Theaters of war and peace in Kumamoto

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

The pamphlet tells me this is a “castle” — but the structure in front of me defies that description. Granted, my frame of reference is greatly informed by the impressive edifices of Kumamoto, Himeji and Matsumoto that date back to the gory Sengoku (Warring States) Period spanning some 150 years from the mid-15th century before the country was unified under the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Such imposing turreted buildings dotting the Japanese archipelago are what most visitors — and natives alike — flock to see. Yet here in Kikuchi, a small town in northern Kumamoto Prefecture, a castle that predates all of those other bastions dominates the hilly landscape.

While today’s Kikuchi is, admittedly, a backwater in Kyushu, in the seventh century it played a crucial role in the defense of the Yamato state against a possible Korean invasion. In 663, after a force sent to Korea to assist the friendly province of Baekje was defeated by Chinese-backed armies, the real possibility loomed of Japan being invaded.

To shore up the defenses of the Yamato capital of Dazaifu (in present-day Fukuoka Prefecture), a ring of castles was constructed — Kaneda, on the island of Tsushima in Nagasaki Prefecture, Ono in Fukuoka Prefecture and Kii in Saga Prefecture. With its location slightly removed from the primary battlefront, Kikuchi was designated as a base for troops, weapons and additional supplies. Though the castle’s history is a martial one, there is still an elegance to it that immediately impresses.

Mere steps from the parking lot is the octagonal Drum Tower, a delicate-looking wooden structure with sloping tiled roofs. While its specific purpose is unknown, some records from the late 880s do mention the sound of drums emanating from the castle site, so it seems the tower was in use. Today, though, it takes some imagination to walk the remainder of Kikuchi’s castle grounds. Archaeologists have uncovered at least 72 possible building locations, all plotted out with cement posts that mark where wooden supports stood a millennium ago or more.

Near the octagonal Drum Tower, excavations uncovered carbonized grains of rice — as a result, a rice storehouse was reconstructed on that spot, its form based on ancient architectural examples. Yet aside from this and a long low barracks building, the rest of the expansive site remains grassy parkland.

We quickly decide it’s the perfect place for a kid to roam, and our toddler releases some pent-up energy while we adults attempt to identify building foundations and locate the traces of a former reservoir.

Up on the hill at the western end of the castle grounds, the Haizuka Observatory offers us panoramic views of the site and surrounding peaks. We’ve managed to luck into a clear day before Kyushu’s rainy season begins, and the cloudless skies allow vistas of both nearby rice paddies awaiting planting and the far-off smoky wisps of volcanic Mount Aso — at 1,592 meters, the largest active volcano in Japan.

We poke around the castle’s onsite museum for a few minutes, but other than some excellent scale-model reproductions, there is limited information for non-Japanese readers.

Hungry by this point, and with our questioning of the castle staff having turned up apologetic looks but no solid restaurant recommendations, we decide to brave the menu at the adjoining onsite eatery. As it turns out, the day’s set lunch offers dango jiru, a locally famous soup of chewy wheat dumplings and myriad mountain vegetables swirling in a hearty miso broth. Though the bowl of soup itself is huge, and comes on a tray complete with rice, pickles and other munchies, we’re treated to a parade of additions from the exuberant hostess, who hovers around like a mother hen, concerned her brood is underfed.

Thoroughly sated, we waddle back to our car and take the circuitous country roads further west in Kumamoto Prefecture to Yamaga. I’ve been here before, in the bleak winter months, when the town’s main streets were closed to traffic on weekends and brightened by bamboo luminaries and glowing paper umbrellas that were all part of the winter portion of its famous, and visually beautiful, lantern festival.

When we visit in the early days of summer, however, it’s definitely the main August event that has garnered the focus of the entire town. Posters advertising the Sennin Toro Odori — the nightlong dance of 1,000 lantern-bearing women — are plastered on every store window. Even the town’s manhole covers do their part to publicize the event.

Yamaga’s townscape remains reminiscent of the Edo Period (1603-1867) when Tokugawa shoguns ruled the land, with wooden-fronted shops and cozy old-style cafes. Tucked away on one of the side streets is the restored Yachiyoza Theater, a playhouse that recently celebrated its centenary with a pricey face-lift. The cultural hub of the region in the early part of the 20th century, this theater would often host kabuki dramas, including — most unusually for an all-male performing-art form — shows by troupes composed entirely of women.

Then, when movies took over from more traditional forms of entertainment, silent films were screened in the auditorium on an old projector that can still be seen in the adjoining museum.

After World War II, the Yachiyoza Theater was used sparingly up until the 1970s, after which it fell into disrepair. Not willing to let their cultural icon face the wrecking ball, though, the residents of Yamaga launched fundraising efforts for the theater’s renovation. Their hard work and grassroots campaigning paid off mightily, as in 1988 the Yachiyoza Theater was designated as a national important cultural asset — only the third theater in the country to be honored in that way.

On weekdays, the theater is open for tours, and we slip off our shoes to join a group of tourists on the segmented tatami “box seats” in the main chamber. Visually, the interior is stunning, a riot of colorful panels and red lanterns. Along the sides of the audience area there are walkways called hanamichi — used by actors to make an impressive entrance onto the stage — while the theater’s ceiling is a wonderful 19th-century snapshot of sections advertising everything from tofu to laundry soap. I know I should be listening to the guide, but I find myself puzzling out an ad for geta (wooden clogs) instead.

The Yachiyoza Theater still has shows several times a month, and its stage is even now occasionally graced by famous kabuki actors. While hardly a comparison, our gregarious guide treats us all to a mini performance, as she pops out of panels in the wooden floor and illustrates the turning of the theater’s revolving stage.

After the tour, we amble across the street to look at the array of old paraphernalia — posters, performers’ masks, kimonos and that venerable movie projector — before our collective fatigue tells us to call it a day.

From Yamaga, it’s a short drive to the expressway, where Kyushu’s modern transportation corridor carries us out of the past and back home seemingly in the blink of an eye to the present day.

Both Kikuchi Castle (just north of Kikuchi town) and Yamaga are best reached by car and are clearly marked on area maps. Kikuchi Castle Historical Park is open daily; admission free. The onsite museum opens 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days. Yachiyoza Theater in Yamaga can be visited independently or with a guided tour (¥520 for admission, tours in Japanese only but English handouts available).