Kyoto, 9 August 1893

Very close to our residence and in the same garden are historic buildings where generations of Mikados had lived and died hidden from the eyes of the people, until the new constitution ended this captivity. The complex of the palace buildings consists of a row of wide-ranging one story buildings that we had noticed already during our arrival. In contrast to the other Japanese buildings they make in fact a very austere and cold impression. The delicate small gardens that are missing hardly anywhere are here replaced by sandy dust-filled courtyards. We visited the hall called Seiro-den. The wing of the rooms of this buildings used to form the actual place where the Mikado stayed but then later only served to hold certain festivities. In the audience hall, the place of inthronization of the Mikado, I noticed a small seat of honor with a pavilion roof made out of white, red and black silk guarded by two yawning bronze figures in front while on the walls hung paintings in Chinese style.

The part of the palace called Tsune-goten contains the private rooms of the Mikado. In the numerous rooms of the palace where a visitor might nearly get lost we found now and then beautiful wall paintings that however were unable to reduce the first impression of the bleakness of the palace which the interior of the residence exudes. If I were Emperor of Japan, ruler over such an artistic people, I would have known to decorate my palace much more splendidly and more comfortably, namely if it would have been to spend my life in silent seclusion.

On the way to the Nijo, the former palace of the shoguns, we entered a silk weaving factory where goods for export were produced that however can only in part be called excellent products of the Japanese textile industry. The technical process is overall the same as that used at home in similar establishments. The silk weavers of Kyoto are concentrated in Nishi-jin, that is the Western camp in the North-western part of the city. The number engaged in this industry is very considerable given the importance that silk production plays for the production of goods in Japan and silk is Japan’s most valuable export article. As in Europe this industry has to overcome calamities of all kinds, not the least the diseases that afflict the mulberry silkworm (Bombyx mori). The latter circumstance had led to efforts in Japan to seek a replacement for the silkworm in  Antheraea yamamai that eats the leaves of the Japanese oak (Quercus serrata) and produces a light glittering cocoon that has been successfully used to produce damask and brocade-like crepe.

Nijo Castle has been built in 1601 by Ieyasu as his quarter during visits to Kyoto and since then has served as a residence for the shoguns of the house Tokugawa until it passed into Imperial possession in the year 1868. The fortress-like exterior and namely the Cyclopean walls with towers are not preparing the visitor to what he will see in the interior rooms, even though the rich haut-reliefs of the gates reveal more artistic taste and love of splendor than the Imperial palace.

A fairy tale magic is surrounding us as we walk through one gold ornamented hall after another. Splendidly executed wall paintings stand out from the gleaming background offering us insights into new art forms. If we had hitherto admired the delicacy and love of detail in Japanese paintings, we could not fail to notice a trait of brilliance in these paintings.  All other halls are surpassed by the splendor of the former audience hall of the shogun whose gold decoration is formally blinding the visitor.  But this splendor failed to ban the fear which can be concluded by the presence of a secret door intended to keep armored guards hidden in a side chamber of the audience hall who were able to assist a shogun in trouble at any moment.

Japan’s Rothschild, a very rich banker called Nitsui who owes his millions to the mines in the interior asked me to pay him a visit in his newly completed house. I gladly accepted this invitation and was greeted in in the hall of the newly built palace by its owner, a friendly looking small man who bowed many times and gave a longer speech. The visit showed that the building had been constructed with taste, out of finely planed wood, clay and paper and surrounded by a cute garden. The interior however showed a turn toward European tastes and comforts which could not be matched with the also present native furniture of the rooms. The heavy splendid fauteuils in flashy colorful cloths procured in Europe as well as the massive armoires and thick rugs stood in a stark contrast to the delicate Kakemonos and light mats, But exactly this contradiction seemed for the owner to create the charms of something original and thus to please him. Nitsui seems to love animals very much. This conclusion can be based on the wire frame aviary on the veranda oriented towards the garden with two prancing pairs of cranes one coming from Japan, the other from Korea, while in delicate and completely clean wooden cages nearly all bird species existing in Japan were kept, namely singing birds. Among the prisoners I noticed also a nutcracker whose feathers had the same coloring as its European brother. Mr. Nitsui had some refreshments served and then presented me an owl and a spoonbill as a gift that had unfortunately been quite badly stuffed.

Had I up to now only visited ancient temples, I now wanted to look at Higashi-honganji ebethat was just being built. The brother temple of Nigashi honganji had become a victim of the flames in 1864 during the murderous fight between many hundreds of people from Chōshū who had come with the intent of capturing the person of the Mikado despite the prohibition to stay in Kyoto and the troops assembled to protect the capital. The construction has already achieved great progress so that it was clear that a Buddha temple was being built which conformed strictly to the provisions of the Shin sect in both planning the site and its style and at the same time by the noble proportions of its dimensions and the splendid decoration will become a landmark of the city.

My astonishment was especially triggered by the colossal tree trunks that had been supplied as offerings from all parts of Japan for the construction. It was as if one was wandering in the building site through a forest of pillars made out of the Keaki wood, a tree that is part of the family of elm trees (Zelkowa keaki) whose wood is exceptional in regard to its robustness, elasticity and durability so that is a favored building material for ships and houses and the construction of various small luxury goods. For the construction of the Higashi-honganji Keaki wood is used for all visible parts while the other ones use spruce, namely for the roof woodwork of the building. The spruce used are really giant ancient trunks which however are necessary to cover the enormous spans as the temple is 74 m long and 52 m wide.

The more than an arm thick ropes, with which the mighty trunks are hoisted up, lay in front of us in two man-high coils. They are said to be made out of women’s hair. This use of a material otherwise unused or to different effect is said to have been derived that at the start of constructing the temple multiple ropes had cracked while hoisting the heavy trunks which caused accidents repeatedly and made one priest prophecy that only a rope produced out of women’s hair would be capable of bearing the load and thus avoid further accidents. Based on this prophecy many women and girls decided in great numbers to sacrifice their hairs to the temple construction and contribute to the creation of the necessary ropes. And so it was — the sex that is actually the stronger one proved its worth also in this case. As their hair braided into a pitch-black ropes has been doing stellar services at the temple construction proving the confidence of the prophetising priest right. Even though I elsewhere do not tend to mutilate works of art to take a piece of it home nor take strange things in an illegal manner to add some curiosity to my collection, I nevertheless departed from my principles here as I had a small piece of this rope cut off in secret and merrily returned home with my haul.

Quickly we ate breakfast and then rushed out to once more go shopping whereas I especially wanted to buy silk and kimonos, the latter to present as a gift to friends at home. The shopping madness that had taken hold of us had become known in wider circles so that the people crowded in the streets in front of the shops and followed our activities with their eyes while uniformed policemen and detectives were busily rushing here and there to assure my security though I did not feel threatened at all. That such circumstances do not make shopping easier and namely cheaper is probably obvious.

Just before the late evening dinner a football game in my honor had been arranged by the gentlemen of Kyoto’s aristocracy which was played in an ancient Japanese costume. Here it was the goal of the players  to kick a football up and to a team mate within a delimited rather small space who would take the ball in the same manner and pass it on. I found reason to admire the eagerness and skill of the players and even more so given that some of the gentlemen had long been past the beautiful time of their first youth.  The players made an excellent and characteristic impression in their national dress. They looked much better attired in it that in the often badly cut tail and frock coats.

Links

  • Location: Kyoto, Japan
  • ANNO – on 09.08.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is closed for summer until 15 September. The k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is performing the opera „Fidelio“.

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