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Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2000
Hidden fiefdom of Obi in Kyushu
By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
NICHINAN, Miyazaki Pref. -- There can be very few places of historical or cultural interest in Japan that remain positively underexploited for their tourist potential.
Obi, a one-hour ride on the delightful, two-carriage Nichinan Line train from Miyazaki, is one such rarity. Obi's obscurity is not altogether surprising given that the town is tucked away on an inland segment of the Udo headland, itself part of the Nichinan Coast.
A few discerning Japanese do make it to the Obi district, however, a quiet trickle of visitors (virtually no foreigners yet) who file in and out of its gardens and samurai villas. You will often find yourself alone, feeling faintly contrite at having so much space in a country where tourists are accustomed to being shoehorned into such places.
A measure of how little visited the town is are its local shrines, enveloped in forests of timeless Obi oak and cryptomeria, their moss-covered steps only faintly trampled.
Obi is not completely unaffected by mainstream tourism. A car park is large enough to accommodate tour buses, and a small clump of souvenir shops and vending machines is discreetly set back from the main road through the old quarter.
There is even a man (only one, mind), who will pull you around the historic core in a jinrikisha, telling you local stories and legends, or explaining such esoteric details as why it was thought necessary to build dry landscaped gardens in a south-facing direction.
Obi came into its own after it became a domain of the Ito family, who squandered their modest power and wealth in pointless campaigns against Kagoshima's more formidable Shimazu clan, until Obi Castle, the town's main defense, was seized in 1577. The town only regained its former independence when the castle and its grounds were returned to the Ito family after they sided with a victorious Toyotomi Hideyoshi in his Kyushu campaign.
At the core of the old quarter, 15 minutes on foot from Obi Station, less on one of the bicycles that can be hired from the station kiosk, Otemon-dori, a ramrod-straight avenue lined with old houses, plaster storerooms and stone and clay walls topped with ceramic tiles, leads to the superbly restored Otemon, or main gate, the entrance to the castle grounds. Destroyed in 1870, only its walls, carefully reconstructed in the original style using joinery rather than nails, and a whitewashed history museum remain.
Up a further flight of steps in the castle precincts, the Edo Period Matsu-no-Maru, the residence of Lord Ito's most senior wife, is a faithful replica of the original, replete with women's quarters, reception rooms and the Gozaemon, a beautifully stark tea ceremony room.
The family appear to have lived well if the mushiburo, a steam bath with a clay stove just visible behind a Chinese gable, is anything to go by. Having exited the bath, clan lords could then cool off in a small tower designed to catch the evening breezes.
Decidedly not a replica, with all the signs of graceful aging, even a touch of neglect, the wooden gate to the Yoshokan is just to the left of the Otemon. Obi's most graceful samurai residence, this airy building was built for the family's chief retainer and then requisitioned for the Ito's own use after daimyo holdings were abolished in the Meiji Era. All the rooms in the Yoshokan face south in conformity with tradition and the rules of geomancy. Each chamber overlooks a fine dry landscape garden with the ultimate shakkei, or "borrowed view," in the form of Mount Atago.
A smaller garden of this type, favored by samurai who appear to have much appreciated rock and stone arrangements, can be found at the nearby House of Ito Denzaemon, a residence that is characteristic of a high-ranking samurai.
Obi's best known figure in the modern era was Jutaro Komura (1855-1911), son of a local samurai whose ambitions propelled him through the transitions of the Meiji Era to a diplomatic career culminating in a marquessate in the new peerage. Komura is known, among other things, for obtaining a revision of the unequal treaties and for restoring Japan's sovereignty on customs rights, no mean feats for a Meiji Era diplomat. His Memorial Hall is a house and gallery containing personal effects, documents and videos.
The school Komura graduated from, a remarkably well-preserved building dating from 1831, lies a few minutes east of the castle gate.
The former castle town was also a thriving merchant center. The main road through Obi has fine examples of whitewashed merchant houses, some now serving as shops and galleries, that date from the Edo Period to the early Showa Era.
Besides the prescribed sights marked on the map that comes with the collective ticket to the main spots, the real pleasure of Obi is to wander impulsively along its silent streets, peering into stone gardens, nicely manicured lawns bordered by subtropical palms, cycads and plantains, discovering old, weathered timber buildings that in any other country would be listed properties.
Instead of returning to the station along the main road, the moderately quiet National Highway 222, follow the lane that runs one block south in a parallel direction.
Even less touristed than the old quarter on the other side of the road, many of the houses here are of an enduringly traditional nature: samurai-style villas with impeccably tasteful gardens, residences whose privacy is assured by grand gates, stone walls and barriers of carefully clipped hedges and topiary, and one or two grand, Meiji Era colonial-Western style buildings in the manner of diplomatic residences, complete with light-blue clapboard, iron lanterns and shuttered and louvered windows.
At the far end of the road, before it joins National Highway 222 for the station, stands a row of wood and corrugated-iron homes near the river, each consisting of a mere four-tatami room with a gas range and toilet jammed behind the entrance, the shabby ensemble reminiscent of Victorian almshouses.
From the villas of the descendants of samurai and well-placed local officials, to the sullen hovels near the bridge, one sees an outline of the past, of privilege bequeathed by custom, and of a penury silently endured.