Sunday, July 5, 2020

Rebuilding History at Kumamoto Castle

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Japan has many castles, treasured relics from a long and historically fascinating feudal age. While most of these castles are reproductions, several have been preserved almost intact since their construction during the 16th and 17th centuries (and in a few cases, even earlier).

The main keep at Kumamoto Castle

One of the most beautiful and (largely) well-preserved castles in Japan is Kumamoto-jō (Kumamoto Castle), located in the city of Kumamoto, on Kyushu (the southernmost of Japan's four major islands.

First completed in 1607 (toward the end of the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States period), Kumamoto-jō was originally the stronghold of Daimyō Kato Kiyomasa, who ruled the Kumamoto area.

The castle featured high stone foundations that curved to repel intruders, and to give the castle extra protection against Japan's many earthquakes. These walls, known as musha-gaeshi, are seen in many Japanese castles, but many people believe Kumamoto Castle represents the apex of this architectural feature.

The curving walls beneath the keep were designed to repel invaders and provide support against earthquakes.

Kumamoto-jō also had a unique double tenshu (keep). The tenshu was the central command area of the castle, and although most Japanese castles had only a single multi-story tenshu, Kumamoto Castle's was twice as large, and featured a second tower adjacent and joined to the first.

The unique double tenshu of Kumamoto-jō

Like most Japanese castles, Kumamoto-jō had a series of outer fortifications, consisting of tall stone walls surmounted by yagura (turrets) that served double duty as watchtowers and platforms for defense.

The Hitsujisaru Yagura, in the outer fortifications.

Today, as throughout its history, visitors to Kumamoto Castle must walk along curving paths through several rings of walls and gates to reach the inner ring where the keep still stands.

If you've been paying close attention to the images in this post, you probably noticed that many of the walls appear to be in tumble-down disarray--a sharp contrast to my earlier description of Kumamoto-jō as a well-preserved historical site.

Note the crumbling wall beneath the turret.

On April 16, 2016, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Kumamoto, damaging the castle and collapsing not only a number of exterior walls:

Another casualty of the 2016 quake.

but also a large portion of the foundation beneath the smaller side of the castle keep, called the Sho-tenshu. Many of the Sho-tenshu's interior walls also collapsed when the foundation fell away.

The inner portion of the foundation beneath the left side tower fell away in the earthquake. Scaffolds support it now.

Remarkably, the Dai-tenshu--the larger side of the keep--suffered almost no exterior damage from the quake (although a number of its interior walls collapsed).

The entirety of the massive castle grounds--which had been a public park since the castle was first restored to its original glory after the end of World War II--were closed to the public for safety reasons. Fortunately, because the castle has been an important part of Kumamoto's history for centuries, a massive restoration effort began almost immediately, and has been in progress since the summer of 2016.

A photograph of the Tenshu, taken shortly after the quake in 2016.

The first phase of the castle reopening took place in October 2019, and I was lucky enough to visit, and tour the grounds, in January of 2020. While enormous cranes still tower over the Tenshu and the castle buildings remain off limits to visitors (and likely will remain that way for at least another year), it is once again possible to walk the entire grounds, and to marvel at the size and beauty of this massive monument to the storied history of Japan.

While not all monuments are necessarily worth preserving, Kumamoto-jō is not only a lovely example of traditional castle architecture from a period most of us can experience only in history books, but also a symbol of the enduring love and respect the people of Kumamoto have for their place in Japanese history.

Kato Kiyomasa, original lord of Kumamoto Castle.

Walking the gravel paths and staring up at the massive towers engenders deep feelings of awe and respect for the people who designed and built these massive structures many centuries ago, without the benefits of cranes and other modern engineering devices. It's impossible to appreciate them fully from photographs and history books--for example: consider the fact that despite the massive damage it sustained, most of the castle survived a 7.0 earthquake--400 years after it was originally constructed.

That kind of effort and craftsmanship deserves to be preserved and restored for future generations to enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. But could it survive four more years of you-know-whose presidency!