One in a Dozen

Posted by on Nov 14, 2011 in Kochi, Travel Volunteer Journey | One Comment
One in a Dozen

When you grow up in the UK, castles are exciting for the first 10 years of your life. Until then you can run around fantasising about King Arthur, Merlin and chums, fending off hoards of villains from the ramparts. Then your adolescence approaches, the joy goes out of you, and you start to resent days spent trudging around these dull old buildings. Finally, more time passes, then one day you wake up a fully-formed adult, keen to learn things voluntarily and you realise: those old castles, they’re actually pretty interesting.

I’m not sure if it’s the same for Japanese people, but I wouldn’t be surprised: the most common groups of visitors we’ve come across at the dozens of historic sites around the country have been enthralled school kids, and oohing and aahing pensioners. Whatever their age, they’ve seemed pleased by what they’ve seen. That’s pretty admirable as, with a virtual certainty, what they are looking at is a reconstruction.

Between natural disasters (of which there have been many), fires (of which there have been more) and the merciless Allied bombing campaign at the end of the year (which claimed more than everything else combined) nearly all of Japan’s old castles have been razed to the ground.

So while there are still loads dotted around the country, following the original designs many of them are less than 100 years old (in fact most are barely 50). Of the truly original structures, only 12 survive today.

From the outside, picking Japanese castles apart can be quite a tricky business. For anyone who knows their subject, the differences are probably obvious, but to us they follow a uniform design, like ancient oriental Ikea packs for feudal lords.

However, even though the designs might be similar around the country, there are surely few more spectacular examples than Kochi castle, one of the dozen originals that survive.

First occupied in 1603 by Yamanouchi Kazutoyo, it was a symbol of the authority and ultimate stability that was brought about by the Edo Period. Actually it’s not strictly true to say that the structure today is 100% original: much of it was destroyed by fire, but given that it was repaired by 1753, we’re willing to let them off.

Today the building still looks intimidating; it’s not surprising that 300 years ago it put potential enemies off attacking completely. No battle was ever fought here, but if it had been the palace was well-prepared. As well as the usual high walls and moat that even westerners would expect, there are a number of tight chicanes on the path into the grounds. This is a standard characteristic in Japanese castles, designed to trap enemy soldiers and horses charging in uninvited. Once bottle-necked, arrows (and later bullets) would rain down on the assailants. Near the huge Oteman Gate, another larger shutter would open. “Ah,” I say to our guide Miko Sakamoto, “In the UK, they used to pour boiling oil on enemy soldiers trying to break down the gates. Did they do that here?”

“No – they used something nastier.”

“Miso soup?”

“Rocks… And faeces.”

If the skunk attack wasn’t enough to put the enemy off, when they stormed the castle, they were likely to run into more trouble. What looks like it absolutely, positively must be the entry to the inner sanctum is actually a dummy. If the assailants pushed through here, again they’d have found themselves trapped with missiles raining down from three sides.

So a force of numbers wouldn’t have been any use. What about sending an assassin?

On the rare occasions the residing lord would grant an audience to a visitor, a small squad of his deadliest samurai would be hiding in a concealed room, listening intently in case the conversation went ill. This place was virtually perfect, and deemed as good as indestructible by enemies. In the end, it was political upheaval that brought an end to the castle as a fortress. Ironically, another Kochi man, Sakamoto Ryoma, would have an important part to play in the drama of the Mejii Restoration, but a decade after the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate, the castle was open to tourists.

And that, more or less, is how it’s stayed for the past 140 years, dodging earthquakes, typhoons and fire bombs along the way. For our part, we’re glad it’s been so fleet-footed.









“えっ? 味噌汁でもかけるの?”と私。






1 Comment

  1. Heidi King
    November 17, 2011

    Gorgeous pics! I really like that your blog is both interesting and helpful – good luck visiting all of Japan.