t get to see the whole thing, but we saw the most important part: the museum of the Korean embassies. The rest of the buildings were mostly pottery displays and so forth. One whole building of lanterns, supposedly, though I didn’t get to see that. But, on the second floor, which we did get to see, the Kanchôrô, or “Tide-Watching Tower,” a small space for just sitting and enjoying the view – a gorgeous view of the Inland Sea, as the tides flow in and out, and of one of the other islands just across the way.

The Korean embassies museum was small, but pretty good. They spend a disproportionate amount of space and attention on the food served to the embassies, and nearly no time on the aspects of “reception” I’d be more interested in: banners, curtains, processions, further details about these red carpets and so forth; not to mention the comparative information on how the Ryukyuan missions were received by contrast. But, so it goes. Sadly, they didn’t allow photos inside the museum, so I could only do what little I could do to read some of the labels and jot down some notes. But, it’s a nice museum. A few procession scrolls on display, including one really interesting one of Korean boats passing through the Inland Sea – an interesting slightly sketchy sort of painting style, perhaps a local or amateur painter, quite skilled but not professional, sketching rather than truly fully illustrating out the procession in a finished-looking way. And there was a model of the reception, with the honjin and the red carpets and little dolls of the Korean envoys marching into the town, as well as a larger model of their ship.

Opening section of a 1748 handscroll painting depicting the Korean missions as they sailed through the Inland Sea. Collection of the Gochisô Ichibankan, in Kamagari.

It was starting to rain, and it was already getting a little late in the day, so we hopped back in the car and headed to Mitarai, another notable port town two or three islands over. More on that in the next blog post.

All photos my own.

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For most people the world over, the word “Hiroshima” is associated with one thing and one thing only: the atomic bomb. As if nothing else ever happened there, or at least not anything worth asking about, learning about, thinking about, remembering.

I think it pertinent, therefore, to remember that Hiroshima, like Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Nagasaki, the Persian Gulf, Normandy, Vietnam, Korea, just like anywhere else in the world, has a history, and an identity beyond its wartime associations. Hiroshima was a major city for hundreds of years before that fateful day, August 6, 1945, was rebuilt after the war, and is once again a vibrant, bustling, modern city today.

This August 6, let us think about the wider, broader historical identity of Hiroshima. Let us broaden our horizons and learn something about Japanese history outside of that which we find in our US History classes and World War II books.

In the medieval period, the area now known as Hiroshima city was called Gokamura (五箇村), meaning “five villages”. The name Hiroshima is said to have come into being around the time the castle was first built, in 1589-91. Môri Terumoto, one of the more prominent and powerful warlords of the late Sengoku period, was lord of the region at the time. He is said to have created the name Hiroshima by taking the “hiro” (広) from Ôe no Hiromoto, 12th-13th century ancestor of the Môri clan, and “shima” from Fukushima Motonaga, a loyal vassal to Terumoto who helped him choose the site. Either that, or it simply describes the “wide island” (広い島, hiroi shima) in the river delta.


In any case, Terumoto ruled Hiroshima and much of western Japan for a time, submitting to Toyotomi Hideyoshi and being allowed to keep his lands, until, in 1600, several years after Hideyoshi’s death, Tokugawa Ieyasu achieved victory over his greatest rival, Ishida Mitsunari, at the battle of Sekigahara, and became de facto ruler of all Japan. The Môri clan were not present at Sekigahara, but were allied with Hideyoshi’s heir Hideyori, based in Osaka. Rendered tozama daimyô (those not allied with the Tokugawa before/at Sekigahara), the Môri were stripped of their lands and sent to Hagi (Nagato province aka Chôshû, today Yamaguchi prefecture). Fukushima Masanori became lord of Hiroshima, but he too was stripped of the post when he repaired Hiroshima castle following a flood in 1619; the shogunate prohibited construction or reconstruction of castles, as this tied into the danger of local lords plotting to rise up against the shogunate.

Asano Nagaakira then became lord of Hiroshima, and of the provinces of Aki and Bingo, a post the Asano family would hold until the Meiji Restoration, when the feudal system was abolished. Over the course of those 250-odd years, that is, the remainder of the Edo period, Hiroshima grew into a major domestic port and castle town, one of the most major centers in western Honshû.


Following the Meiji Restoration, the city continued to grow, and was a major urban industrial center and port. The modern Ujina Port was built in 1884, and the San’yô Railway trunk line was extended to Hiroshima ten years later, extending right down to the water’s edge, to connect to the port operations. The castle and buildings on its grounds came to be used as military headquarters, served as residence for the Meiji Emperor for roughly one year during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5).

Hiroshima remained a vibrant and bustling city into the 20th century, not only a major industrial center and military supply & logistics base containing factories, and a major naval port, but also a living cultural place, where hundreds of thousands of civilians went about their everyday lives. Following the war, Hiroshima Castle was rebuilt as a museum of Hiroshima’s early modern / pre-war history.


If you ever have the opportunity to visit Hiroshima, take the time to visit the castle. Spend some time at a café. Go shopping. See a movie. Visit Miyajima, a small sacred island just off the coast, famous for its Shinto shrine and massive torii gate, one of the most famous in all of Japan. Have some okonomiyaki, a food for which the area is famous. And talk to the people. For them, Hiroshima isn’t (just) the site where an atomic bomb was dropped; it is the city where they were born, where they grew up, where they live.

There is far more to Japan than that it was our enemy over 60 years ago, and more to Hiroshima than the events of August 6, 1945. On this day, let us take some time to remember that.

*Photo of Hiroshima castle taken myself, 6 August 2003.
*Postcard image of Hiroshima streetcars, 1945, courtesy of blog 絵葉書と映画の鉄道 鉄道切符類考 ブログ版.
*Postcard image of Asano Santei Gardens at Hiroshima courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. See many more images of pre-war Hiroshima at MFA.org.

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