Wed, Jun 17, 2020
Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs
What is your image of Japan? Is it the samurai and geisha of the Edo period? Or is it the anime and technology of the Showa and Heisei eras? These are both popular conceptions of Japan in foreign consciousness, but they are not all there is to Japan, and there are other vital periods of Japanese history that must not be overlooked. One of these is Japan’s modernization in the Meiji and Taisho eras. It was during these periods that, with the sakoku period of isolation already a thing of the past, western goods and architecture began flooding into the port cities that connected Japan and the outside world, including Kobe and Yokohama. Down in the Kyushu region, however, there is another port – Moji, and this port retains its modern atmosphere today thanks to its architecture. Moji, because of its proximity to Korea and China, acting not only as a gateway to Kyushu and to Japan, but also to Asia as a whole.
Moji is located on the northernmost tip of the island of Kyushu, and is one of the wards of the city of Kitakyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture. It was originally an independent city, but joined with four other cities (Kokura, Wakamatsu, Yahata and Tobata) in 1963 to form the city of Kitakyushu, with Moji city becoming Moji Ward. Each part of Kitakyushu has its own history and own atmosphere, and Moji Ward is no exception. The symbol of the ward is the Mojiko area, literally “Moji Port.” It is, as the name suggests, the port area of Moji Ward.
Due to its prosperity as an international trading port, Mojiko was filled with buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in the coastal areas of my home state of Massachusetts. The streets are cobblestone, lined with old-fashioned streetlamps, bathing the surrounding buildings in a warm glow perfect for a romantic evening. Visiting always brings me back to my fun memories of Gloucester, Massachusetts, or Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Without a doubt, the centerpiece of Mojiko, and Moji Ward as a whole, is Mojiko Station. It was the first train station to be selected by the Japanese government as an important cultural property, undergoing restoration work using the original blueprints starting in 2012 and going until 2019. It was built in 1914 in a Neo-Renaissance style; the station feels more like a European train station than a Japanese one. The platforms are long and free of benches, and the metal-supported wooden pillars and font choice on the station sign are overflowing with retro charm. The building itself waits just outside the ticket gate, its interior bright and gorgeous. White plaster walls are cut through by a few lines of golden brown moulding, complimented by a pale yellow baseboard. The ceilings are high, and from them hang retro-looking chandeliers. There’s also a cafe on the first floor, along with a JR Ticketing Office, and on the second floor, there’s a yoshoku restaurant serving dishes like the Mojiko specialty baked yaki curry, allowing you to enjoy a meal just like those 100 years ago did.
Perhaps the most impactful part of the entire building, however, is its outside facade, revealed once you cross through the main entrance and into the plaza. The building, finished with mortar in the style of pitched stone, features imposing giant order stone pillars, reminiscent of a gate, and is crowned with an intricate entablature holding up the roof. Particularly gorgeous are the beautifully aged patina green of the roof, and how it perfectly complements the grey stone-colored walls, and the restored clock surrounded by patina. It takes your breath away even now, after so long, to see the refined, perfect balance of the structure, such symmetry a defining characteristic of Neo-Renaissance style. Gazing at it now, you find yourself wanting to know how moved the people who used the station when it first opened were!
There is another building designated by the Japanese government as important cultural property in Mojiko as well, the grey-green half-timber Former Moji Mitsui Club Building (top photo). This building was mainly used as a place for important guests to stay, including Albert Einstein. The building has been maintained as a historical space, preserving the rooms that the guests stayed in, while also functioning as a welcome to the neighborhood, thanks to the presence of rest and exchange space, as well as a restaurant.
Also close to the station is the beautiful Former Mitsui O.S.K. Line Building. This building had multiple functions, including being a waiting room for travelers departing by boat to destinations all across the world. It is famous for the calming atmosphere created by its combination of orange tile and dark grey stone, and for its distinctive octagonal spire, formerly used as a lighthouse. It is a registered tangible cultural property, and has been restored to its original appearance, with the inside of the building used as a gallery and rental space.
There are other buildings that, while not registered as cultural property, have been preserved and are still definitely worth a look. Some examples include the Former Moji Customs Building, an imposing red brick office; the Dalian Friendship Memorial, a copy of a building in Dalian, China built to celebrate 15 years of friendship city relations, with its asymmetrical design and multiple chimneys; and more. The neighborhood is packed with interesting historical buildings and places, and each visit only reveals more! Also recommended once you’re done walking through the neighborhood is the signature dish of Mojiko, said to have been developed in the 1950s: baked yaki curry, a yoshoku casserole-like fusion dish of curry over rice, sprinkled with cheese, and baked in an oven.
Mojiko, which flourished as an international trading port during the modernization of Japan in the Meiji and Taisho eras, features much tangible evidence of this modernization in the form of sites registered as important cultural property through the hard work of the citizens of Kitakyushu. We need to protect these historical buildings like those that came before us did, and then hand them down to the next generation, maintaining their original appearance. I hope that all of you have a chance to visit Mojiko as a tourist, and you can feel like you stepped back into the Meiji or Taisho era. Much of my job as a Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) has been being a bridge between America and Japan, and noticing that Mojiko played a similar role in internationalizing Japan brings me great joy.
(Photos courtesy of Patrick Spellman)
Patrick, from Boston, Massachusetts, worked for three years as the Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) for Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Pref. While attending the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he began studying Japanese after taking a class on Japanese pre-war literature. In his free time, he enjoys going to film festivals and translating lyrics from the 1980s. As a CIR, he has continued to study Japanese by handling translation jobs involving environmental initiatives, promotion of international understanding, and the local culture of the city of Kitakyushu, and by editing the city’s English-language newsletter, KITAKYUSHU BRIDGES.
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