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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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