Knowing Tranquility Part XI: Takehara 竹原市
Edward J. Taylor
Takehara in Hiroshima Prefecture is a small port city in the Inland Sea and was a center of salt production in the Edo Period. Its old town is known as "Little Kyoto" due to the number of historic buildings preserved there.
I jump off the train in Takehara. The town is a bit of a misnomer as the fields of bamboo are long gone. They have been replaced at some point in history by salt, which brought a wealth to the town that still remains, in the forms of large manor houses in the old part of town, now referred to as "Little Kyoto," a moniker given to any town that has kept a predominantly traditional look. The flip side of this is that these areas become more like islands themselves, making the modern towns surrounding them look unattractive and dull.
The old town is a short walk from Takehara Station, along covered sidewalks that survive from the post-war period and puzzle me as this area surely wouldn't get much snow, and these types of embellishments are usually found in colder climes. The charm ends there however. The town is quiet and lifeless, though then again it is Monday. One house had noren from Takayama, which was another puzzle. The nicest looking house in the newer town was a modern construction that didn't quite fit with anything surrounding it, but somehow it had a more classic look than the 1950's shops held together by lethargy and aluminum siding.
The arrow-bearing signs lead me most of the way, but their absence at a crucial junction feeds me into the old town by the side-door, as it were. I wrap around to find myself in front of the Kasai House, whose second floor is a large open space with a small stage framed in bamboo. The woman downstairs tells me that they often do events here, both traditional and modern. This I find is one of the highlights of a trip to the Japanese provinces. Whereas Kyoto is better known for showcasing Japan's classical culture, it can come across as a little contrived. People in the country don't seem to feel the same pressure, and can be quite creative when it comes to using traditional forms as a springboard for something new. On this stage I can envision a woman in a kimono playing koto, or I can envision interpretive Kathak dance of India. And I can envision them happening at the same time.
This fusion of elements old and new, native and foreign, can be seen in other places throughout town, in the form of cafes and galleries. The most profound manifestation of this blending can be found in the form in a statue of Takehara-born founder of Nikka Whiskey, Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife Rita. (The couple were featured in the popular TV drama Massan a few years back.) The adjacent museum is a lovely two-story house from the Meiji Period, which detracts nothing from the Edo Period look of the rest of town.
I wander the narrow high street, duck down interconnecting lanes, and climb up to Saiho-ji Temple to look out over the town from an unusual deck that is meant to resemble the real Kyoto's Kiyomizudera. Here and again I spot yet another reference, though this one doesn't technically exist. A popular comic called Tamayura about a group of high school girls in a photography club here in town. This has led to an increase in domestic tourists, though not today as I have the town more or less to myself. I sit in an older-looking coffee shop to have a drink to cool myself on a very muggy day. Above me are photos from yet another production filmed here, 1983's The Woman Who Writes Time. In Takehara, time follows a loose script, overwriting itself across multiple eras, but somehow finding a cohesion of plot. And the filmmakers are lucky in that they have a variety of narrative threads to follow up.
We are already a third of the way into September now, but the humidity stays high. There is a typhoon brewing out to sea somewhere, but it is holding all the hot air over the mainland. It reminds me how lucky I have been so far on these island wanderings, and these flat, overcast skies above me are the first signs of bad weather. Naturally, the very moment I think this the rain begins. I take refuge in the Mitsumoto House, whose annex showcases the works of the Imai family, with their weird looking creatures entrapped in glaze. They are the not the only things trapped here apparently. I presume the woman working there is part of the family, and when she stamps my ticket, she has to first change the date on the stamp itself. So late in the day and I've been the only visitor.
I finish my visit at the Morikawa House, a large sprawling estate with copious tatami rooms. This surfeit of empty rooms is a common feature of old Japanese manors, the architectural equivalent of a glass museum, where the joy comes from discovering minute details. The most interesting features are usually the kitchens, where the visitor can play guessing games at the old utensils and cooking implements. The gardens too delight, and this one has a long maple tree being tricked into color by the cooler nights of early autumn. The light red holds a fine middle ground between the dark of wood and the light patina of tatami. And red also means stop, so I sit a while on the veranda, feeling the humidity lose its hold on the day due to the rain, and the breeze bringing yet another change. As it always does.
Access - Getting To Takehara
Takehara can be reached by train on the JR Kure Line, about 90 minutes east of Hiroshima usually with a change in Hiro or Mihama. From Takehara Station it is a 12-minute walk to the old part of town.
There are a handful of basic business hotels near the station. The Green Sky Hotel (Tel: 0846 22 1166) has over 70 western-style rooms, just one minute from Takehara Station.
If you wish for us to reserve accommodation for you anywhere in Japan (for a small fee) please contact us.
See here for a full listing of hotels and guest houses on Shikoku.
See here for hotels in Hiroshima.
About the Author
Based in Kyoto, Edward's work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications. Co-editor of the Deep Kyoto Walk anthology, he is currently at work on a series of books about walking Japan's ancient highways. Edward is the author of the blog notesfromthenog.blogspot.jp