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Friday, Dec. 12, 2008

GRAND OLD HOTELS

Echoes of the footfalls of soldiers

There's no forgetting the war at the Kudan Kaikan Hotel and nearby Yasukuni Shrine


Special to The Japan Times

I was looking for a pillbox pockmarked with bullet holes in the Kudanminami district of Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. That's what an elderly friend told me I'd find in front of the area's Kudan Kaikan hotel.

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Pillars of strength: The entrance to the Great Hall of the Kudan Kaikan hotel in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. BURRITT SABIN PHOTOS

He used the Russian loan-word "tochika" for pillbox and Kudan Kaikan's original name, Gunjin Kaikan. Indeed, the "Soldiers' Hall" served as the Martial Law Headquarters during the so-called February 26 Incident, a failed putsch by junior military officers in 1936. Perhaps the pillbox has been preserved as a historic relic, I thought.

I was surprised by the Kudan Kaikan's roof, on the northern and southern corners of which are piggyback structures resembling castle donjons.

Kudan Kaikan is an example of the Imperial Crown style of architecture, a reaction to Modernism in the early 1930s. In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the Japanese, eager to Westernize, had fallen under the sway of British architect Josiah Conder, but the nationalism of the first years of Emperor Hirohito's reign that followed required the Western materials of steel and concrete be crowned by something native.

With nationalism now passe in architecture, Kudan Kaikan wears its diadem incongruously, so today the effect is humorous, like a baggily dressed clown holding a toy umbrella.

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Imposing edifices: Yasukuni Shrine.

Gunjin Kaikan was built in 1934 as a billet and training complex for reserve soldiers. In 1953 it was renamed Kudan Kaikan and loaned free of charge to the Japanese Association for the Bereaved Families of War Dead, which reopened the facility as a hotel and banquet and wedding hall.

Having deposited my bags in a tidy room on the seventh floor of the annex, I wandered through the souvenir shop, which sells such things as an Imperial Family calendar, three brands of "navy curry," as well as paper lanterns, trays and other bric-a-brac imprinted with images of Yasukuni Shrine.

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The First Torii of Yasukuni Shrine.

I stepped outside, passed a police box sentineled by officers with drawn night sticks, turned up Kudanzaka and crossed the bridge over the moat to Tayasumon Gate, the entrance to Kitanomaru Park, passing lithe young men in black hakama (loose trousers) over white martial-arts uniforms.

A group of people were walking half a dozen Italian greyhounds whose slender frames were clad in snazzy jackets. In the parking lot, a woman in a gold cocktail dress was boogieing for a hand-held camera, and the greyhounds and a trio of GIs stopped to watch. I passed the Budokan, a temple to the martial arts, and on this day host to the National Collegiate Aikido Championships. I wanted to watch the masters of ki, but decided to savor this Indian summer day a tad longer. Picnickers and shutterbugs fixed their gaze on a single golden-yellow ginkgo tree. Joggers crossed a bridge over the pond reflecting autumn's palette of colors.

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The former headquarters of the Imperial Guard Division.

I traced the pond margin, crossed the bridge and arrived at the former headquarters of the Imperial Guard Division, a two-story Gothic brick building erected in 1910.

Today, the building hosts the Crafts Gallery of the National Museum of Modern Art. The gallery expanded my conception of stoneware. Junkichi Kumakura's saddlelike "Seat for a Monk" was of such leathery verisimilitude I was tempted to touch it to see if it was really stoneware. I swore Allert Henrik's "Mask 2," an elongated equine face, was made of wood, and Yo Akiyama's "Geological Age 14," looking like a stratum of dark brown shale, was molded from earth.

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Budokan.

I retraced my steps to the Budokan. The aikidoka, now in jackets and ties, were descending the broad stairs and heading for the gate. I had missed the tournament's closing bouts.

On the rebound from this disappointment, I visited the Kudan Kaikan's Great Hall, where actress Narumi Konno and three young Olympians sat on the stage for a panel discussion on drug abuse. With the Rising Sun flag displayed above the stage, the Kudan Kaikan seemed still to be exercising a role in national defense — now as a base in the war on drugs.

I went around to the hotel entrance. On the way to my room I visited the Exhibit Corner, a brightly lit niche off the corridor. A glass case displayed the Association for the Bereaved Families' book picks, including "Internment: the Road to Siberia" and "Waterborne Mechanized Units on the Dark Southern Front."

Above the case was a gallery of photos of government-built war memorials. I noted a cenotaph aesthetic, low-key whitewashed stonework of abstract design, albeit with an occasional Japanese touch — the stone lantern in front of the Saipan memorial, for example. The memorials stood among palms, with the exception of the Sakhalin cenotaph, shaped like a flat-bottom open boat with square ends, in a conifer-fringed clearing.

On another wall was a "Map of War Dead and Returned Sets of Remains by Region." Some of the statistics startle: 465,700 Japanese war dead in China, excluding Manchukuo, the former Japanese puppet state in Manchuria, with 245,400; the Philippines, 518,000 fallen, only 131,699 sets of remains returned.

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Park life: The gate at Kitanomaru Park.

After dark I went out for a bite to eat. Elderly people were gingerly stepping from an airport coach parked at the hotel entrance. From their necks hung tags imprinted with their names and the words "Philippine War Dead Friendship Delegation."

The streets roll up early in Kudanminami. After a bland meal at a chain restaurant, I walked up Kudanzaka to Yasukuni Shrine.

Passing under the First Torii, of cyclopean dimensions, I entered an avenue of stately ginkgoes, inflamed a deep orange by klieg lights. In the center of the avenue soared a bronze of Vice Minister of War Masujiro Omura. I reached the Second Torii, from which the pillars and doors of the Shinmon (Gate of the God) reflected the light in such a way they seemed visible through a scrim. The gate being shut, I could go no further.

I was awed by Yasukuni's grandeur, but also realized that the gargantuan scale, the atmospherics of light and color, and careful symmetries were the stagecraft of State Shinto, a cult that had helped propel Japan to war, the fallout of which was recounted in the Kudan Kaikan map and in the tottering steps of the bereaved returning from Philippine battlefields.

After checking out of the hotel, I asked an officer in the police box if he knew of a tochika. "No," he said, "but if you've an address, I can look in the phone book."

Kudan Kaikan Hotel is a 1-minute walk from exit 4 of Kudanshita Station on the Tozai, Shinjuku and Hanzomon lines. Single rooms from ¥8,925. Tel: (03) 3261-5521.


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