Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The city beyond the castle

My first visit to Matsumoto was not fun. I'd landed in Japan a few days earlier and decided to head to the mountains for a spell before beginning my new life as an English teacher. But by the time I reached Matsumoto, whatever bug I'd picked up on the trans-Pacific flight had taken hold of me and I found myself trapped in my cocoon-like hotel room, shivering with fever, gazing out at the alps that ring the city. After 48 hours the bug vanished and I got the chance to stroll around - wide, modern streets, traffic, ho-hum, I thought, just another big, dull town. Matsumoto Castle is well worth seeing as one of the best-preserved feudal castles in Japan, but beyond that my first trip to Matsumoto didn't reveal a lot else to attract out-of-town visitors.

Since then, the Ajimi team has been back to Matsumoto a couple times, abetted by the cheap train fares from Tokyo which make it a good destination for a brief getaway. We discovered onsen towns on the outskirts which it pays to have a least a passing familiarity with Japanese to navigate. Each time we return we find something new to appreciate about the place. First, from an architectural point of view, the city, like Kofu and others, has benefited from being a bit of a backwater compared to Tokyo. There hasn't been quite the lust to knock things down so one can still see traces of bygone styles -- Showa, Taisho, even Meiji- and Edo-era structures -- scattered around the landscape. The city is like a reliquary containing fragments of outmoded commercial architecture. There are lots of woeful-looking buildings containing down-at-heels snack bars and other businesses which have somehow managed to carry on. There are also lots of kura, those rugged, squat buildings where people traditionally stowed their valuables. They're tough to knock down so many people over the years have said the heck with it and adapted them for other uses. (In some communities in northeastern Japan, kura were among the few buildings left after the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, probably not the first catastrophe they'd managed to survive.) It all makes for a very interesting visual blend.

So a pleasant afternoon for us in Matsumoto involves walking around looking at odd old buildings. But during our recent visit we noticed that a few more modern structures had been added to the mix. And overall the scale of the city offers more opportunity to appreciate the buildings - they're not packed so tightly together and cloaked with the signage and other forms of visual pollution that characterize buildings in Tokyo. Granted, Matsumoto is still not exactly a hotbed of architectural innovation, but it does offer elements of delight that make for a good afternoon's urban exploration.





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