I’ve been to Kitakyūshū before, but that initial foray was so brief that I had no choice but to come back. And I’m glad I returned, because I found myself rewarded with glimpses at both life during the Edo Period and contemporary expressions of Japanese culture – all in the space of a single morning.
Sunday, 23 September 2018.
The day began at my home base for this 17th Japan adventure: Fukuoka, the most heavily populated city on the island of Kyūshū.
I set out from my hotel near Hakata Station and took the subway to Tenjin Station, from which the Daimyōmachi Catholic Church (カトリック大名町教会, Katorikku Daimyōmachi Kyōkai) – also known as Our Lady of Victory Cathedral – was just a short walk away.
A church was first constructed hereabouts in 1896, with another built next to it in 1938. Both were torn down in the 1980s to make way for – well, one would have liked to say a grander and more fitting sacred space…
…except what followed was this depressingly bland and (with all respect) irremediably unattractive ferroconcrete abomination.
A sad substitution indeed: one that I hope will itself be cleared away and replaced with something that actually looks like a proper church. But for the moment, my chief concern isn’t the architecture – it’s the fulfilment of my sweet and seemly Sunday duty.
The entrance to the main church is on the upper level, at the top of the steps shown in the picture. Note that some Masses (such as the 07:00 Japanese Mass I attended) are offered not in the main church but in the smaller chapel on the same floor, a bit further to the right.
Here’s a snapshot of the schedule posted near the front gate, and here’s a link to the online version.
Shame there isn’t a single Mass offered here in Latin, or (far better yet) in Latin according to the traditional rite, but the Japanese-language Masses are the next best thing even if I’m not fluent in the local lingo. In my years of travelling across Japan, I’ve observed that Japanese Masses tend to be offered more reverently – on the part of both celebrant and congregation – than Masses offered in English.
I sped back to my hotel for breakfast after Mass, then walked to nearby Hakata Station to catch the Sonic 11 limited express service (dep. 09:21). Today’s ride is an 883 series EMU, set AO18.
At 10:07, I got off at Kokura Station: the main transportation hub of the city of Kitakyūshū.
My first stop was a long but easy walk from the station – about 15 minutes on flat, paved urban terrain. It’s a depressingly bland cityscape for the most part, but the view will get better not long after one crosses the river…
…because we’ve got this to balance out the boring modernity of the concrete jungle.
This wasn’t my first time at Kokura Castle (小倉城 Kokura-jō), the mighty fortress at the heart of Kitakyūshū that was held by the Ogasawara clan for most of the Edo Period. I’d chosen to return because the museum housed in the soaring main keep – wooden original destroyed in 1837, replaced with an attractive but historically inaccurate concrete tower in the late 1950s – was closed on my initial visit several years ago.
Alas, it was closed yet again on this occasion. I’m not entirely sure why as I didn’t bother to ask, but there was some scaffolding thrown up which suggested that renovations/repairs were in progress.
Pity, but can’t be helped. I simply moved on to other elements of the castle compound that I’d failed to see last time. These forlorn columns of red brick, for example…
…which once supported a gate in front of the former headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 12th Division. Some years after the fall of the Tokugawa shōgunate, the disused precincts of Kokura Castle were transformed into the 12th Division’s home base, with a Western-style building (and this Western-style gate to match it) erected right at the heart of the castle grounds.
I marched over to the northeastern corner of the castle park, where the ruling lord’s residence once stood during the Edo Period. The remnants of his garden – featuring a pond and stroll path in the chisen-kaiyū-shiki style – have been incorporated into the present-day Kokura Castle Japanese Garden (小倉城庭園 Kokura-jō Teien).
The garden is rather small, and perhaps not nearly as impressive as some of the more famous castle gardens scattered across Japan, but it does have some interesting features. For example, the central water feature was constructed as a nozoki-ike (のぞき池), literally “peeping pond” – so called because it’s set lower than the garden around it and designed to be looked down into.
Off to one side of the pond is an elevated wooden structure, with a terrace projecting out over the water; this particular feature reminds me of the famous balcony of Kiyomizu-dera in faraway Kyōto.
Erected in the shoin-zukuri style, the so-called Study Hall (書院棟, shoin-tō) features a suite of interconnected rooms separated by sliding doors and platforms of varying height, where the rank of each room (denoting who was to sit where) is indicated by the level of its floor and how far inside the building it is. Such halls are a common feature of palaces built for daimyō during the Edo Period, with some particularly noteworthy examples being the intact audience chambers of Nijō Castle (picture-taking prohibited inside, unfortunately) and the reconstructed rooms of Kumamoto Castle and Nagoya Castle.
Though sparsely decorated when compared with any of those examples, the rooms in Kokura Castle’s Study Hall aren’t lacking in elegance and refinement.
The building is used for cultural events and demonstrations of traditional ceremonies. In fact, one section of the hall was being used for a tea ceremony at the time of my visit; you can see the rear row of attendees in one of the pictures above. The room was packed and the atmosphere hushed, so I elected not to pause and take a picture of the proceedings (lest my presence intrude upon the solemnity of the experience).
When I left the garden, it was still about an hour or so before noon. A little too early for lunch, but the time was right for a late morning snack. I crossed the remains of the castle moat and entered the Riverwalk Kitakyūshū (リバーウォーク北九州) complex: a large shopping centre bordering the northern edge of the castle park.
Here’s an image taken on my previous visit.
It’s not a bad place for browsing around, putting one’s feet up, and enjoying a leisurely meal. For my part, I walked into a specialty tea shop and ordered some matcha soft-serve ice cream with azuki and shirotama (540 yen) – light enough to avoid spoiling my appetite for a proper lunch (not that there’s ever any risk of that…) yet substantial enough to power me up for another stretch of sightseeing.
Back to Kokura Station now – but not to catch a train. (Not yet, anyway.) I crossed over to the northern side of the station and followed the elevated walkway leading to the AruAru City (あるあるCity) shopping centre…
…then up to the 6th floor – home of the Kitakyūshū Manga Museum (北九州市漫画ミュージアム).
The museum bears a certain similarity to other institutions of this kind – the Kyōto International Manga Museum, for example – where exhibitions are combined with large collections of manga that patrons can read on the premises at their leisure. Another similarity is the strict ban on photography in most of the galleries: regrettable, but quite understandable, given the thorny issues of copyright involved in such matters. There are a few specially designated photo spots where one is permitted to take pictures; this one, for example.
Incidentally, that large figure depicts a character from Galaxy Express 999 (銀河鉄道999, Ginga Tetsudō Surī Nain), a classic manga series (1977-81) – one that of course spawned multiple anime adaptations – by Matsumoto Reiji. Matsumoto himself is a native of Fukuoka Prefecture, and the museum has a particular focus on artists with a connection to the area.
Now I’ll admit that I’m not entirely familiar with Matsumoto’s body of work. I wasn’t even born yet when Galaxy Express 999 ended (both the original manga and its first, long-running anime adaptation), and the artist’s style does embody a certain aesthetic that is, perhaps, not something I’m predisposed to liking – though this is true of many deservedly respected names such as Osamu Tezuka and Miyazaki Hayao. Nonetheless, as a chap with a long-standing interest in manga and anime, I do have a tremendous respect for the legends of the industry, and I certainly felt the time I spent in the museum was time well spent.
The museum also hosts various special exhibits throughout the year, held in the galleries down on the 5th floor – including one featuring the work of famed animator Shinkai Makoto: 新海誠展－「ほしのこえ」から「君の名は。」まで－ (Shinkai Makoto Exhibition – from “Hoshi no Koe” to “Kimi no na wa.”) / 21 July to 24 September 2018 / 1,200 yen including admission to the museum’s permanent gallery.
I didn’t even know this was going on, but learned about it just the day before my side trip to Kitakyūshū (through a short feature on the local news); thankfully I managed to see the exhibition on the penultimate day as it ended right the next evening.
Many of us probably know Shinkai Makoto as the director of the massively successful animated film Kimi no na wa. (君の名は。, 2016). I’ve been avidly following his work ever since I saw his early film Hoshi no Koe (ほしのこえ, 2002) on DVD, and my respect for his creative output was cemented by Byōsoku Go Senchimētoru (秒速5センチメートル, 2007). I’m somewhat on the fence regarding his other works, but his unique animation style remains my favourite amongst contemporary Japanese filmmakers…
…which is why it might surprise all of you to learn that I haven’t yet seen Kimi no na wa. I had several chances to do so during its original theatrical run – given that I holiday in Japan with some regularity – and of course I could have purchased the video anytime (either during my visits there or via an online store). There were even multiple versions of the film, from basic DVDs up to mind-numbingly expensive collector’s editions, right there at the museum shop when I came by for the special exhibition. But there it is: for reasons I can’t fully comprehend or articulate, not even to myself, I haven’t seen it and might not do so for quite some time.
Just one of those things, really. Can’t be bothered to explain and can’t explain even if I could be bothered to do so.
Setting that aside, I had a fantastic time learning about the creative processes – as well as the occasional serious production crises – that gave rise to Shinkai’s oeuvre. From original manuscripts and storyboards to models and video clips, the exhibition had it all: even rather poignant items such as the drafts of letters (on appropriately styled stationery) written by Akari to Takaki in Byōsoku Go Senchimētoru, later reproduced in animated form for the movie.
Needless to say, photography was strictly prohibited inside. All I’ve got are images of the promotional artwork set up outside the exhibition rooms, as well as odds and ends like a flyer and admission ticket.
With that, I wrapped up my morning in downtown Kitakyūshū – but I wasn’t done with the city just yet. I merely travelled on to its former harbour district, there to tuck into a hearty lunch and learn about Kitakyūshū’s rich history as a major trading port…
…but let’s save that story for another time.
Till then, cheerio.