By Masanobu Tokieda / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterThe bell-shaped reddish-pink flowers of the hikanzakura (Taiwan cherry) had begun to bloom when I visited the Kunimicho area of Unzen, Nagasaki Prefecture, where the distinctive atmosphere of the Edo period still remains. The main entrance gate of the Nabeshima Residence, the former mansion of a samurai warlord, still overwhelms visitors with its magnificence.
The Kunimicho area was once part of a feudal domain called Kojiro that was ruled by the Kojiro Nabeshima family. The domain was part of the scattered landholdings of the Nabeshima feudal clan, which was based in what is now Saga Prefecture.
Hoping to experience a taste of those times, I headed for the area from Fukuoka via a JR line and then a local line, the Shimabara Railway.
The Kojiro Kuuji district — designated by the central government as an area of traditional buildings worthy of preservation — is about a 10-minute walk from Kojiromachi Station on the Shimabara Railway.
The Nabeshima Residence is located in the 9.8-hectare district, and the heads of the Kojiro Nabeshima family lived here for generations. In 2004, the town government of Kunimi (now part of Unzen) took over ownership of the mansion.
More than 10,000 people a year visit the former mansion of the warlord family. Its main gate features a karahafu (cusped gable) architectural style in which the central part is bow-shaped and both the right and left edges are curved.
Hikanzakura cherry trees are planted on both sides of the main gate. Locals say some of the trees are more than 90 years old.
After strolling along and admiring the mansion’s stone walls, which resemble tortoise shells, I reached the Nagayamon gate.
The gate was built in 1865 and measures about 27 meters long and about 3.6 meters deep. The structure has a dignified elegance, but there is also a Spartan quality suitable for the abode of a samurai family.
The mansion’s thatched-roof annex was the living quarters of retired family heads. The two-story building was built in 1860.
The Nabeshima Residence contains five buildings that are designated as national important cultural assets, including the mansion and Nagayamon gate. But the buildings are only part of the story. The garden scenery inside the grounds of the mansion is also exceptionally beautiful.
The garden’s layout conforms to the shape of the foundation of Ninomaru tower of Tsurukame Castle, which existed until the early years of the Edo period. The restful spot covers about 3,000 square meters.
The skillfully shaped, well-positioned garden stones that dot the carefully maintained turf give visitors a sense of comfort.
From an elevated place in the garden, visitors can see the Heisei Shinzan volcano, which is 1,483 meters tall. Heisei Shinzan was formed by a series of eruptions since 1990 of the 1,359-meter-tall Fugendake peak.
In addition to the Nabeshima Residence, several other buildings from the Edo period remain in the Kojiro Kuuji district. Around the buildings, there are planted fences of yadake bamboo and stone walls with small stones placed over them. The appearance of these samurai houses, which evokes the days of their creation, brings visitors a feeling of peace.
Why has this group of samurai houses remained until the present day?
“Partly because successive heads of the top family encouraged the forestry and silkworm-raising industries, the people in samurai families were able to earn a living here even after the abolition of the han system [in which feudal clans were abolished and prefectures were formed as the replacements]. That might be a factor,” said Takamitsu Shibasaki, 54, a section chief of the Unzen city government who has contributed to preservation of the historic township.
A five-minute train ride from Kojiromachi Station takes visitors to the adjacent Tairamachi Station. The area accommodating Taira Port has been prosperous as a strategic spot for maritime traffic since the days of the Kojiro Nabeshima family’s rule.
A ferry route connects Taira Port and Nagasu, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 45 minutes.
Crabs are a local specialty of the Tairamachi area. Blue crabs caught in the area are reputed to have a sophisticated flavor and uniquely chewy texture, because the crabs eat the abundant plankton in the Ariake Sea.
Local people call this crab species “taira gane.” The best season to eat females is from April to May, while males are best from September to October.
I wonder whether the samurai of days past also enjoyed eating crab? I want to visit again next season to enjoy the gifts from the Ariake Sea.
Lighting up a soccer town
Many street lights feature soccer balls in the Kunimicho area. After Kunimi High School became famous for its strong soccer team, the then Kunimi chamber of commerce, a predecessor of today’s Unzen city chamber of commerce, played a leading role in setting up the lights in 1998 along National Route 251 and in local shopping streets.
There are now 145 such street lights. They have crabs holding soccer balls, measuring 51 centimeters in diameter, in their claws.
When it gets dark, the lights turn on automatically, helping to prevent crime and promote the city as well.
About an hour and 40 minutes by limited express train from JR Hakata Station to Isahaya Station. Change to Shimabara Railway, and take an about 50-minute train ride to Kojiromachi Station. By car, about an hour and 40 minutes from Fukuoka Interchange to Isahaya Interchange on Kyushu Expressway. From the interchange, an about 40-minute drive along National Route 34 and then National Route 251 to reach the Nabeshima Residence.
For more information, call the Shimabara Peninsula Tourism Federation at 0957-62-0655.
To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit http://the-japan-news.com/news/d&d