Step back in time down Chofu way

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

The map of Japan is full of intriguing holes and fissures, provincial areas that are not perhaps terrae incognitae in the strictest sense, but are nevertheless puzzlingly overlooked by visitors. Preserved by neglect, they are often proximate to better-known locales that sap the will of visitors to press on further.

The old samurai town of Chofu, just 8 km from Shimonoseki in Honshu’s most southwesterly prefecture of Yamaguchi, is one such place. The route map of tourism takes most people as far as the port city famed (or infamous) as the birthpace of modern Japanese whaling. From there, having satisfied themselves inspecting the brick and stone buildings of Karato, including the former British consulate and a row of old gun emplacements — and having made the customary stop at a fugu restaurant — they are likely to resume itineraries that will take them to spots such as Hagi and Tsuwano.

It was a weekend and the weather was fine when I stepped off the bus from Shimonoseki to Chofu. With hardly a soul in sight, the visitors I did meet all greeted me with the warmth reserved for long lost friends, or hikers lost on a remote mountain or forest trail. While this is a blessing for those who go, it leaves a residual feeling of sadness that such a deserving destination should be so undervalued.

Given its small population, the town appears to host a superfluity of temples, shrines, gardens, museums, dedicatory stones, steles, Buddhist statuary and monuments — collectively suggesting both an illustrious past and a more modest present. Chofu means “capital of Nagato,” the western region of present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture. Towards the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867), the town became one of the western bases for plotting the overthrow of the feudal government of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Chofu describes itself as a jokamachi, meaning “castle town,” though you would have to look hard before stumbling across any fragments of the original fortress of the Mori clan long dominant in these parts.

The well laid out lanes are more promising, exuding as they do a civic pride that is rare in contemporary Japan, whose cities and towns often look unfinished, their elements lacking in the design coordination that was a feature of the carefully planned, socially stratified urban templates of the feudal period. Here, the back lanes, temple and shrine grounds, and the walks into small groves are genuine time slips, enhanced by the absence of visitors.

The gate to the Kan Family Tenant House teleports the visitor back to the 19th-century design preferences of the more prestigious rank of samurai. Members of the Kan family served for generations as doctors to the Emperor. Buttressed by a clay wall that extends to 38.28 meters in length, the high earthen form, the color of sand, topped with tiles and breached with stone steps and hefty gates, continues to ensure that the residences it shields remain quietly sequestered.

How does such an overlooked place like this manage, in its older residential areas, to look so prosperous?

With the exception of the shabby stores, cobwebs of high-tension wires, grimy cement structures and rusting hoardings at the entrance to the old quarter, I saw few eyesores.

Houses were well maintained, but lived in. One of the qualities of the old town is that most of its residences are inaccessible; their owners having insisted on privacy, and their wishes having been respected. Exclusion stimulates inquiry, the temptation to peer over walls and intrude.

There is perhaps, even a touch of envy, the ungracious thought that no single family or owner deserves the exclusive right to such beauty and space.

Old stones overgrown with plants form the embankment of the Dangu River, a stream by any other name. Water is a feature of the town that is easily overlooked, consisting of only a modest system of shallow channels, storm drains and culverts. Sloping lanes flow up, purling brooks flow down, an effect that is calming, reposeful.

Such is the deficit of visitors to the town that the staff at the Chofu Museum will welcome you with open hands. Steep steps lead to a stone building resembling a hybrid of temple and storehouse. Among the items on display are old maps, calligraphic strolls, and materials relating to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which was instrumental in transforming the social structure of the town.

The museum houses a statue of Gen. Nogi Maresuke (1849-1912), an important military figure during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). A native of Chofu and one of the architects of both the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the general’s legacy is a complex one.

When the Meiji Emperor died, Nogi assisted his wife in severing her carotid artery, before slashing open his own stomach and abdomen in an old-style ritual suicide known as junshi. The act divided the public into those who saw the self-annihilation as an act of heroism, others who interpreted it as nationalistic lunacy. Chofu appears to have opted for the more noble interpretation, erecting a nearby place of worship, Nogi Shrine, in the general’s honor.

The museum stands in the same grounds as Kozan-ji, a designated National Treasure. It’s a delight to see such a well-maintained piece of heritage. The temple, dating from the 14th century, and strongly identified with the Mori family, has an awfully combustible look to it with its thatched roof, ancient beams, gables, pillars and partitions. Hopefully, however, Japan’s pyromaniacs have bigger fish to fry.

In the study of Japanese gardens, Chofu-teien receives little mention. Dismissed as the indulgence of a privileged former retainer of the Mori clan, it may not be a masterwork, but remains nonetheless a graceful, well-watered landscape of some 30,000 sq. meters. Dating from the Taisho Era (1912-26), the old whitewashed storehouses in its precincts look to date from the preceding Edo Period, while the old timber structures of its residence and teahouses emanate understated good taste.

If you sense a Chinese air to the garden, the source is the lotuses growing in its pond and along the embankments of a stream. When the Chinese revolutionary Sun Wen (aka Sun Yat-sen or, in Japan, Nakayama Sho; 1866-1925) lived in exile in Japan in the 1890s, he received financial assistance from Takashi Tanaka, the owner of a marine transport business in Chofu. Sun Wen gave four lotus seeds to Tanaka in appreciation of his help.

When one of the seeds was successfully cultivated in 1962, it was named Son Bun Ren (Sun Wen Lotus). Afterward, one of those plants was transplanted to Chofu-teien, where it has become the symbol of the garden. The beauty of the flower is almost unparalleld, and on early summer mornings when the blossom is at its best, its alternative name, Suihiren — meaning, “the flushed cheeks of a princess in the moments after sipping sweet wine” — adds lyricism to nature.

Chofu is the kind of place many of Japan’s foreign residents conjure up in their imagination, but rarely track down. If you do manage to visit, don’t forget to take some photos to prove that you were really there … and didn’t just dream up the place.

Getting there: It is 25 min. by bus to Chofu from Shimonoseki Station. Get off at Jokamachi bus stop for the old quarter. Chofu Museum opens Tues.-Sun., 9.30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Chofu-teien is open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.