Hiroshima has a castle. Perched atop a musha-gaeshi (the Japanese equivalent of a motte) and surrounded by an network of enclosed maru (courtyards, or baileys in European castle-speak), the castle tower is an impressive sight. In the grounds, the ruins of the Imperial War Headquarters lurk; the emperor stayed here in the 1890s, during the first Sino-Japanese War. Attendants sweep the paved terraces clear of leaves. The yagura (guard tower) keeps a watchful eye on guests. Crows alight from stone lanterns, and you’re instantly drawn back into a world of samurai, closed castle towns, and men in straw hats carrying water.
There’s just one thing wrong with this picture. The current castle was built in 1958, six years before the first Shinkansen opened.
At first glance, this is another story about Hiroshima and the tragedy of the atomic bomb, but it isn’t so simple. Iwakuni Castle, over in Yamaguchi Prefecture, is a replica too, built in the mid-20th Century. The original castle was torn down on the orders of the Tokugawa shogunate, who wanted to reduce the number of potential rival power bases. Even the iconic Osaka Castle tower was mostly lost to fire in 1665, and the majority of the current building dates from the 1930s.
At least in Osaka’s case, some of the other buildings in the castle complex made it through. By the last count, there are only twelve ‘original’ castles in Japan.
I’ve been to Hiroshima, Iwakuni and Osaka. All of them house some curious artefacts. There are katanas, hanging calligraphy scrolls by former daimyo, paintings, palanquins, suits of threaded plate armour and Edo police uniforms. And yet. And yet. I feel oddly repulsed by these beautiful, lovingly-reconstructed buildings. It’s taken me a while to get at why.
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All across the city, there are Shinto shrines. Nestled between buildings, poking out of the tops of trees. Through stone gates you find them, sometimes painted in brilliant red, sometimes hewn from aged wooden beams. They beguile you with soft-glowing lanterns at night. Often the architecture is fairly similar to Buddhist temples, but you can recognise a Shinto shrine by the strips of paper called shide, and the thick woven straw ropes (shimenawa) which hang beneath the roof of the shrine.
Like the castles, the shrines in Hiroshima are nearly all post-bombing. And again, this isn’t all about the bomb. Elsewhere, shrines are often deconstructed and rebuilt to the same specifications, most famously at Ise where the profoundly sacred Ise-jingu is rebuilt every twenty years. And yet, they don’t feel remotely ‘fake’. The architecture mimics an earlier era, but the function of a shrine hasn’t really changed in all that time. People come for prayer, solitude, introspection and communal solidarity, for festivals, for ceremonies of renewal, bonding and departure.
Even more so the Yuhua Garden, which takes its cues from the gardens of Tang Dynasty Sichuan Province*. What could be more timeless than a garden? According to legend, Sargon of Akkad, the leader of the world’s first recognizable empire, was the son of the palace gardener. In four thousand years of civic development, gardens have always had the same symbolism, bringing a bit of nature into the city, which has been wrenched away from nature. A garden affords tranquillity and solace from the raging day.
The ‘castles’, on the other hand, are a fabrication. They were never used as castles. They aren’t, and never were fortifications. They never shot arrows at enemy soldiers. No guard ever spent an uneasy night pacing their perimeter. They are a fantasy, history as theme park attraction. Hiroshima Castle stands for the rebirth of a destroyed city, and I have no right to deny people that symbolism. But they don’t feel right to me.
* I think Tang Dynasty? I’m not really sure, I’m just going off pictures I’ve seen. But it’s definitely a Sichuanese garden.