Field Report: Nagoya, Japan (13 February 2014) – Part 1/2

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Another day, another castle. Diego travels to the historic city of Nagoya and visits one of its most prominent landmarks.

The day began with a morning shinkansen ride on the Hikari 512, scheduled to depart from Shin-Ōsaka station at 08:13.

As for our transportation equipment, we’ll be zipping along the tracks on a 700 series shinkansen. Not exactly the newest train running on this line, but the comfortable Green Car leaves little to complain about.

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Before boarding, I grabbed a cold breakfast from one of the trackside kiosks. This one’s a hearty ekiben consisting of beef kalbi served on a bed of rice, with vegetables on the side.

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It’s not a long journey, time-wise – just 70 minutes from point A to B via the Hikari. The faster Nozomi service takes even less than that, but one can’t ride it using a Japan Rail Pass.

Point B, in this case, is Nagoya: capital of Aichi Prefecture and one of the largest cities in Japan. The importance of this industrial powerhouse is highlighted by the soaring towers of its main railway station, said to be amongst the world’s biggest by floor area.

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Very impressive . . . but I’ve got my sights set on something a little less modern. After depositing my bags at the hotel, I hopped into one of the city’s Me~guru tourist loop buses and headed for Nagoya Castle.

With the aim of consolidating bakufu control over Owari Province after the Battle of Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered the construction of this massive fortress and installed one of his own sons as head of the domain. Work on Nagoya Castle’s tenshu (main tower) was completed in 1612, though construction of the castle lord’s palaces and ancillary fortifications would continue for many years afterwards. The castle survived the wave of demolitions that swept across Japan in the late 19th century, but many of the wooden structures within the compound – including the main tower – would eventually succumb to Allied bombing during the Second World War. Reconstruction work (mainly using concrete rather than traditional materials) began in the 1950s, with the latest – and possibly grandest – phase currently underway.

We’ll have more to say and see about the restoration work later. First, let’s get inside.

The nearest entrance to the bus stop is the former Nishinomaru-enokida Gate, which (like much of the castle) burned to the ground in 1945 and was rebuilt more than a decade later.

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Near the entrance stands a reproduction of one of the castle’s famed kinshachi, the two large gold-covered ornaments adorning the roof of the main tower. There’s also a replica of one of the kinshachi‘s golden scales.

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Soon afterwards, I got my first good look at Nagoya Castle’s soaring tenshu, perched upon its lofty stone-clad base.

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No worries, we’ll get there eventually. But we’ve got one very important stop to make before then.

Our walk takes us through the Honmaru Omote-ninomon (Front Second Gate), one of the few surviving original Edo-period structures in the castle complex and an officially designated Important Cultural Property.

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The dry moats flanking the gate still have traces of snow at the base of the walls, tenaciously hugging the shrinking shadows that ward off the bright winter sunshine. Along with the bite of cold in the air and the puffs of condensation released with each warm breath, it’s a faint and fleeting reminder that spring is still some weeks away.

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We turn a corner . . .

and are rewarded with a magnificent sight.

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This is the entrance of the Honmaru Palace, the former residence of the Daimyō of Owari. Like most of Nagoya Castle’s original structures, the palace was obliterated during the Second World War – but unlike the main tower this part of the compound wasn’t rebuilt when reconstruction efforts began in the 1950s. It might seem like an oversight, but I suppose it ultimately turned out for the best, given that many post-war castle restorations (including Nagoya’s) were done in concrete rather than in wood or other traditional materials. Moving into our own day and age, the trend is now decidedly in favour of more authentic restorations that reproduce the originals as closely as possible – even down to the construction methods used – and the Honmaru Palace is a shining example of that new pattern. (Other examples that I’ve seen in the last couple of years include the lord’s palace of Kumamoto Castle and the tenshu of Kakegawa Castle.)

Awfully tempting to pretend that I’m a feudal-era lord and barge in through the front door . . .

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. . . but the blocked entrance makes it perfectly clear that we modern-day commoners aren’t entitled to enter these lavish halls – at least, not through this portal.

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But don’t despair. Visitors are more than welcome to look inside – we just need to pop round the corner and use the side entrance.

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Shoes off? Good. (Wouldn’t want to damage the floors, now would we?) Let’s shuffle away on our socked feet and start poking around.

Looking up beyond the eaves and the shingled roof, I caught sight of the massive steel structure that still encloses part of the palace. Open to the public, yes, but don’t forget that it’s a work in progress.

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Passing through a series of simple corridors, with walls and beams fashioned out of beautifully worked hinoki cypress . . .

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. . . we come to the genkan, the ceremonial entrance hall into which visitors to the palace were first admitted. The hall is divided into two rooms, each decorated with images of tigers set against a richly gilded background.

The ichi-no-ma, the smaller but more important of the two rooms, with a tokonoma built into the far wall . . .

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. . . and connected to it by a set of sliding doors, the larger ni-no-ma, lower-ranked than the first but almost matching it in the quality of its decorations.

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We now proceed through the ō-rōka, a broad corridor linking the genkan to the inner parts of the palace. At the end of the ō-rōka is the omote shoin, the front audience hall, which like the genkan is divided into a series of ranked rooms, all splendidly decorated with colourful paintings and shimmering gold leaf.

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Last and highest ranked in this series of interlinked rooms is the jōdan-no-ma, reserved for the daimyō and his most important guests.

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That’s pretty much what they’ve completed of the palace so far – but it’s by no means the end. What we’ve just seen is only the first phase of a decade-long effort, comprising no less than three stages that will ultimately see even more of the palace faithfully reconstructed. I’m particularly looking forward to the third and final stage, slated for completion in 2018, which will bring to life the most lavish hall in the entire compound – so breathtakingly splendid in its artwork and appointments that even the ornately gilded chambers we’ve seen today might pale in comparison.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the aid of the project’s many benefactors, the names of whom are inscribed upon wooden tiles and placed in full view of visitors in a room near the exit.

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Right, it’s time to go – but we’re not finished with the castle yet. After passing through the last few corridors and putting our shoes back on . . .

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. . . we emerge into the glorious winter sunshine, with the palace’s temporary steel cocoon towering over us. It’s actually possible to enter this structure and observe the next phase of the restoration project at close quarters, but my timing was off and it was presently closed to visitors.

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Fortunately, an exhibition hall close by was open and ready to provide information about the techniques and materials employed by the restorers.

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Okay, we’ve put it off long enough. Time to set our sights on the palace’s towering neighbour: the mighty tenshu of Nagoya Castle, its golden kinshachi shining brightly against the blue sky. In terms of materials, this concrete monster might not be an authentic replica of the wood, plaster, and tile building that it replaced after the war, but in terms of appearance the exterior is actually quite faithful to the original.

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The interior . . . well, not so much. Like many concrete castle reproductions, the bowels of this tower are thoroughly modern and serve as museum space – but the great views should offer some consolation. (Besides, the museum is actually quite good.)

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Not far away is a long shed where timbers are prepared and carved to exacting standards for use in the Honmaru Palace reconstruction project. A series of large observation windows allows the public to see the work first-hand, though there were no workers at the time I visited (lunch break or day off, I didn’t know).

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With that, it’s time to bid farewell to the castle. Nagoya is a large and ancient city, with lots to see and a long story to tell – it won’t do to just linger at one spot.

A parting shot of the main tower . . .

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. . . and a quick glance down into one of the moats to see one of the resident deer . . .

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. . . and then it’s back on the Me~guru loop bus to our next destination.

To be continued.

UPDATE: Click here to read a new Field Report documenting my November 2018 return visit to the Honmaru Palace of Nagoya Castle. The major reception halls were mostly finished by that time, although two smaller auxiliary wings were still awaiting completion.

4 responses to “Field Report: Nagoya, Japan (13 February 2014) – Part 1/2

  1. Amazing! I really like your detailed descriptions and numerous photos! People might be familiar with the general architecture of a castle and might have seen it in different perspectives, but the photos of the rooms are more rare. Thank you for sharing these magnificent views! 😀

  2. Pingback: Field Report: Nagoya (13 February 2014) – Part 2/2 | Within striking distance·

  3. Pingback: Field Snapshot: The Honmaru Palace of Nagoya Castle, Japan (06 June 2016) | Within striking distance·

  4. Pingback: Field Snapshot: Yet Another Peek at the Honmaru Palace of Nagoya Castle, Japan (24 November 2016) | Within striking distance·

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