Field Report: Saga Castle, Japan (25 March 2015)

25Mar15 023 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

Saga Prefecture doesn’t usually rank first in tourist itineraries (except for those chasing traditional Japanese porcelain), but rich cultural and historic rewards await those willing to invest a brief stop in this quiet corner of northern Kyūshū. After seeing one major attraction earlier in the day which represented Japan’s early, formative years, I travelled a few minutes west by train – and over a thousand years forward through history – to the prefectural capital for a walk through the grounds of an Edo-period castle.

A short bus ride from JR Saga Station (transportation details here) brought me close to the main gate of the Saga Castle History Museum.

The museum sits within a painstakingly reconstructed section of the palace building of Saga Castle, seat of the Lords of Saga Domain. Built in the early 17th century on the site of an older fortification, the castle was a much larger affair than the present-day compound might suggest, with the remnants of its former moat system outlining its original boundaries when viewed from the air.

Over the course of its long history, most of the castle’s original structures were lost to fire and conflict. In the early 2000s, a section of the lord’s palace was rebuilt using traditional methods and materials: at the time, one of the largest castle reconstruction programmes ever undertaken that did not rely on the usual cheap, quick, but historically unfaithful post-war formula of concrete structures and modernised interiors hidden behind a more-or-less accurate façade. The results were quite remarkable, as we will see shortly.

Right then, let’s pass through the monumental main gate…

25Mar15 001 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 022 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

…and take a few moments to savour the awe-inspiring sight of the palace’s front entrance.

25Mar15 002 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 003 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 004 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 005 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 023 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

Admission is free, but donations are much appreciated, and I for one think that the local community’s efforts at rebuilding their city’s historic centrepiece deserve a generous gift in return.

A portable audio guide unit with a good English commentary can be borrowed from the reception desk, free of charge. (I’d suggest factoring this into your donation. 🙂 ) There are small signboards around the building with information in several languages, but I’d strongly recommend borrowing an audio guide to get a more detailed perspective on what we’re about to see.

I won’t go into too much detail – partly because I still need to look for whatever books and/or pamphlets I may have brought away with me after that visit (which I could use as data sources for this post) – so I’ll just lay out a couple of pictures here for our enjoyment.

25Mar15 006 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 007 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 008 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

One of the rooms contains exhibits describing the castle and the excavations that preceded the reconstruction programme, along with a detailed model of the palace. It’s clear from the model that the rebuilt section, large as it is, represents only part of the daimyō’s sprawling residence, and one might hope that – once sufficient funds are available – a complete resurrection of the remaining part might be attempted, along with recreations of the lavish artwork that must have once decorated the presently spartan-looking interiors.

As we walk deeper into the palace, a corridor brings us into a suite of rooms known as the goza-no-ma, or kannindokoro, which served as the castle lord’s private quarters. This area – or parts of it anyway – is actually one of the few surviving remnants of the original palace, having been dismantled and reused elsewhere as a public hall before being brought back to its original site and incorporated into the rebuilt structure. The age-darkened timbers of these halls are a testament to their antiquity, in contrast with the pristine honey-coloured wood of the newer sections.

25Mar15 009 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 010 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

I’d also like to mention the friendly and helpful staff, starting with the seated gentleman in the blue jacket a couple of pictures above. Although he spoke little English, I switched to my (quite atrocious) Japanese and we were able to converse about the castle and its appointments. He even accompanied me on the long walk back to the front desk, answering my questions and volunteering information on the various rooms as we passed. The staff at reception and the bookshop were equally friendly and enthusiastic, which really enhanced my experience and makes me want to return (mainly to see the castle again but also to say hello to the fine chaps working there).

Before stepping out, I made sure to add the usual commemorative ink stamps to my notebook. There was a nice, big, round one…

25Mar15 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle History Museum Stamp

…and a much smaller, but more sought-after, hyaku meijō stamp. (Scroll to the lower part of my earlier post for more information on these special stamps.)

25Mar15 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle Hyaku Meijo Stamp

After emerging back into the bright afternoon sunshine, I went on a long walk around the castle grounds, admiring the outside of the reconstructed palace and the castle’s formidable stone walls. There were also some sakura trees planted next to the walls, though it was a little too early for flowers at the time. No doubt this place would have looked even more majestic a few days later, when the blossoms have opened fully.

25Mar15 011 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 012 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 013 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 014 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 015 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 016 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 017 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 018 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 019 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

25Mar15 020 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

In due course, I found myself back in the palace’s front courtyard…

25Mar15 021 Japan Kyushu Saga Castle

…where I bid farewell to this splendid piece of traditional architecture and rode a bus to my hotel, ready for some rest and looking forward to the day ahead.

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