The best known chapter of Japanese history is known as the Edo period, a time marked by the Tokugawa family achieving the unique position of hereditary shoguns. This has been made popular by Kurosawa movies like “Kagemusha”, or the Clavell novel “shogun”, a barely disguised narrative of Tokugawa Yeasu’s ascension to the supreme position of shogun.
Because the new and all-powerful shogun wanted to wrest the Emperor from any possible power base and keep him under tight control, where he would remain revered but powerless, he “invited” the Emperor to Edo, as Tokyo was known at the time, instead of the then capital, Kyoto. Even today, some traditionalists say that Tokyo is the “temporary” capital of Japan.
Shogun Tokugawa, very much a war lord, decreed how Japan must be ruled so that his family would remain in power, and that meant almost total isolation from the rest of the world. That lasted for almost 300 years, until eventually history overcame the decaying dinasty, and the Meiji Emperor was handed power back by the military at the end of the XIXth century, with the help of foreign guns.
The Edo period has left Japan strewn with wonderful castles, military in function, but wonderful in style. While they look old, many of them are not. Some have obviously had to be rebuilt after WWII, but let us not forget that Japan in a land shaken by earthquakes, and that wodden constructions are often ravaged by fire. The Osaka castle, or Osaka-jo, possibly the best known of all, dates back to the thirties, even though it looks intact from the times of the first Tokugawa shogunHere you can see the very typical palace-like architecture, but not the massive stone foundation that marks the building’s military role as a fort. Here was as late into the sunset as I could go without a tripod, with my NEX 5N and Contax G 45. No wonder on my next trip I took a very small Manfrotto, only 20cm high, but capable of extending my exposure from a handheld minimum of some 1/15s to one second or slightly more.
These castles are almost always the high point of an area, as befits a military stronghold. Another example, in Nagoya, where the foundation is readily visible. For the photography lover, these structures present a challenge, because it is really hard to render their huge, daunting presence. Of course, there is the obvious way, and it fails totally if you ask me.
Then, there is another problem. Japan does not “protect” its historical sites in the way that France does, in that most sites are blighted with modern construction that gets in the frame of even moderate wide-angle shots. And of course, in the eye of viewers. So you have to work around that too, if you want clean shots. In Osaka, for example, as in Nagoya, there are hideous glass towers erected along the foundation to allow for an elevator for the disabled. Necessary, yes. Virtuous, yes again. But do they have to be so totally visually intrusive?
Still, there is our photographer, with not much to show except “postcard” shots, like the first two, or not-really-successfull attempts to make the castle look as threatening as Toshiro Mifune in Kurozawa’s legendary “Seven Samuraïs”. So, with a bit of luck, it is possible to take a cop out, and include the main building in a distant shot within the parkThat is where persistence and a bit of luck pays off. I visited the unlikely city of Hatsumoto, and saw at the train station a “Exit to the Castle” sign. After my business meeting, I checked, and the castle was only a 10-minute walk away. I promptly ditched my lunch plans with my collegue, and hurried, beecause my train back to Tokyo was only 35 minutes away. And there I discovered this:Which could also be done this way:Here is one example of how “easy” it is to get a picture “polluted” with modern buildings in Japan. The picture is the same as the previous one, or almost. But look to the right…Still, I had in total 7 minutes of shooting time, and came away with two pictures of a tremendous site. Not as spectacular, or grand as some others, to be sure. But I could hear the bustle inside the castle walls, while the posse readied itself for the mad charge against the neighbouring daimyo’s (Japanese feudal warl lord) besieging armies.
This is the beauty of the Sony NEX system. Small, light and discrete enough that it can be carried anywhere with a few prime lenses. And good enough with good glass (here the superlative Zeiss ZM 18mm f:4.0) that you can bring back pictures that do not leave you frustrated that “you didn”t bring a serious camera along”.
Still, our photographer was continuing in his quest of a picture that would evoke those formidable yet refined and aesthetic structures. He had pinned his hopes on the Castle at Himeji, widely considered the premier example of Edo-period construction. But, when he got there, he was told that the Castle was closed to the public for a 5-year restauration period. Closed might not have been a problem, but shrouded in scaffoldings was another matter…:-(. Still, unlike the others Himeji-jo is surrounded by a very long wall with guardposts and ancillary buildings, where, with a bit of luck, you can do this:And this. Which could have been really nice, if there weren’t two signposts at the absolute worst place. Oh, well, this is Japan, and they do things their own way, don’t they?Still, in 2016 the Himeji Castle restauration should be finished, if it is on schedule, and it will again be visible in full glory. And no doubt flanked by a hideous glass tower in the very spot that would have been best for a picture of this legendary building…
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