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Scholar Tenshin Okakura’s seaside pavilion, destroyed in tsunami, witnesses a new dawn

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Rokkakudo, a small, six-sided wooden pavilion that overlooks the Pacific Ocean from a low rocky headland in northern Ibaraki Prefecture, is by no means Tenshin Okakura’s most important legacy. That honor would go to “The Book of Tea,” a now-classic dissertation on traditional Japanese aesthetics that he wrote in 1906. Still, the seaside retreat is the most picturesque of the late scholar’s many achievements, as well as the most evocative of his spirit, and it is for these reasons that a profound sadness followed the news that the tsunami of March 11, 2011, had washed it away.

That news spread quickly from Japan’s northeastern coast to Tokyo, China, Korea, India, Italy and the United States. Within weeks, Okakura scholars from around the globe were contacting Ibaraki University, which administers the pavilion, expressing their despair but also their firm conviction that Rokkakudo must be rebuilt. Many added that they would be willing to help.

“The response from around the world was overwhelming,” explained Isoji Miwa, a retired Ibaraki University professor who, in April 2011, was charged with overseeing the reconstruction. “In truth, there was never really any doubt that we would rebuild Rokkakudo because it had always been such an important symbol for the prefecture.”

Miwa was speaking to The Japan Times two weeks ago at the Mito Festival, a giant annual street parade held in Ibaraki’s prefectural capital. This year, Ibaraki University had made a float in the familiar shape of Rokkakudo’s hexagonal roof, and the mood that prevailed amongst Miwa and the others as they held it aloft was buoyant.

With a mixture of elation and relief animating his face, Miwa shouted to The Japan Times, “We’ve come to the festival to tell the people of Ibaraki that the reconstruction has been completed.”

Yes, less than 18 months after the tsunami had taken the pavilion away, it had been fully rebuilt, and Miwa agreed to take time out from his celebratory parade to explain exactly how it had been done.

Rokkakudo was first built in 1905, at a time when much was changing in the then 42-year-old Okakura’s life.

By then, he had spent many years at the Tokyo Fine Arts School (later Tokyo University of the Arts), having been appointed its second president in 1890. Okakura’s love of arts had been kindled back in the 1870s, when he studied under the American scholar Ernest Fenollosa at Tokyo Imperial University. (His knowledge of English had been acquired even earlier, when as a 6-year-old child he took classes in Yokohama, where his silk-merchant father kept a house.)

But Okakura had left Tokyo for the picturesque Izura coast of northern Ibaraki in 1903. A train line had recently been built to service coal mines in the vicinity, and the 180 km from Tokyo could be traversed in half a day. Okakura invited young artists he had nurtured at the university — people such as Taikan Yokoyama — to join him and, together, they tried to create an arts community that would rival Barbizon in France.

The move to Ibaraki also coincided with a series of half-yearly trips to the United States, where in 1904 Okakura had taken up the position of “expert” in Chinese and Japanese art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Later, as “curator,” he helped the museum build its now-famous collection of East Asian art.

Okakura constructed Rokkakudo shortly after building a house at Izura, choosing for it a flat patch of land on the very tip of a rocky headland. According to Miwa, he used the pavilion, which was about 9 sq. meters in area and 5 meters above the low-tide mark, as a place for viewing the ocean and thinking. (In fact, he named it Kanrantei, meaning “wave-viewing house”; Rokkakudo, which means “hexagonal hall,” is how it came to be known later.)

“If you sit inside, it is really like you are floating above the water,” Miwa said. “Okakura enjoyed the idea of communing with nature.”

Even still, Okakura probably didn’t envision communion with nature to the extent afforded by last year’s tsunami.

The wave at Izura reached a height of 10 meters, wiping out local fishing ports, severing the Joban train line that ran along the coast nearby and entirely engulfing the 106-year-old pavilion. A university staff member on duty that day managed to take a photograph of it as it was carried out to sea. He then ran for his life.

Having decided to rebuild the pavilion, the university first resolved to recreate it as close to its original state as possible. “We knew that several parts of it had been rebuilt over the years,” Miwa said. “But we wanted to see it as Okakura had seen it.”

Still, no original plans existed, so the university staff had to make do with old photographs and the memories of elderly locals.

“We got a lot of help from local temple carpenters,” Miwa said, explaining that they were able to read the clues provided by the wooden exterior as it appeared in photographs.

Next was the question of materials and, more specifically, whether any of the originals could be recovered.

For this, Miwa contracted a professional diving team to scour the seabed around the headland. Over the course of four dives, they managed to find more than 200 of the pavilion’s roof tiles as well as a large crystal that Okakura is thought to have hidden inside a finial on the roof.

“Temples always have treasures like that inside,” Miwa said, “and Okakura was deeply interested in traditional spirituality.”

To everyone’s disappointment, the tiles turned out to bear the Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS) logo, suggesting that the roof had been rebuilt at some point after 1949, when JIS was first established.

Miwa later decided to commission new tiles identical to the originals, which his team learned from old photographs had been smaller in size to the ones they found in the ocean.

The funding for the whole operation came from two sources. A small portion came from the national government’s reconstruction budget (Ibaraki University is a national university, so Rokkakudo is owned by the government). But the bulk of funds came from private donations, including from a professor at the Sapienza University of Rome, who collected money from his students. A total of ¥45 million was raised.

Those cash donations were supplemented by many more gifts in kind. When it became apparent that a special type of cedar had been used to build the original, a local landowner offered to supply two large trees. “They were huge — about 150 years old, which is about how old Tenshin would be if he was still alive,” Miwa explained.

One of the university’s biggest challenges was recreating the glass panes for the pavilion’s large windows. Everyone remembered that the old windows were not entirely smooth, meaning that the view they afforded was in places warped a la Vincent van Gogh. To recreate a similar kind of glass, Miwa had to go to England, where he found a manufacturer that was still able to produce glass using the old techniques.

Another challenge was determining Rokkakudo’s original color. It had been painted a dull red as long as anyone could remember, but had it always been so?

To answer this question, Miwa called on the expertise of photo colorizing specialists in Kobe, who are best known for colorizing a photograph from the 1860s of the modernizing samurai Sakamoto Ryoma. “They can look at a black-and-white shot and tell with reasonable accuracy what the colors were that created the photograph’s various shades of gray,” he said.

Miwa provided photographs from immediately after the pavilion was built and, sure enough, the answer that came back confirmed everyone’s suspicions: red.

Perhaps Miwa and the university’s most significant decision was to recreate a second, little-known structure that had fallen victim to the sea long before 2011. In early photographs of Rokkakudo, a stone lantern is visible rising from a rocky outcrop about 10 meters off the shore from the pavilion. “The lantern no longer exists in photographs taken after about 1912,” Miwa said.

The lantern is important, Miwa reasoned, because “Okakura also practiced the tea ceremony in the pavilion, and in many traditional teahouses there is often a view out over a pond that contains a stone lantern.”

Building the lantern was easier said than done, though, and Miwa’s team only succeeded when they employed a barge-mounted crane to slot it over a 3-meter-long steel stake that had been bored into the rock. “We think it should be able to survive a little longer than the original,” Miwa said.

Such talk, of course, brought to mind another, slightly awkward, question: What will happen to Rokkakudo if another tsunami comes?

By then it was time for Miwa to go back and rejoin his parade. As he stood to go, he laughed knowingly. “Of course, we could have relocated the pavilion to higher ground, but it is so deeply connected to its location that if moved anywhere else it would cease to be Rokkakudo,” he said. “If another tsunami washes it away, we will have to just rebuild it again.”