Field Report: The Open-air Architectural Museum that is Matsuyama, Japan (23 November 2016)

I’ve developed a habit of returning to my favourite places in Japan every now and then: partly to ensconce myself in the familiar, and partly to make fresh discoveries. Matsuyama was no exception to this pattern. And as I pounded the pavements of this corner of Shikoku one afternoon in November, I found a great many things – both old and new – to take delight in.

After returning from a day trip to nearby Ōzu, I headed for the tram stop close to Matsuyama Station and boarded the next Line 5 service bound for Dōgo Onsen…

…which at that particular moment was being served by an Iyotetsu MoHa 2100 Type electric tram car. I’ll say no more about the hardware here, lest the readership nod off from boredom. More details will follow in a separate Shikoku trainspotting post I’m planning to write – for now, a couple of pictures will do.

I got off at the Ōkaidō tram stop, then walked a fairly short distance to my first target of the day: the strikingly modern Saka no Ue no Kumo Museum (坂の上の雲ミュージアム, Saka-no-ue-no-kumo Myūjiamu). The building was designed by noted architect Andō Tadao and completed in 2006, though the museum itself would not open to the public until the following spring.

Truth be told, before I walked inside, I knew next to nothing about the immensely popular Shiba Ryōtarō novel that this museum was built to commemorate. Indeed, the exhibits within are best appreciated by those who have already read the book – or rather books, seeing as how a recent English translation of this literary monster weighs in at a whopping four volumes. That said, I knew enough about the historical events that inspired the work to gain something from what I saw inside, and my interest in the novel was sufficiently piqued to consider adding it to my reading list. (Something for the future, though. A work of this gargantuan scale will require more time and attention than I’m inclined to spare at the moment.)

From here, I walked over to the museum’s next door neighbour, which could not have been more different – architecturally speaking.

Erected in 1922, Bansuisō (萬翠荘) was designed by the architect Kigo Shichirō, who was also responsible for other Western-style landmarks constructed during the Taishō and Shōwa periods (including the nearby Ehime Prefectural Office). This particular masterpiece was constructed on the orders of the nobleman Hisamatsu Sadakoto, who had grown fond of European architecture whilst serving as a military attaché in France. In 2011, the villa was officially designated by the national government as an Important Cultural Property.

Incidentally, Hisamatsu Sadakoto was a descendant of the former ruling family of Iyo-Matsuyama Domain, which was governed from Matsuyama Castle (松山城, Matsuyama-jō) during the Edo Period. The castle stands upon the very same hill at whose foot Bansuisō was built. I chose not to visit that formidable fortress on this occasion – I’d already gone there on a previous trip – but I’d strongly recommend going up for a look if you happen to be in the city, not least because it has one of Japan’s last remaining original castle towers.

Here are a few snapshots from my 2014 visit to the castle; you can see a lot more in the post I wrote regarding that experience.

Back to the Ōkaidō tram stop, from where I resumed my interrupted journey to Matsuyama’s famed Dōgo Onsen (道後温泉). The gateway to this hot spring resort is a lovely Western-style station house, originally built during the Meiji period (though I’ve read that most of the edifice we see today was reconstructed in 1986).

A short distance away stands the Botchan Karakuri Clock (坊ちゃんからくり時計, Botchan Karakuridokei), which chimes at regular intervals whilst small figures representing characters from the famous Natsume Sōseki novel pop out and entertain the watching public. Alas, it was silent at the time I walked past…

…and the footbath next to the clock was a little too crowded for comfort (at least for an anti-social chap like me).

No matter, I had bigger fish to fry. Or bigger buildings to visit. And since this wasn’t my first time at Dōgo Onsen, I decided that it could wait.

My next target was about 20 minutes away on foot. Most of the walk was along a fairly ordinary-looking suburban street, but the last stretch of the route parted ways with the main road and veered off towards the forested hillside. Nothing extraordinary about the scene, in and of itself. However, as I’ve discovered many times (with one experience in distant Saga Prefecture being a particularly memorable example), these quiet ambulatory interludes rank amongst the things I love best when travelling in Japan.

In due course, the road led me to the ancient temple compound of Ishite-ji (石手寺). Several of the buildings we see today were built during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), and were deemed to be of sufficient cultural and architectural value to be registered as Important Cultural Properties.

The temple even has an officially designated National Treasure – namely, its monumental main gate, built in 1318.

The path I’d taken was actually more of a back-door route. Going through the front entrance (marked by the gate), I passed through a wooden covered walkway lined with shops…

…which seemed like a distant ancestor to the modern shopping street I walked through when I returned (by bus this time) to Dōgo Onsen from Ishite-ji.

The shopping street led me north from the tram station to one of the district’s two main bath houses, the Tsubaki-no-yu (椿の湯). I noticed that they’d spruced up the place a bit since the last time I was here.

The Tsubaki-no-yu’s architecture incorporates some interesting traditional elements into the fabric of a modern edifice. For a study in contrasts, let’s head east down the inverted L-shaped shopping street to the area’s other major bath house, and arguably its most iconic landmark…

…the famed Dōgo Onsen Honkan (道後温泉本館). With the oldest section dating from 1894 and new halls tacked on over the next several decades, this magnificent building isn’t so much a melting pot but a tossed salad of riotously varied shapes and styles. Indeed, when viewed from certain angles, it almost seems like a neighbourhood unto itself – a collection of individual structures, each with its own architectural voice, attempting to harmonise into a choir and producing a most glorious cacophony.

You can see more pictures of the Honkan in my previous post documenting the last time I was here. (Truth be told, the lighting was better on that visit so those pictures turned out nicer than the newer ones I’ve posted above.)

The bath house is still in active use to this day, although my highly prudish disposition – fundamentally incompatible with the traditional Japanese way of taking the waters without a stitch of clothing (and in full view of strangers) – forestalled any attempt on my part to join the throngs of visitors who had come for a good, hot soak.

The Honkan’s north-eastern corner possesses a decidedly different character from the rest of the compound. Clean lines, an elegant profile, roofs sheathed tightly in copper shingles (rather than the ceramic tiles employed elsewhere). This section of the building has the aristocratic air of a royal residence, which should come as no surprise…

…because some of the halls in this wing are reserved for the exclusive use of Japan’s Imperial Family.

The suite of rooms known as the Yūshinden (又新殿) was completed in 1899 and lavishly fitted out in a style that hearkens back to classic Momoyama Period architecture. Only members of the Imperial Family – including the Emperor himself – were allowed to bathe in these facilities, which could be accessed directly from outside through a special entrance that only they could use.

Of course, as a mere commoner, I was not entitled to barge in through that door, but for 260 yen I was able to enter by way of the main entrance and join a guided tour of the imperial bath. (Which, incidentally, was also the only way I could get into the building without having to take a dip myself.) No pictures, as one might expect, but there’s a snapshot of the Emperor’s private resting room on another website that should give you some idea of the grandeur within.

Interestingly, the Yūshinden has not had an imperial visit since the 1950s. I do wonder if the staff would be prepared to receive the Emperor if he should just happen to stop by unannounced and say, “Oh, I feel like taking the waters – is that old bath still working?”

On my way back towards Matsuyama Station from Dōgo Onsen, I made a quick stopover at another old friend: the ruins of Yuzuki Castle (湯築城, Yuzuki-jō). I didn’t take a lot of pictures this time, but you can see and read more about the place in an older post I wrote about my previous visit (scroll down to the middle part of that page).

Cheerio.

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