Wed, Apr 15, 2020

Shizutani Gakkou in Okayama: 1st school for commoners now a symbol of modernity

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

View of Shizutani School's Lecture Hall, a government-designated national treasure, and the Chinese Pistachio tree
By Ahraun Chambliss / CIR for Okayama Prefecture

Shizutani School, or Shizutani Gakkou, was opened in 1670, becoming the first school in Japan to offer education to not only samurai children, but commoners as well. Before its construction, only noblemen and children of samurai were granted the right to receive education. Mitsumasa Ikeda, however, was adamant about the cultivation of future leadership and felt that educating craftsmen, farmers and merchants was vital to doing so. The Chinese characters for Shizutani actually mean ‘peaceful and quiet valley’, which is why Ikeda deemed Kidani village (also written with the same Chinese characters) an ideal location for schooling.

Shizutani School eventually closed with the end of the Edo Period, but reopened three years later as a high school, and then closed altogether 20 years after that. However, it is still open for public viewing and now serves as a symbol of Japan’s history and its transition to a modernized, educated country.

The construction of the school itself was planned out by Ikeda, who paid very close attention to every detail. Each section of the establishment was tastefully designed. Shizutani School consists of many different facilities and structures, but I would like to focus on just a few this time around.

Kakumeimon (School gate)

Between the Seibyo, also known as the Sacred Hall, and the stone bridge that crosses the Hanchi Pond stands the school gate, or Kakumeimon.

Front view of the school gate with autumn leaves in the background

Its special feature is the kawara, or roof tile, that is made from Bizen ware. Ikeda placed a strong emphasis on the importance of incorporating local craftsmanship into the construction of Shizutani School. He went as far as bringing in specialists from Imbe, where most Bizen ware is made today. Stacking three layers of tile on one another, the roof prevents rain from leaking through. This special Bizen-ware tile can be found on the roof of other structures of Shizutani School, including the Lecture Hall.

The tile of each roof shows a different symbol, containing its own meaning. This includes, the Academic Freedom crest, the Swallowtail crest and the Six-Leaves crest. 

A closeup of the Six-Leaves crest that decorates the ridges of the school gate’s roof
Kai no ki (Chinese Pistachio tree)

The two trees located in front of the seibyo are called Chinese Pistachio trees, or kai no ki in Japanese. These trees are also known as Gakumon no ki, the tree of learning.

View of the kai no ki from different angles

The seeds were brought from the graveyard of the Confucian family in Shandong, China. Showing a brilliant orange, these trees become the main reason Shizutani School sees a lot of visitors during the autumn season. These trees are large and can be seen even from outside of the school.  

Double exposure of autumn leaves

Koudou (The Lecture Hall)

The Lecture Hall, or koudou, now serves as one of the national treasures of Japan and the symbol of Shizutani School. Different from a modern Monday to Friday schedule, class at Shizutani was held on the 1st, 6th, 11th, 16th, 21st and 26th of each month.

Left:Outer view of the Lecture Hall
Right: Floor seats for students to use

Visitors are required to remove their shoes before entering and line up to view the interior of the structure. Many photographers spend a lot of time here, waiting for the moment when the open air windows reflect off of the pristinely polished floors of the hall. In autumn, the floors of the auditorium show the reflection of the brilliant orange leaves of the kai no ki

Interior of the Lecture Hall

Shizutani Gakkou is, as its name implies, a very serene tourism site and certainly one treasure of Japan that is undiscovered. Much of the original structures are well-preserved and the brilliant color of the leaves should be experienced firsthand. With a cheap entrance fee, food stands outside the entrance and a less-crowded camellia orchard nearby, Shizutani makes for a relaxing escape from the bustle of the many tourist attractions in the area.

Though its visitors mostly consist of native Japanese citizens, the staff of Shizutani has English pamphlets for foreign tourists and even offers verbal explanations of the structures upon request. Those passing through the Chugoku Region in autumn are missing out by not visiting this hidden gem.

(Photos courtesy of Ahraun Chambliss)

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)


Ahraun Chambliss

Ahraun is from San Francisco, Calif., and is currently working as a Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) in the city of Okayama. His free time is spent taking film photos, reading and teaching skateboarding to the youth of the city. (Photo by Judge James Thomas Kott)



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