Posts Tagged ‘sakura’

It’s been more than six months since I meant to write this post… where last I left off, I’d just visited the three old samurai houses along Kaburaki-kôji, and it was still early in the day. Of course, since it’s been six months, sadly, I can no longer remember exactly what route I took, or how I was feeling, over the course of the day.

To summarize, then, I wandered around the town, which is wonderfully walkable, and checked out a whole bunch of Buddhist temples. I’d picked up a few tourist guide pamphlets and maps at the museum, which list 27 sites across town. Looking at the pamphlets again right now, I realize I missed the Sakura Old Samurai Town Museum of History and Folklore altogether. Drat. But, I did manage to make it to quite a few of the temples. It’s hard to tell from the tourist pamphlets which temples are going to be particularly beautiful, or which might be hiding some great historical significance. So, why not check them all out?

The main hall at Daishô-in.

The first stop was Daishô-in, which is located along the same street as the samurai houses. The home to two of Sakura’s “Seven Lucky Gods” – Daikokuten and Hotei – Daishô-in is also the site of the grave of Hosokawa Tadayoshi, a famous Sakura swordsmith.

Above: The Sakura Shinmachi O-hayashikan. Below: Hiyodori-zaka.

After making my way down Hiyodori-zaka, a small bamboo-lined walking path said to be (more or less) still in the same form it was in the Edo period, I made my way to the center of town, passing by quite a number of old homes dating to the Edo or Meiji periods, and the Tsukamoto Sword Museum, which is closed on weekends, and which I was thus never able to visit. I found my way to the Sakura Shinmachi Ohayashikan, where locals practice folk dances and the like for annual festivals, thinking that I might rent a bicycle, to get around town faster. There are several places in town that one can rent a bike, and it’s a wonderfully convenient thing that they offer it. However, I was advised by the kind woman manning the desk there that it wouldn’t really be worth it, logistically, for me, since bikes had to be returned by 4pm, and returned to one of several places nowhere near the guest house I was staying at (in other words, I’d have to return the bike and then walk halfway across town to get home). Besides, she assured me, the town is really quite walkable – and, dear readers, having now done it, exploring more or less everything there is to see in Sakura, on foot, I’d have to say I agree.

Noticing that quite a few of the temples on the map were quite close together, all along one small side street, I headed off in that direction. And, incidentally, I should mention, Sakura does an excellent job of having signs pointing towards the major historical sites in town. As you walk around the town, you’re constantly coming upon signs with arrows, “Jindaiji 300 m [this way]”, “Juntendo Memorial Hall, 1km [that way],” “Makata Shrine, right here” [point point]. It’s really quite nice, especially as many of the temples are hidden down back streets.

The main hall at Jindai-ji, originally built in 1726, but at a different temple, being moved here only in 1961.

Sôen-ji, home to the grave of Juntendô founder & Rangaku scholar Satô Taizen, was my next stop. It is also the Jurôjin shrine on the circuit of the Sakura Seven Lucky Gods. Sadly, I did not get to see the grave, but Jindai-ji, right across the street, would more than make up for that. Jindai-ji is the patron family temple, or ”bodaiji”, of the Hotta clan, who ruled Sakura from 1746 until the abolition of the domains in 1871. The temple itself is quite nice, with a main hall (hondô) with striking vermillion accents. But, the real key attraction, and I’d say for any fan of samurai history, perhaps the top historical attraction in the city outside of the National History Museum, is the Hotta clan graveyard, which contains the graves of all the Hotta clan daimyô of Sakura, including Hotta Masatoshi (1634-1684, rôjû under Ietsuna and Tairô under Tsunayoshi), Hotta Masayoshi (1810-1864, the chief shogunate official involved in negotiating and signing the Harris Treaty), and Hotta Masatomo (1851-1911, the last daimyô of Sakura, who built the Hotta clan mansion maintained on the outskirts of town). I’ve seen a couple of other clan graveyards – the chief one that comes to mind is that of the Hosokawa at Kôtô-in in Kyoto – but this is the first one I’ve seen where you can really sort of walk around in it.

Not that it’s all that huge – took me no more than five or ten minutes to see the whole thing, including taking pictures and such. It’s also an interesting space in that the temple itself isn’t that large, and is kind of next door, so to speak, so the clan graveyard really doesn’t feel contained within a temple grounds, so much as just sort of, there, along a small suburban street. I suppose, now that I look at my photos again, there is a wall around the cemetery, and gates that can be closed. But, even so, the approach from the street isn’t particularly marked at all – it feels more like entering an empty lot than it does a temple or historical site. Not that I’m complaining – this kind of variety only makes it more interesting. Imagine if all temples & historical sites looked the same.. it’d drain all the enjoyment out of it.

Above: The squat, plain main hall at Shôrin-ji. Right: The “Sakura daibutsu,” at Kyôan-ji.

Shôrin-ji, constructed under the patronage of prominent early Edo period figure Doi Toshikatsu, contains small memorial towers (kuyôtô) dedicated to Toshikatsu, his parents, and his wife, as well as the oldest wooden building in the city. Kairin-ji, meanwhile, is the patron temple of the Chiba clan, though I’m not sure there are actually any proper graves of famous Chiba lords to be found there. Another small temple in town, Kyôan-ji, is known for its large bronze Jizô, also known as the Sakura Daibutsu, despite not being nearly the size of the more famous Daibutsu in Kamakura, or that in Nara.

In wrapping up this post, I suppose I ought to say something about travel tips or the like, rather than just listing off places I saw. Generally, I’m a fan of just wandering around, taking in the atmosphere of the city, and seeing what you run into. I guess that’s the New Yorker in me. But, while that works well in Manhattan, and in a city like Kyoto which is about as dense as they get in historical sites on nearly every corner, in a place like Sakura, or for that matter, Naha, or almost anywhere else you might go, I do think that having a map is a huge help. Especially if, like myself, you do not have a full smartphone data plan in Japan, and thus cannot call upon the internet and Google Maps to help you find your way around.

Even when I was in Kyoto, though, and was in full-on roaming mode, I still usually had a specific destination in mind; and then, on the way to that destination, whether you get lost or find it quickly, you’ll find other things along the way. In Sakura, there were not necessarily all that many historical sites or the like of true interest along the way, but, in the process of traipsing around looking for temples, I did get to see quite a few back streets, residential neighborhoods, and to really get a nice feeling for the town, a bit more than if I’d stuck to the main streets and more exclusively to the bigger-name sites. And there really is something interesting and enjoyable about simply seeing the range of style of houses, the range of layouts of streets (gee, I wonder what it would be like to live on this tiny street, or on this major street, or up on that hill, or next door to this temple). Sakura also has an interesting variety of styles of temple gates – it might just be that I visited so many in one day, but it truly did strike me, how some temples had simply two stone pillars framing the entrance to the space, some had more elaborate roofed wooden gates, and some no gates at all; Myôryû-ji even has a pair of ornately carved white pillars topped with lion-dogs, one of which has sadly, however, toppled over. The temple buildings themselves are also quite varied, in a calm, simple sort of way.

Since I did visit so many in one day, and since each was so small, with very little to take notice of, or to set them apart, beyond simply the style of the buildings, I guess it helped focus me in on noticing the variety. I can’t quite figure out how to put it into words… of course temples have great variety – if you go around Kyoto, you’ll see some incredibly, wildly different buildings. But, in Sakura, none of the buildings are, to be honest, all that especially striking, and in a way, this makes the variety more… what am I trying to say? I guess, the great famous monuments of Kyoto will certainly give you a crash course in many of the most iconic buildings in Japanese history, but, Sakura gives me a sense of seeing a more standard, typical, variety of architecture such as would have (and, obviously, still does) exist in any average typical Japanese city. Kyoto, Nara, certain other cities, you know are going to have a rather special feel, because of their very special histories. But, in Sakura, the temples – their main halls, their gates – alongside old homes and shops from the Edo & Meiji periods, and more modern structures, come together to provide a real atmosphere of a “typical” (though I don’t know how typical it truly is) small Japanese city.

In my next Sakura post, I’ll talk about the Juntendô, and the Hotta clan mansion.

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

One of the many (possibly) historic buildings in Sakura. I kind of like this as an image for the top of this post, as it sort of represents the atmosphere or aesthetic of Sakura – a mix of the age of samurai, and the aesthetic of the early postwar. I don’t know how old this building is – might be only 50-60 years. Today, it houses a hardware store.

I’ve been hanging out in the town of Sakura1, out in Chiba, for more than a week now, and a few days ago, I finally took a day to run around and see the sights. As it turns out, there’s just perfectly enough sights to fill out one day of sightseeing – sure, there were a few things I haven’t seen just yet, but I hit just about everything I planned to, and a few things I hadn’t planned on, and managed to finish it all up right around 5pm, just as anything with a closing time was doing so.

One of the main streets of Sakura, as seen from the fourth floor of the city art museum.

I’m tempted to try to say something about the size or character of the town, especially since this really is my first time spending so long in any town in Japan outside of a major city. Prior to this, I’d only been to Naha, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka, for a day or two or three (each, of course), and I’d only ever spent any more time than that in Yokohama, Tokyo, or Kyoto. Wow, that’s a distressing thought – so many of my peers have spent years in various parts of the country, whether on JET or otherwise, and while I’ve been fortunate to do a bit of traveling, as I type this out I realize my experiences really have been rather severely limited. I haven’t even lived in a provincial city, like Kôchi or Kanazawa or Kagoshima, nor in a sort of historically significant but smaller, off-to-the-side city like Nara or Kamakura, much as I think I’d love to.

The entrance to Keisei Sakura Station, and its immediate surroundings, on the north side of town. The city is also served by a JR station, on the south side of town.

In any case, I’m really not sure what to say about Sakura. I’m not sure what I can say, especially given how I’ve been thinking about generalities and essentialization lately. Maybe the best I can do is to say what it’s not. It’s not a big city by any means – less than an hour walk from one end to the other – but neither did I see any fields or rice paddies or anything of the sort within the core of the city. Much of the town is very much the kind of density and nice residential streets (one- or two-family houses, not apartment buildings) I associate with suburbia – reminds me actually of where I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, with of course the various differences in architectural style, and certain other aesthetic elements. The town has pretty much no big-name or chain stores – no Starbucks2, no Mister Donut, no BookOff, no McDs, no Yoshinoya, no Jonathan’s. Not that I like eating at chain stores, but, at least it would make me feel comfortable as to the level of quality, lack of sketchiness, degree of whether or not I (as a non-regular customer, and as a foreigner3) am welcome… There are a couple of 7-11s and Lawson’s, though. But, then, it’s not as if it’s the cutest, quaintest little town either – the JR station is surrounded with parking lots, pachinko parlors, and the like, and not too much else. I’ve seen neighborhoods in the middle of Tokyo much quainter, where a small three-car train stops at a station that consists of basically nothing more than a platform, right in the middle of the neighborhood, directly adjacent to a cute, local, shopping street (shôtengai). Which isn’t to criticize, but merely to attempt to describe.

Models of the three samurai houses, on display inside one of the them.

In any case, let’s move on to talking about the historical sites I visited on my one-day wandering exploration adventure. One thing I read somewhere claimed that Sakura has more intact samurai houses than any other town in Japan. I’m not sure whether or not I believe this, but, over the course of the day, I certainly did see a lot of old-looking buildings, scattered across town, and quite a few of them had little wooden placards identifying them as historical structures. Three of these samurai homes (buke yashiki) are open to the public, as historical homes or whatever you want to call it, and they’re relatively close to where I’m staying, so that’s where I started.

Along Kaburaki-kôji, a nice, quiet, residential street below the castle, these three houses are lined up one after the other. The pamphlets and such say that this street looks much as it did in the Edo period, though given that the road has been asphalted over, and pretty much the only other thing to see is tall hedges lining both sides of the street, obstructing the view of any traditional architecture that may exist, I’m not really sure what it’s worth to make such a statement.

Right: The entrance to one of the three samurai residences open to the public.

In any case, it would seem that quite a number of the houses along this street are extant, surviving, samurai houses from the Edo period, though the majority of them remain privately-owned property, and are therefore off-limits to the likes of myself. As for the ones I did get to visit, frankly, I’m not sure what there is much to say about them. Wooden construction, tatami floors, tiled, thatched, or shingled roofs, like so many others I’ve seen… I hate that I should be so jaded about this. When I first came to Japan, such things would have been amazing to see, and to get to go inside and walk around in.

I’d be curious more precisely the rank, or income in koku, of the samurai families who lived in these homes, because they just seem rather small and sparse for a member of such an elite class as the samurai. That is, of course, we also get a skewed impression because we aren’t seeing much of the material culture that would have been used in these homes – how fancy were their clothes, dishware, and other objects? I’ve seen commoners’ townhouses (machiya), and they definitely don’t seem any smaller, or any worse apportioned, than these samurai homes, and that I think is where it really gets me. From what little we do see of material culture here in these samurai homes – a few chests of drawers, buckets, mirrors, books piled on a desk, the lifestyle does seem pretty simple. Which, if this is the life of an elite family, even if they’re only a very low-ranking elite family, it just makes me wonder how much simpler, how much more “wanting” the lives of the lower classes – the so-called peasants – must have been. I’m not sure I want to know. Then again, I’ve also seen peasants’ houses, and, I don’t know, maybe those were the homes of well-to-do village headmen or something, but they were pretty large, and almost just as well apportioned as these samurai homes, in terms of cushions and desks and buckets and stoves and whatever. Sure, the villager might not have a heirloom suit of samurai armor sitting in the tokonoma, but… all in all, these samurai homes had a lot more in common with peasants’ homes (minka), or commoners’ townhouses (machiya), than with the samurai lord’s mansion I was to see later in the day.

The view straight through from one side of the house to the other. Each house has only a handful of rooms, in wood and tatami – with a minimum of decorative elements, e.g. carvings on the ranma, or any kind of byôbu or fusuma paintings – plus a rather basic-looking kitchen with a dirt floor.

It was certainly a nice wake-up call, to see the scale and style of more typical or average samurai homes. Being more used to seeing samurai residences on the scale of the lord’s mansion – since structures like those stand out a lot more as famous historical sites and tourist destinations, and are more typically preserved because of their association with more prominent figures – one can easily get the mistaken impression, as I did, that that was indicative of a samurai home, even for lower-ranking samurai. So, to see these homes was certainly a valuable experience, a valuable correction to my previous assumptions. We have this image in our minds of the samurai as “elites,” but, then again, if every samurai had a grand palace, where would you have room for all of them? Besides, even though we aren’t told precisely what rank the samurai families of these homes were, they are outside of the castle, indicating them to be of a lower rank than those living within the castle walls; the top-ranking retainers had residences close within the second or third bailey (ni- or san-no-maru) of the castle.

I took tons of pictures of plaques and labels and explanations, and haven’t gotten around to reading them. But, hopefully, eventually, I do hope to read them and write up Wiki articles on the Samurai Archives Wiki based on what I find. So, my apologies that these blog posts may be a little superficial, but, I thought it perhaps better to post something, rather than putting it off indefinitely until I got around to doing a more thorough, detailed job of it (something that, quite frankly, what with school and other projects, and such, might not come around for months and months). But, keep your eyes on the Wiki, and, hopefully before too long I’ll be putting something at least up there. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

This neighborhood also includes a house once occupied by Kodama Gentarô, a general who was involved in basically every major war of the Meiji period (on the side of the Imperial Japanese Army), from the Boshin War through the Russo-Japanese War. So, that’s pretty cool, even though a high wall and hedges and such all but prevented me from seeing the house itself at all.

At the end of the street is a narrow pedestrian-only path called Hiyodori-zaka, flanked by bamboo, which is said to (even moreso than the residential street itself) be pretty much preserved from how it was during the time of the samurai. This, actually, I can believe. Certainly looks plausible – not that I know that much about Edo period roads in precise detail, but certainly nothing stands out and screams anachronism. It’s a simple sloped path, which I can imagine people walking up and down to get in and out of this samurai neighborhood.

Next time, temples! And the cemetery of the Hotta clan, lords of Sakura domain in the second half of the Edo period.

(1)That’s 佐倉, literally something like “assistant warehouse,” not 桜 (“cherry blossoms” or “cherry tree”).
(2) There is reportedly a Starbuck’s attached to one of the big-box stores over on the other side of the train station, but I’m not counting that. I’m talking about things in town, that have a storefront on the street, rather than being in a strip mall or parking lot adjacent to nothing but highway…
(3) Not that I’ve ever come across too many “normal” restaurants that explicitly don’t welcome foreigners, but rather because I feel like the more “local” you get in Japan, the more “snack” and “pub” places there are, that aren’t really meant for anyone at all except for regulars, and/or are involved with or associated with, well, not-so-above-board activities.

Read Full Post »