While the Sixties bring to mind images of hippies, Woodstock, students on the street, The Beatles on a rooftop and Jimi’s guitar on fire, the decade wasn’t all colour and light. In Japan, from the late Fifties through the Sixties, while campuses became battlegrounds, a government project to rebuild national pride was underway.
Only four castles – Himeji, Hikone, Matsumoto and Inuyama – had survived the war, and a massive rebuilding programme was undertaken. There was just one flaw in their plan: no one told the government that not only is concrete not a traditional building material, but it is hideous to look at. The larger and more famous castles got the attention they deserved, but many of their smaller brethren were left with the kind of unnatural pockmarked façade we used to associate with Michael Jackson. Kiyosu castle, near Nagoya, escaped this fate through the simple act of being ignored in the original project. Despite holding an important place in Japanese history – it was the military and administrative centre of Owari, and the launching point for Oda Nobunaga’s ascension to power. It was only surpassed in importance when Tokugawa Ieyasu had it dismantled and used the pieces to build Nagoya castle – despite this, the castle was not rebuilt until 1989. By this time lessons had been learned.
Kiyosu is one of the most beautifully and faithfully reconstructed castles in Japan. The dark-stained wood and blood-red ornamentation are a welcome change from the monochrome normality of the vast majority of castles, and the sculpted Zen garden – all sharp rocks and raked gravel, bamboo and coy – is a peaceful retreat mere minutes from modernity and its bustle. Immediately outside the gate is Otebashi, a beautiful light-veneered bridge curving gently over the river, adorned with eye-catching red lamps. After paying the princely sum of 300 yen and removing shoes, the first room the visitor encounters, is the armoury.
The usual swords and knives are there behind their glass, but an array of modern-made armour is on display and available to the touch. Geared more towards children than six plus foot foreigners (I’m used to clothes shops saying “we don’t have your size” but this was the first time it had happened in a castle), dressing up as a warrior and being photographed looked like a lot of fun. Although there was one kid whose grandfather kept insisting, “don’t smile: Samurai never smiled.” Not sure how factually accurate that is, but the family now possess photos of a six year old sulky samurai. The reconstruction work inside is as delightful as the exterior.
The wood is rich and light, smooth to the touch and easy on the eye. Higher levels exhibit the usual paraphernalia: original roof tiles and carvings, resurrected pottery from the excavation, statues of those who controlled the castle over the years. The general theme is that of Oda Nobunaga, surely the most famous of all Kiyosu’s lords, and Tokugawa Ieyasu gets little mention; apparently dismantling the castle and abandoning the city does not endear you to the citizens, nor their descendants. The view from the top level is stunningly uninspiring. The castle is the single spot of beauty in Kiyosu, and whatever compass point you stare at, you are always looking away.
It may be better in the spring, when the cherry blossom by the river is blooming, but surely even that cannot distract from concrete, corrugated rust and miles of cables. Much more pleasant is a seat by the river looking at the castle. Kiyosu can be reached by a short walk from either Shin-Kiyosu station on the Meitetsu line, or from JR Kiyosu station. Both are on the respective Nagoya – Gifu lines, just before Ichinomiya.